A Definitive Guide to Understanding Intrinsic Motivation

by Scott Jeffrey

OVERVIEW: This in-depth guide explores the differences between intrinsic versus extrinsic motivation and provides ample intrinsic motivation examples.


Why do we do what we do?

Turns out, there are two basic reasons.

One of them often reinforces anxiety, frustration, and depression.

The other type of motivation puts us on the path to internal freedom, contentment, and satisfaction.

Let’s take a closer look at each one …

What Is Intrinsic Motivation?

Simply put, intrinsic motivation means you’re doing something because you want to do it.

That is, the task or activity is somehow meaningful or important to you.

And so the reward is said to be internally-driven (or intrinsic).

What Is Extrinsic Motivation?

In contrast, extrinsic motivation means you’re doing something because of some external force.

You’re not doing the activity because you want to, but because you’re seeking some kind of external reward.

This reward may be greater self-esteem, approval from others, or some other basic human need.

Intrinsic vs Extrinsic Motivation Examples

The motivations of the average individual are mainly extrinsic.

That is, most of us do what we do in an attempt to meet our basic human needs.

Extrinsic Motivation Intrinsic Motivation
Description Do the task in order to get an external reward. Do the task because you enjoy it and you find it satisfying.
Examples Money, avoiding punishment, avoiding getting in trouble, seeking approval Enjoyment, satisfaction, and internal growth

So with extrinsic motivation, you do the task in order to get an external reward. An obvious example of extrinsic motivation is money; avoiding punishment or getting in trouble is another.

And with intrinsic motivation, you do the task because you enjoy it and you find it satisfying. Enjoyment, satisfaction, and inner growth are examples of intrinsic motivation.

Extrinsic Motivation and Maslow’s Hierarchy

Before we take a closer look at more specific examples of intrinsic motivation, let’s examine these rewards in the context of the work of psychologist Abraham Maslow.

If you recall Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs, we each have a series of basic needs.

intrinsic versus extrinsic motivation

Basic needs include:

  • Physiological needs like water, food, and clean air.
  • Safety needs like clothing, shelter, and familiarity.
  • Belonging needs like affection and connection to others.
  • Esteem needs like self-respect and recognition from others.

When these needs aren’t met, they make us feel deficient and lead to anxiety and depression.

All of these basic needs are driven by extrinsic rewards. In Toward a Psychology of Being, Maslow called it deficiency motivation.

That is, in seeking to meet our basic needs, we are always seeking something outside of ourselves.

Examples of external rewards can be:

  • Money to buy food and clothing, or pay our mortgage or rent.
  • Approval, acceptance, or connection with others.
  • Feeling elevated about ourselves in comparison to others (esteem).

So, most of us invest a great deal of our time pursuing extrinsic rewards in an attempt to meet our basic needs.

Intrinsic Motivation and Maslow’s Self-Actualization

Now, Maslow pointed out that a vital shift can occur in the course of human development.

This shift occurs when we move from focusing on extrinsic rewards to intrinsic rewards. Maslow called it growth motivation.

That is, the individual goes from focusing on the basic needs we just highlighted to internal growth needs.

Maslow called this shift to intrinsic rewards self-actualization.

Self-actualizing individuals focus more of their attention on doing things that support their own internal growth and personal satisfaction.

intrinsic vs extrinsic motivation

Intrinsic vs Extrinsic Motivations

Said another way, they are less driven to meet the needs and expectations of others.

Consider all of the energy we invest in meeting our external needs. Then imagine what we’re capable of if that energy was invested in ourselves.

And as a consequence, self-actualizing individuals have more peak experiences, or what’s often called flow states.

In a flow state, we become totally absorbed in the task at hand. All problems fall away and we perform at our best.

These creative flow states become more common when we’re doing things for ourselves (intrinsic reward) as opposed to meeting the approval of others (extrinsic rewards).

Intrinsic Motivation Examples

Now, with the above foundation, let’s run through a number of every-day examples of intrinsic motivation.

Scenario #1: Learning a Musical Instrument

Extrinsic Motivation Example: Some kids are almost forced into playing an instrument in high school. Yet, in adulthood, they stopped playing the instrument because their motivation was extrinsic (approval of others or avoiding punishment).

Intrinsic Motivation Example: Learning to play the piano because the act of learning and playing it is enjoyable or interesting to you.

Scenario #2: Participating in Sports

Extrinsic Motivation Example: You play basketball with your friends on Saturday because you don’t want to miss out or feel left behind.

Intrinsic Motivation Example: You play basketball because it’s a lot of fun for you and you enjoy the exercise.

Scenario #3: Visiting with a Friend

Extrinsic Motivation Example: You visit with a friend because you feel lonely or because you want to improve your social standings.

Intrinsic Motivation Example: You visit with a friend because you enjoy being in their presence and you like relating to them.

Scenario #4: Exercising

Extrinsic Motivation Example: You go to the gym because you want to lose weight, improve your image, or build muscle to compete with your friends or colleagues (or to impress someone).

