What Is… Intrinsic vs. Extrinsic Motivation

Motivation: intrinsic (from within) and extrinsic (related to others)

In this series, I dig a little deeper into the meaning of psychological terms. This week’s terms are intrinsic and extrinsic motivation.

We need motivation in order to do pretty much anything. But where does it come from, and does the source of the motivation matter in terms of the outcomes? Self-determination theory is one way of looking at motivation, and it identifies two forms of motivation: intrinsic and extrinsic.

Intrinsic motivation

Intrinsic motivation comes from within, and it’s based on things like our interests, beliefs, and values. It’s related to self-determination, meaning it’s driven by our own choice and the belief that what we’re motivated to do will help to improve our satisfaction or our abilities/competence in some way.

Extrinsic motivation

Extrinsic motivation is driven by external factors. Some extrinsic motivators are highly regulated by others and involve reward or punishment depending on compliance. Introjected regulation is a type of extrinsic motivation that involves trying to gain approval from others and avoid shame. This is somewhat similar to the “shoulding” we do to ourselves that I wrote about recently. Extrinsic motivators may also become more internalized when they involve things that are of personal value or importance to us.


Motivation can range on a spectrum from full self-determination in the case of intrinsic motivation to a complete lack of self-determination, control, or regulation, as is the case with amotivation. The Positive Psychology Program has a great diagram that shows this spectrum.

Self-determination theory identifies three basic human needs: autonomy, competency, and relatedness. Both intrinsic and extrinsic motivation are important in meeting these fundamental needs, and a different balance may be needed to meet each kind of need. For example, intrinsic motivators may be more significant when meeting autonomy needs, but extrinsic motivation may come into play more in terms of relatedness needs.

Balancing intrinsic and extrinsic

Wikipedia identifies some advantages and disadvantages of both intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. Intrinsic motivation can be self-sustaining and longer-term, but it can take more effort to foster. Extrinsic motivation can be faster and easier, but is likely to disappear once the associated rewards are no longer present or satisfying.

Finding a good balance between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation is particularly important when it comes to health behaviours. For a lot of health behaviours, the tangible reward in the short term probably isn’t going to be all that large compared to the effort expended. For behaviours that revolve around an identified point in time, such as New Year’s resolutions, that kind of external motivator is going to wear off pretty quickly. Unless there is substantial intrinsic motivation underlying it, the chances of the behaviour continuing aren’t that great.

Often it’s good to have a combination of intrinsic and extrinsic motivators, so that if one starts to fade a bit the other can still hold us. Having a partner for a health behaviour can be one way of doing this. Maybe you’ve got some good intrinsic motivation to do yoga, but on days when you’re not feeling it, your yoga buddy can help get your butt to class.

Motivation and suicide

I’ve noticed that in the past when I’ve been suicidal, my intrinsic motivation to live gets knocked out first, and then I shift to relying on extrinsic motivation (don’t want to hurt my family, etc.). When I’ve attempted suicide in the past, it happened when that extrinsic motivation had eventually disappeared as well. And on a much lighter note, I’ve never done New Year’s resolutions because I figure if I want to make a healthy change I’m better off drumming up the intrinsic motivation rather than relying on a “should” associated with the calendar.

What’s been your experience of balancing intrinsic and extrinsic motivation?


The Psychology Corner: Insights into psychology and psychological tests

The Psychology Corner has an overview of terms covered in the What Is… series, along with a collection of scientifically validated psychological tests.

Ashley L. Peterson headshot

Ashley L. Peterson


Ashley is a former mental health nurse and pharmacist and the author of four books.

32 thoughts on “What Is… Intrinsic vs. Extrinsic Motivation”

  1. Great post. I can relate to feeling like my intrinsic motivation to live is gone, and it’s my extrinsic motivation (my family, friends, etc) that keep me going when I am really depressed.

  2. I mostly kept going through 2017 because of my girls, so that would be extrinsic. Generally in the past I’ve been more intrinsically motivated, or balanced. But I was so heartbroken over a failed romantic relationship and my failed relationships with men generally. I just felt so bad every day, but I did have the girls. Now, I’m back to “normal,” but I know I can never date again. It’s a spiral down to darkness.

  3. This was a very interesting read. I figured I was wither motivated or just plain not, I didn’t know there were terms for the types of motivation I would fall under.
    I think I definitely fall under the category of my motivation is intrinsic. Even when I was employed, I was the “Get things done” kinda gal. I never really had to be instructed to “Do This!”
    However, the extrinsic motivator must obviously (After reading this) be the one that kicks in when my mood is way down, and I don’t feel up to doing anything, yet… I know I still have to do it.
    By reading this, I guess they sort of balance one another out afer all. Interesting!

  4. Thanks for reminding me of this again. I believe true peace and happiness comes from within. If you wait for the world to make you happy… not going to last for ever. Although children and my pets always makes me happy.

  5. I was raised to always rely on myself instead of other people/ things. It was the one thing my father wanted my brothers and I to take for the rest of our lives. Most of my motivation comes from myself and I realized this after reading your post. It is interesting how self-determination really is my main motivator, but it also made me realize I don’t rely on extrinsic factors as much. Balance is so important to every day life and I have been living very unbalanced in this part of my life. When it comes to working out I have always pushed myself. I never noticed if it made a difference if I had a “gym buddy” or not. I want to start letting extrinsic factors motivate me to see what the difference is. Thank you for this post. Very eye opening!

  6. When I’m in a depression, I have zero motivation. But there are times when I can muster energy to see the doctor. I don’t think that motivation comes from within, I think it’s extrinsic, but I’m not sure.

  7. I really identified with your description of intrinsic and extrinsic motivations in regards to suicide. I feel the same way. I lose the will to live, but I almost always think about how others would be impacted. That’s always what keeps me from pursuing my suicidal ideations.

    I am very driven, and once I set my mind to something, I usually accomplish it. However, even when I set more personal goals, I want others to approve, which is extrinsic motivation on some level.

    When people ask me to help them with things, I want to do a good job, and I often try to exceed expectations, which involves aspects of intrinsic motivation.

    Like you said, everyone utilizes both types of motivation depending on the situation.

  8. Like a few of the comments state, I never knew there was a difference in motivation. However, my intrinsic value tends to be higher, but I fail to remain motivated because I lack the extrinsic value.

    I recognize that I need to focus on external values as well to get moving, but I tend to put it off. Definitely working on balancing the two to receive productive results. Thank you for sharing.

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