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 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 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 “shoulds” we impose on 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 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.
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?
You can find the rest of my What Is series here.