March 10, 2017

Intrinsic and extrinsic motivation and goals

The terms intrinsic and extrinsic motivation are frequently used and are sometimes a source of confusion. Below, I try to share my understanding of these term as they are used in self-determination theory (SDT). First, I'll explain what the difference between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation is and  then what the terms intrinsic and extrinsic goals mean.

Intrinsic and extrinsic motivation

Let's start with the question what motivation is. Motivation is energy for action. Motivation is our reason for engaging in activities. These reasons can be either intrinsic or extrinsic. Intrinsic motivation refers to activities we do because of the inherent satisfaction they give us while doing them (Ryan & Deci, 2017). Typical examples of intrinsically motivated behavior are playing, exploring, improvising, making music, and exercising a hobby. Although intrinsically motivated behavior actually can, and usually does, lead to something useful - we generally learn from it - this is not the reason for doing it. The reason is the pleasant experience we have while doing it, not that it also tends to be useful. Intrinsically motivated behavior is active, spontaneous, and interested.

Intrinsic motivation, according to SDT, is a natural source of energy which is present in any human being (and in many other animals) throughout the life span and which leads to pleasure and growth. Yet it can be undermined to a certain extent. The degree to which intrinsic motivation manifests itself is firstly dependent on the degree to which the needs for autonomy and competence of the individual are satisfied and secondly on the degree to which the individual's need for relatedness is satisfied  (Ryan & Deci, 2017). Several types of events, such as the presence of rewards can, under certain circumstances, diminish intrinsic motivation. This happens when people start to feel that they not doing the activity because they enjoy it but in order to get those rewards.

Extrinsic motivation refers to activities we engage in because of their instrumental value. In other words, we do them because they lead to some desired outcome. Sometimes people think that, by definition, extrinsic motivation is less positive or powerful than intrinsic motivation but this is not the case. SDT posits that any individual has the natural propensity to internalize extrinsic motivations which are valued and endorsed by significant others.

In other words, in our development we have an ongoing focus on trying to understand what important people in our environment value and on internalizing these values.When we will have fully internalized these values they will have become our own to such an extend that we will be fully motivated to behave in ways which are in accordance with them.

When this is the case, the quality of our motivation is high. It usually leads to good work and we get
energy from working at what we find important. When we are doing things which are in line with our deeply held (internalized) values we act with integrity.

Together, intrinsic motivation and internalized motivation are called autonomous motivation. The picture to the right illustrates this. Being autonomously motivated for the activity you are doing means that you fully endorse the doing of the activity because you find it inherently satisfying or because you deeply value what you hope to accomplish by it.

Intrinsic and extrinsic goals

One part of SDT, the Goal Contents Theory, focuses on types of goals people set and the aspirations they have in their lives. The theory distinguishes between intrinsic and extrinsic goals (Kasser & Ryan, 1993; 1996). Examples of intrinsic goals are: good and intimate relations with people, useful contributions to one's community, and personal growth. Examples of extrinsic goals are: wealth, fame, admiration, and power.

The core of the distinction between intrinsic and extrinsic goals is the following. Intrinsic goals are focused on outcomes which we inherently value; extrinsic goals are focused on instrumental outcomes. Achieving intrinsic goals leads directly to the fulfillment of our basic needs for autonomy, competence, and relatedness. Achieving extrinsic goals does not. This is probably the main reason why achieving intrinsic goals generally is associated with more well-being than achieving extrinsic goals is (see for example Sheldon & Krieger, 2014).

We generally feel good when we achieve personal growth and close relationships. In contrast, when we achieve things like wealth and fame, we generally do not feel too well (read more here and here). However, there is an exception to this last remark. Achieving extrinsic goals can lead to well-being and flourishing when, in turn, these outcomes (such as fame and wealth) are used to achieve other intrinsic goals (Landry et al., 2016). An example of this may be the way Bill Gates now uses his fortune to help fight diseases. The table below summarizes the above.

Deliberate practice and intrinsic motivation

If we strictly use this terminology we could say that learning is a side effect of intrinsically motivated activity but not that we are intrinsically motivated to achieve specific learning outcomes. When we deliberately engage in a learning activity, for example through deliberate practice, our activity is instrumental. The reason for saying this is that the activity has the purpose of achieving a specific learning outcome. Strictly spoken, we are thus extrinsically motivated. But this does not mean we can't derive fulfillment or pleasure from the activity. We certainly can if we deeply value the skill we want to get better at.

As we are engaging in deliberate practice we are extrinsically motivated (because the activity is instrumental). But as we notice that we are making progress we are achieving an intrinsic goal (providing we value the skill we are learning). This realization leads to the fulfillment and well-being that is associated with achieving intrinsic goals.

That intrinsic motivation and deliberate practice are not the same thing does not meant that they aren't interrelated, though. They are. Research by Vink et al. (2014) has shown that intrinsic motivation and deliberate practice can promote each other. The more you are intrinsically motivated for and activity, the more you tend to be motivated to engage in deliberate practice in order to get better at it. The reverse is also true. Engaging in deliberate practice appears to strengthen intrinsic motivation. This may have to do with a process which Silvia (2008) describes and which I call interest renewal (read more here).

Finally, what started as extrinsically motivated behavior may transform into intrinsically motivated behavior. If we start out studying in order to learn for our exams the primary reason for doing the activity is extrinsic (because it is instrumental). But, if, when we are reading, we totally lose sight of our goal and are fully absorbed by the content we may continue to read without any sense of purpose and we may be fully continuing because of the interest and enjoyment we experience. If this is so, I think it is fair to say that our motivation has become intrinsic.


Intrinsic motivation and internalized motivation are conceptually strictly distinguished from each other. But in practice they can be interwoven, can merge into each other and can strengthen each other.

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