Balance between intrinsic and internalized motivation as the key to success

This article is about the quality of motivation according to self-determination theory (SDT). I focus on the best quality of motivation: autonomous motivation and explain that it comes in two forms: intrinsic and internalized motivation. Then I explain that there are two wrong ways of thinking about intrinsic motivation. Finally, I come to the conclusion that the balance between intrinsic and internalized motivation can be seen as an important key to success in education and work.

Quality of motivation: 3 levels

Self -determination theory distinguishes three levels of motivation:
  1. Amotivation: the absence of the intention to act because you see no reason to do the activity and/or you do not feel able to perform it effectively. Amotivation is the worst quality of motivation and is associated with insecurity, fear of failure, apathy, resistance and poor functioning.
  2. Controlled motivation: Motivation based on external or internal pressures, such as the prospect of a reward, to gain the approval of others, or to avoid punishment or guilt. Controlled motivation is a relatively poor quality of motivation that is associated with tension, anxiety, lower performance, lack of perseverance, and a tendency to cheat.
  3. Autonomous motivation: exhibiting behavior that you feel you have chosen yourself because you endorse it. Autonomous motivation is the best quality of motivation and is associated with feeling and functioning well.
► It is unrealistic to think that we will all go through life solely motivated by autonomy. We all have a motivation mix. In some circumstances we are autonomously motivated, in others controlledly motivated, and in still others we are in a state of amotivation. It is realistic to aim for progress towards autonomous motivation. We can try to be more autonomously motivated (and help others to be more autonomously motivated). 

Autonomous motivation: 2 forms

Autonomous motivation occurs in two ways:
  1. Intrinsic Motivation: An activity is intrinsically motivated when the activity is viewed as its own goal. So we are intrinsically motivated when we do activities because of the inherent satisfaction that doing the activity brings. We are intrinsically motivated when we do things that we find interesting or enjoyable. We do not do these activities for some kind of profit. But being intrinsically motivated does have benefits. An important result is that being intrinsically motivated is often instructive.
  2. Internalized motivation: Type of motivation in which the person supports the activity because you see its importance. We are internally motivated when we do things that we find important, valuable or useful . Internalized motivation is a form of extrinsic motivation. Extrinsic motivation is when you do something to achieve something desired or to prevent something undesirable. Extrinsic motivation involves instrumentality: the activity is a means to an outcome. (Read also: How Does Internalization of Motivation Take Place?)
► As humans, we all have an innate ability to find things interesting and important. We are lifelong focused on finding out what is important and interesting to us and how to engage with it. And what we find interesting and important is not static; it develops throughout life. Nor is it a solitary process: our environments constantly feed and influence us in what we find interesting and important.

Two fallacies about intrinsic motivation

  1. Seeing intrinsic motivation as bad: A wrong way of thinking is that learning and work should not be fun or interesting. This way of thinking assumes that working and learning is only serious if it is boring and feels boring. It brings to mind the old-fashioned idea that as humans we have to suffer and that pleasure is a bad thing. With this mindset, you can picture an old-fashioned type of boss who sees his employees laughing and angrily remarks, “Get to work! It's not a playground here!" This way of thinking is wrong because doing interesting and fun things during work and education not only increases the person's enjoyment but also helps creativity, performance and learning.
  2. Seeing intrinsic motivation as the only good (and necessary) motivation: Another wrong way of thinking is that we only need intrinsic motivation. This is the idea that it would be enough just to occupy ourselves with interesting and fun things. But learning and working can never be just fun. In training and in work, it is inevitable that we often have to perform activities that are difficult or boring and that we come across situations where things do not go the way we want. Not only can we do what is fun, we must also do what is necessary, useful and important.
► Intrinsic motivation and internalized motivation are both indispensable. Perhaps you can think of intrinsic and internalized motivation as the pedals of a bicycle. You need both to cycle smoothly and to last for a long time. We need a balanced view of motivation: learning and performance work best when intrinsic motivation and internalized motivation are both always present. When the balance is lost, the process of learning and performance loses its sustainability. The balance between intrinsic and internalized motivation is an important key to success.

Good order: important first, then fun

It can be wise to make a conscious choice in the order in which we tackle tasks. When we start with tasks for which we are intrinsically motivated, it can be disappointing to then have to take on a less enjoyable (but necessary) task. This can mean that we get stuck doing things we enjoy, putting off starting with the less fun but important activities.

► If you catch yourself sometimes getting stuck or even fleeing doing things you only like, you can reverse the order. If we start with activities that are not that interesting or fun but are important, we can gradually work our way up to the more interesting activities. It then feels like we are rewarding ourselves for doing the perhaps somewhat boring but important tasks by subsequently being allowed to do the interesting activities.