What is the Best Definition of Intrinsic Motivation

What drives you to get out of bed each morning? What is the best definition of intrinsic motivation? For some, it’s the prospect of a paycheck at the end of the week. For others, it’s a sense of purpose or contribution. But for many of us, there is an inner spark – an intrinsic drive – that propels us forward. This innate and deeply personal motivation is what psychologists refer to as intrinsic motivation. But what exactly does it mean and why does it matter?

The Light from Within: Defining Intrinsic Motivation

Intrinsic motivation refers to the natural inclination toward spontaneous interest, enjoyment, and self-fulfillment that drives our exploration, learning, and creativity. Unlike extrinsic motivation which relies on external rewards or punishments, intrinsic motivators arise from within us – from our passions, curiosities, and inner purpose. As pioneering psychologist Edward Deci put it, intrinsic motivation energizes and sustains activities through “the human organism’s innate need to be competent and self-determining.”

When we are intrinsically motivated, we actively seek out challenges that captivate our interests and match our personal skills and talents. This type of self-endorsed motivation fuels our engagement not because of any separated consequences, but because the activity itself is naturally satisfying. In essence, intrinsic rewards like meaning, knowledge, empowerment, growth, joy and peak human experiences are the light that beckons us forward.

The Seed That Blossoms Creativity

Intrinsic motivation is crucial for creativity, learning, growth, and well-being across virtually all areas of life. It nourishes our innate needs for autonomy, mastery and purpose. Research shows that when people are driven by intrinsic motivators, they generate more creative ideas, persist longer at tasks, experience greater vitality, and produce higher quality work. Intrinsic motivation sets in motion our inherent strivings to extend and exercise our capabilities to the fullest – what Deci calls “the prototypical manifestation of the human tendency toward learning and creativity.”

Free from the external control of rewards and punishments, intrinsically motivated activities represent behaviors we naturally find interesting and that promote growth. This autonomous self-regulation releases our most resourceful, engaged and imaginative selves. Scientists, artists, activists, entrepreneurs and innovators throughout history have been fueled by the fire of intrinsic motivation to create, discover and change the world. It breathes life into our work and unleashes our highest potentials.

Motivation From Mouse Maze to Mozart Sonata

Motivation From Mouse Maze to Mozart Sonata

The concept of intrinsic motivation took off in the mid 1900s, particularly with the advent of cognitive evaluation theory developed by Edward Deci and Richard Ryan. Groundbreaking experiments by psychologists Harry Harlow and later by Edward Deci showed that animals and people will spontaneously pursue challenges like maze puzzles simply for the satisfaction of mastering them. These studies showed that the natural rewards of competency itself can motivate behavior without needing any separated rewards or incentives.

Later motivation studies in education settings found that intrinsic motivators like fun, interest and satisfaction tended to produce better learning, creativity and achievement than extrinsic control. Students motivated intrinsically are more likely to pursue self-development, take on challenges and experience flow, peak performance and vitality in activities ranging from academics to sports, music and more.

The intrinsic drive to learn and master skills continues throughout our lifespan. We see it in the 5-year-old intently piecing together puzzles. We see it in the surfer perfecting maneuvers for the sheer joy of it. We see it in the scientist relentlessly seeking answers to intriguing questions that capture their curiosity. We see it in the writer getting lost in flow while crafting verse. We see it in the determined cancer researcher driven by purpose and meaning. The inner spark of intrinsic motivation lights a passion that awakens the best within us all.

The Engagement Advantage

Study after study shows that intrinsic motivators are powerful predictors of engagement, performance, creativity, empowerment and wellness across nearly all domains. Students, teachers, employees and companies thrive when aligned with their intrinsic interests and passions. Finding intrinsic rewards in our work and what we learn energizes our most prolific selves.

Research by Gallup looking at over 4.4 million workers worldwide found that intrinsic rewards like using strengths, developing new skills and feeling a sense of purpose are the strongest factors predicting work engagement. Those intrinsically engaged at work showed lower turnover, higher productivity, profitability and earnings per share. They also had better safety records, customer metrics and quality output. This engagement advantage held in various regions from Singapore to Europe and across roles from executives to manufacturing workers.

Likewise, studies assessing over 500 manufacturing teams found that intrinsic motivation of teams strongly predicted both productivity and financial performance of firms. Across fields from healthcare to retail, intrinsic motives prevail in driving excellence. For example, studies show physicians driven by intrinsic values like community, compassion and knowledge provide better patient care, while intrinsically motivated retail workers show more task persistence, job dedication and service quality. Across settings, intrinsic rewards cultivate fulfillment and fuel excellence.

The Science of Internal Spark Plugs

Scientists have explored both the neuroscience and biochemistry intrinsic motivation. Researchers found that intrinsic rewards activate parts of the brain associated with learning, positive emotion and dopamine circuits related to motivation and drive. One study by psychologist Kenneth McGraw used MRI brain scans to show that intrinsic motivation to master a challenge lights up regions linked to increased dopamine levels, which may explain the rush of energy and positive feelings it provides.

