Intrinsic Motivation Examples and When it Beats or Improves External Rewards

Intrinsic Motivation Examples
Table of Contents

Intrinsic motivation is one of the most powerful drivers of behavior. We cheer for our favorite sports team, engage in our hobbies, and spend time with our friends because of the psychological benefits these activities bring us.

While performing intrinsically rewarding activities may be pleasurable, the potential of this type of motivation to enhance productivity is sometimes overlooked. Many of the systems that affect our day-to-day lives, such as the education system, justice system, and work economy, tend to overuse external rewards such as money, grades, and medals to encourage better performance.

However, researchers have found that our instincts to motivate ourselves with external rewards may be misinformed. Several studies have revealed that intrinsic rewards are much better at motivating individuals for longer periods of time than external rewards alone [1].

For this reason, schools and workplaces have invested considerable resources into increasing intrinsic motivation among students and employees. At the individual level, we can also use intrinsic motivation to incentivize us to work towards our goals.

Since internal rewards are intangible, it can be difficult to spot intrinsic motivation examples around us. However, the following scenarios should give you an idea of purely intrinsic actions.

Examples of intrinsic motivation

Intrinsic motivation is the drive behind a behavior performed solely for personal, psychological purposes. In the Self-Determination Theory of motivation (SDT), intrinsically rewarding behaviors serve one of three purposes:

  • Increase autonomy: One’s ability to direct one’s own life and make decisions accordingly
  • Increase competence: One’s mastery or understanding of a subject or skill
  • Increase relatedness: One’s sense of belonging and close relationships with others

To qualify as intrinsic motivation under the SDT, behavior must be autonomous. This means that external forces do not in any way influence how or why an individual conducts an action. Otherwise, the motivation is considered controlled.

To illustrate the difference, let’s look at the action of reading a book through the SDT lens. A person who reads a book by their favorite author for personal pleasure is intrinsically motivated.

If another person reads the same book because their teacher assigned it, this action would be less autonomously motivated and more controlled. However, they may still experience high levels of internal rewards if they love to read, enjoy the topic, or perceive themselves as a good student.

Here are a few more examples to contrast autonomous and controlled motivations.

Autonomous Controlled
ActionIntrinsicIdentifiedIntrojectedExternal
Go to the gymEnjoys feeling challenged by working outViews themselves as a health-minded personFeels working out will demonstrate to others that they are determinedWants to fit into a specific clothing size
Study for an examHas a deep interest in the topic and wants to learn more about itHas a passion to be a doctor, and needs to pass the exam to fulfill that dreamNeeds others to view them as intelligent, high exam marks are one way of showing thatWants higher grades to increase their scholarship grant
Go to concertHas a profound appreciation for the music and finds community amongst the crowdEnjoys crowds and party scenes, attends the concert for the atmosphereWants their friends to view them as cool and creativeWants photos to share on social media that will get a lot of attention

As motivation becomes more and more controlled, intrinsic rewards decrease. People who perform introjectedly or externally motivated actions are more likely to experience negative feelings if the action does not produce the desired outcome [2].

In contrast, actions driven by Intrinsic and identified motivation are more likely to produce a sense of pleasure or satisfaction, no matter their outcome [3].

When is intrinsic motivation more effective than external rewards?

The SDT may explain why intrinsic motivation is more effective than external rewards in the following circumstances.

Intrinsic rewards are best for performance-based outcomes

Performance-based outcomes are results based on one’s skill and ability. These behaviors usually have a competitive element and require individuals to perform based on an external standard. Sports games and concerts are some of the most common examples of performance-based challenges.

According to the achievement goal theory, people can have intrinsic or extrinsic motivations for engaging in performance. Task-focused performers are more attuned to their internal needs and may compete to achieve their personal best or improve their skills. Ego-focused performers are driven primarily to show off their ability or to dominate others [4].

The two orientations can greatly impact an individual’s performance. For example, people who are task-focused approach their performance with the aim of learning and improving their understanding of external standards. Task-focused orientation is correlated with higher levels of effort, persistence, and performance [5].

On the other hand, ego-focused performers are more concerned with seeming superior to others. This can lead to avoidant behaviors, such as sidestepping challenges and remaining in one’s comfort zone. This can reduce persistence and negatively affect performance, especially in high-pressure situations [6].

Ego-focused performers are also more susceptible to social comparisons. If they believe their ability is lower than their competition, it can result in negative outcomes. For example, an ego-focused athlete who does not believe she can outperform the other team may reduce her effort during the game [7].