Intrinsic Motivation Example: You work out because you enjoy the sensations in your body or the feeling of physically challenging yourself.

Scenario #5: Volunteering

Extrinsic Motivation Example: You volunteer locally so that your family and friends on social media will think you’re a good person.

Intrinsic Motivation Example: You volunteer simply because it’s rewarding to you (whether or not anyone you know finds out that you do it).

Extrinsic Rewards and the Gold-Star Syndrome

According to Maslow’s research, corroborated by over 60 years of research in developmental psychology, most of our attention is focused on extrinsic rewards.

That is, very few individuals reach the point where they are self-actualizing.

There are a number of important reasons for this, but the first cause starts in early childhood.

Our cultural conditioning reinforces extrinsic motivation. 

Meaning our parents and our education system raised us with a focus on meeting external rewards. (Any “standardized” system is likely to do this.)

I call this the “Gold-Star Syndrome.”

Did you get rewarded for completing simple tasks in school or at home?

Psychological Carol Dweck’s four decades of research point out that praise fosters a fixed mindset that limits personal growth.

Praise also wires us to seek extrinsic rewards.

Once we’re conditioned to receive praise (or rewards like a gold star) for doing normal human activities (like drawing a picture), this tendency sticks with us.

And once we’re conditioned with praise during our formative years, it’s very difficult to shift to a focus on intrinsic motivation.

Other Reasons We Focus on Extrinsic Rewards

Praise isn’t the only culprit.

Here are three more significant reasons extrinsic rewards drive us instead of intrinsic rewards:

  1. Many individuals are genuinely struggling to meet their external needs. This often boils down to financial challenges in earning a living and providing for oneself and/or one’s family.
  2. Unrecognized psychological trauma can keep us in an endless loop of trying to meet extrinsic rewards even when it doesn’t support us to do so.
  3. Only a few of us get to know our shadow.

The shadow represents everything we don’t know about ourselves.

And when we don’t know our shadow, we often don’t know what’s driving us—even when we think we do!

Let’s take a moment to see how this often plays out…

Shadow Intentions Behind Our Motivation

The tricky thing about motivation is that it’s relatively easy to convince ourselves why we’re doing something.

Take any of the intrinsic motivation examples from above and you’ll see what I mean.

How easy is it to convince ourselves that we work out because we like the way it makes us feel (even though we mainly do it for image reasons)?

How many of us believe we play an instrument because we enjoy it (when we really do it to impress others)?

Don’t most of us play sports because we want to dominate others or simply win?

As is usually the case with developing self-knowledge, you most often only know the truth about yourself by looking back.

Sometimes, it can take years for your true motivations to reveal themselves.

Reflecting on my own experience, I can say that most of the things I did in the first 38 years of my life were extrinsically motivated—even though I was engaged in personal development since age 18!

Yet, if you asked me at the time, I would have told you I was doing it all for myself.

The Endless Downward Spiral of Extrinsic Motivation

Extrinsic motivations have a way of keeping us in an endless downward spiral.

For example, if you’re earning money to compete with a friend who earns more than you, you’ll never find peace. You’ll always need to earn more in order to compete (even if you start to “win”).

If you’re exercising to improve your outward image and sexual appeal, you’ll always have an underlying feeling of anxiety. Age will become your enemy and will defeat you over time.

If you’re staying connected with friends on social media because you’re concerned with how others perceive you, you’ll become more depressed and lonely over time. Yes, there’s research now to confirm this.

Take any personal interest you may have. If your motivation for doing it is extrinsic, you will eventually lose interest over time. It’s that simple.

Once you see this fully within yourself, you’re in the position to make a conscious shift.

Why Intrinsic Motivation is so Important

The closer you examine this issue of intrinsic versus extrinsic motivation, the more you’ll likely realize that most of what we do is for external rewards.

And this externally-driven focus is the source of a great deal of our internal resistance, lack of focus, and daily frustrations.

As children, we mainly had to do what authority figures wanted because our survival was dependent on them.

And so we sought the approval of others for our survival (biological and safety needs).

But as adults, when we do things mainly for the approval of others or to meet our need for self-esteem, it actually makes us quite unhappy.

Why? Because as self-determinism theory highlights, as adults we seek:

  1. Autonomy,
  2. Personal mastery, and
  3. Purpose.

And all three of these drivers are intrinsic, not extrinsic motivations.

example of intrinsic motivation

But Isn’t Intrinsic Motivation Selfish?

This question speaks to an aspect of our cultural conditioning discussed above.

The meaning of intrinsic motivation suggests that it’s better to do things for yourself instead of for others. And we’ve learned to label that as “selfish.”

Selfishness is doing things for yourself excessively, exclusively, or at the expense of others.

Intrinsic motivation speaks to our basic need for personal contentment and enrichment.

As strange as it may sound to some of us, it’s actually more important to serve our internal needs first.