On a biological level, intrinsic behaviors also release various neurotransmitters and hormones associated with more positive moods and well-being. Studies show that the states of flow, mastery and purpose tied to intrinsic engagement boost motivation neurotransmitters like dopamine while lowering stress hormones like cortisol. In effect, intrinsic rewards act like nature’s spark plugs – charging our energy, purpose and vitality both mentally and biologically.

Self-Determination: Nutrients for Thriving?

Given its clear benefits, what factors cultivate intrinsic motivation? Deci and Ryan’s self determination theory provides insight. It suggests humans have core needs – like those for autonomy, mastery and purpose – that intrinsically motivated behaviors help satisfy. When people have choices (autonomy), optimal challenges (mastery) and meaning (purpose), motivation and wellness thrive. Self-determination theory provides a blueprint for lighting the inner fire.

Schools, organizations and societies that enable autonomy, belonging and competence support intrinsic growth and vitality. People gain energy from self-directed pursuits that match internal interests and align values to personal strengths, talents and sense of meaning. Freedom, mastery and purpose act as nourishing nutrients that feed the inner flames of motivation.

In contrast, excess external rewards and controls often undermine intrinsic drive. Both animal and human studies show that offering extrinsic rewards for already internally rewarding behavior can diminish motivation, performance and well-being over time – a phenomenon called the overjustification effect. Such external controls impede self-determination and displace the inherent interest and satisfaction of the activity itself.

Optimizing the Motivation Equation

Intrinsic and internalized extrinsic motivators tend to be more predictive of performance, creativity and wellness over time than external carrots and sticks according to Deci and Ryan’s organismic integration theory. The more internalized the reason for doing an activity – whether you fully enjoy the task itself (intrinsic) or identify with the personal value of it (internalized extrinsic) – the greater effort, ownership and engagement.

What mix of motivators works best? Research suggests optimizing the right blend – finding the internal purpose within external incentives by linking extrinsic drives to intrinsic ones as much as possible.Savvy organizations and leaders energize teams by connecting extrinsic motivators – like fair compensation, recognition, feedback, mentoring and learning opportunities – to internal purpose and mastery. Carrots and sticks work best as kindling added to ignite intrinsic flames already within.

Stoking Your Inner Fire

Best definition of intrinsic motivation

Intrinsic motivation not only predicts success and well-being empirically – it also feels purposeful and invigorating. Understanding what internally drives you offers insight into peak performance as well as meaning. Here are 5 ways to fuel your inner motivational fire:

  1. Get Curious: Follow your interests and passions. Let your curiosity light the way to intrinsically rewarding challenges. Set mastery goals focused on growth and excellence in these areas as the emotional payoff will sustain you.
  2. Pursue Purpose: Attach your daily tasks and goals to something bigger – a meaning that energizes you emotionally and keeps you going through ups and downs. How does your work link to making a difference?
  3. Match Jobs to Passions: Identify your innate strengths and talents. Then look for roles, projects, people and environments that allow you to align work with who you are. The research shows such intrinsic purpose kindles fulfillment and drive.
  4. Challenge Yourself: Flow states emerge when high skill meets the right stretch challenge. Set mastery goals just beyond your skill level across the areas you most enjoy. Growth itself becomes the emotional payoff.
  5. Take Charge of Your Actions: Autonomy and choice are essential intrinsic nutrients so increase ownership over work. Offer input on decisions, budgets, timelines and vision. Bring your ideas to the table. Self-direction feeds purpose and internal vigor.

At Last

In a world full of extrinsic carrots and sticks like grades, accolades and paychecks, your intrinsic spark provides lasting fuel. Protecting internal purpose and mastery will lead to not only greater productivity and success, but also more meaning, passion and joy across the days of your life. After all, a supportive blaze nurtured within ignites.

In Summary

At its core, intrinsic motivation energizes people from inside based on inherent passions, growth, purpose and peak experiences like flow. It propels development, mastery and fulfillment across nearly all dimensions of life unlike any external driver can parallel or sustain long-term. From artists to entrepreneurs, scientists to students, the internal fire is what separates great from good. Protecting and stoking these inner flames cultivates both excellence and well-being over the long haul. While extrinsic carrots and sticks have a role in the motivation equation, the intrinsic spark from within fuels fiery performance for the long run.


Q1: Why is intrinsic motivation important?

Intrinsic motivation is important because it is a powerful and long-lasting driver of excellence, achievement, creativity and well-being across nearly all domains of life. 

Q2: Does money kill intrinsic motivation?

Money itself does not necessarily kill intrinsic drive, but excessive rewards used as coercive carrots or sticks can undermine internal motivation over time. 

Q3: What are examples of intrinsic motivators?

Examples of intrinsic motivators include satisfaction, fun, interest, learning, meaning, autonomy, belonging, mastery/progress and purpose. 

Q4: Does everyone need intrinsic motivation?

While intrinsic motivation predicts greater sustained excellence and wellness for most, some personalities find greater drive from extrinsic factors like competition, status and money. 

Q5: Can you train intrinsic motivation?

Since intrinsic motivation arises naturally from within based on inner passions, purpose and growth needs, it can be challenging to teach directly.

Eliana Brown

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