Why? Because if we don’t, anything we do for others will come at a psychic cost to both us and them.

How is that so?

First, we will be disingenuous and incongruent in our actions.

Second, and more importantly, when we do things because of external, unmet needs, it fosters rage and discontent within our unconscious.

And that rage often expresses itself in subverted ways: subtle forms of sadism, aggression, passive-aggression, and manipulation.

These mechanisms usually operate in us without our knowledge. These behaviors express themselves through our shadow.

But when we are driven by intrinsic motivation, we feel more content. And as such, we can genuinely support the well-being of others.

More Intrinsic Motivation Examples

As you can see from the above examples of intrinsic versus extrinsic motivation, the particular action or activity isn’t the main concern.

The main thing with motivation is understanding what’s driving us: is it something outside of us (extrinsic) or within us (intrinsic motivation)?

Here are more intrinsic motivation examples:

  • Writing a novel to bring your inner world to life instead of writing it to publish it or in the hopes of having a bestseller.
  • Painting a work of art to capture an image from your imagination instead of painting it to get public recognition.
  • Practicing meditation or yoga because it makes you feel calmer and more centered—not because it’s the “in thing” to do.
  • Learning another language because you want to explore other languages as opposed to needing to learn it for your work.

From these intrinsic motivation examples, you’ll notice a pattern:

Intrinsic motivation is doing the activity for yourself, often as a form of self-expression.

With extrinsic motivations, we almost always do things to elevate ourselves in front of others.

Remember, the more you do things for the approval of others, the more anxiety and discontentment you’ll experience in your life.

In contrast, the more you move toward intrinsic rewards, the more contentment and fulfillment you’ll experience.

(Read the last two sentences a few times. Subconsciously, we’re taught the opposite.)

One Final Example of Intrinsic Motivation

I’d like to give you one more example of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation that may be upsetting to some readers.

The scenario is getting married, starting a family, and having a child.

Just like the above examples, getting married can be either intrinsically or extrinsically motivated.

In the majority of cases, basic life events like marriage and having a child are driven by extrinsic motivation.

That is, these events are culturally conditioned and driven by social pressure.

For example, you get married because your parents want you to, or because your friends are getting married and you don’t want to fall behind.

This example helps illustrate the high cost of being unconscious to our true motivations.

What happens when we make a major life decision based on extrinsic motivations (parental approval or competition with peers)?

Struggle. Internal tension. Heartache. Suffering.

Why? Because we’re not doing what we intrinsically want to do (or what we may be ready to do).

In the language of depth psychology, this means that we have archetypes within us that are in conflict with one another.

And this internal conflict will influence our feelings, moods, attitudes, and actions.

The result is often divorce. Or, it may simply lead to an unhappy marriage (and usually an unhappy life).

When you meet a couple that genuinely got married based on their own internal compass, you can often visibly notice the difference. (It’s quite rare.)

Shifting from Extrinsic to Intrinsic Motivation

Now, if you’ve read this far, you might have this question:

But can’t you have both intrinsic and extrinsic motivations for the same activity?

In most cases, the answer is no, not really. Extrinsic motivations have a tendency of trumping our internal needs.

The more conscious you become of what’s blocking your innate internal drive, the more likely you are to shift toward it.

Above, we covered four reasons why we often don’t access intrinsic motivations:

  1. Cultural conditioning
  2. Life circumstances
  3. Psychological trauma
  4. Unconsciousness (of our shadow)

All four of these reasons can be formidable, but not insurmountable.

For prior conditioning, it’s helpful to cultivate self-awareness and learn to pay more attention to what we’re doing and why we’re doing it.

In terms of your life circumstances, it’s usually helpful to create a plan and take consistent action. If your challenges are mainly financial, start by examining your psychology about money.

For issues related to psychological trauma, it’s important to understand what happened to you, feel the emotions related to the events, and come to terms with them.

And finally, we must constantly be bringing the unconscious to consciousness, which was Carl Jung’s way of saying to do shadow work.

How to Access More Intrinsic Motivation

Obviously, addressing the blocks in accessing more intrinsic motivation doesn’t happen overnight.

It’s a process of awakening to yourself as you strip away everything that you’ve been dragging with you.

Along this path, it’s important to emphasize self-honesty.

For example, when you’re engaging in an activity and you believe it’s for altruistic reasons, can you challenge your conscious intent?

Are you really being altruistic or do you have a “shadow motivation” that you’re not being honest about?

If you assume there’s a hidden intention, you may begin to see it.

Once you know your shadow intent, it’s significantly easier to access intrinsic motivation.

Here are a few other tips that may help you:

All of these things can help you become more conscious of when you’re being driven by extrinsic rewards.

They can also help you make the shift to intrinsic motivations.

Finally, access the healthy child within you.

Find the part of you that’s playful, curious, and willing to explore.

Immerse yourself in your interests without focusing on “achieving a goal.”

Just dig in. Start to tinker and play. Do this with earnestness and see what happens.

What Do You Think?

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