Intrinsic motivation supports long-lasting behavior changes

Intrinsic rewards can be understood as a renewable source of motivation. People can tap into emotions like passion, fascination, and satisfaction at any time to find the energy and willingness to engage in an intrinsically fulfilling behavior.

External rewards do not have the same lasting effect on behavior or motivation. For example, people who engage in actions for purely external reasons derive little enjoyment or satisfaction from their work. This can greatly limit how long they are able to continue the action, even if they are well compensated.

One of the reasons for this is that people tend to set higher benchmarks after an external reward is achieved. This can produce the demotivating perception that the end goal is always just out of reach [8].

Conversely, intrinsically motivating goals always feel rewarding, irrespective of the outcome. As a result, people are much more likely to maintain behaviors that produce some type of internal reward.

How intrinsic motivation improves external rewards

While external rewards are helpful for motivating people to complete tasks they otherwise would not do, there are limits to this effect.

The equity motivation theory suggests that people are more likely to continue with a task if they perceive that their compensation aligns with their efforts [9]. However, external rewards are finite. This means that the amount of compensation an individual may need to increase their effort may be unreasonable or even impossible.

This is due to a concept known as diminishing returns. Imagine an office worker who agrees to take on additional responsibilities in exchange for a raise. The first promotion may come with a two-fold increase in salary. The worker may view this as an equitable exchange and take on the extra work.

A year into the new position, the worker is offered a 20% salary increase to take on an even higher workload. At this point, the worker may not perceive the increase as equitable for the additional work. And doubling or tripling the employee’s salary may not make financial sense for the company. In this case, external rewards alone will not incentivize the employee to accept the promotion.

Instead of relying on external rewards alone, the company could start to include intrinsically rewarding incentives to encourage the worker. Benefits that increase the worker’s autonomy, competence, or relatedness would increase their interest and commitment to the role without requiring a much higher salary.

For example, the company could allow the employee to work from anywhere, giving them the freedom to travel or live closer to family. Allowing the employee to oversee a personal project could also introduce intrinsic benefits.

Businesses in the real world have taken note of this phenomenon. A survey of employees in 2022 found that nearly half would prefer more flexibility and autonomy over external rewards such as retirement account matches and vacation time [10].

Harnessing intrinsic motivation

If you are working towards a goal that is primarily externally motivated, making it more internally rewarding can help you stay on track. Here are some ways to make any task more intrinsically motivating:

  • Set your own goals: This could be beating your personal best or setting learning goals.
  • Document your journey: You can unleash your creativity by making a video, journal, or photo collage of your progress. If you get internal satisfaction from connecting with others, you can share your journey with friends, family, or even on social media.
  • Do what you love: There are many ways to achieve a goal. If you love the outdoors, there’s no need to limit your workouts to the gym. Try adding a biking or hiking routine as part of your exercise plan.

🔗 Recommended reading: What is Motivation, How It Works, and How It Drives Behavior.


Sources

[1] Clanton Harpine, E. (2015). Is Intrinsic Motivation Better Than Extrinsic Motivation?. In: Group-Centered Prevention in Mental Health. Springer, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-19102-7_6

[2] Kim, B. J., & Gill, D. L. (1997). A Cross-Cultural Extension of Goal Perspective Theory to Korean Youth Sport. Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 19(2), 142–155. https://doi.org/10.1123/jsep.19.2.142

[3] Zhou Q, Mao J-Y and Tang F (2020) Don’t Be Afraid to Fail Because You Can Learn From It! How Intrinsic Motivation Leads to Enhanced Self-Development and Benevolent Leadership as a Boundary Condition. Front. Psychol. 11:699. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2020.00699

[4] Chazan, D. J., Pelletier, G. N., & Daniels, L. M. (2022). Achievement Goal Theory Review: An Application to School Psychology. Canadian Journal of School Psychology, 37(1), 40–56. https://doi.org/10.1177/08295735211058319

[5] Carolyn M Jagacinski, Oriel J Strickland, Task and ego orientation: The role of goal orientations in anticipated affective reactions to achievement outcomes, Learning and Individual Differences, Volume 12, Issue 2, 2000, Pages 189-208, ISSN 1041-6080, https://doi.org/10.1016/S1041-6080(01)00037-1

[6] Martínez-González N, Atienza FL, Duda JL, Balaguer I. The Role of Dispositional Orientations and Goal Motives on Athletes’ Well- and Ill-Being. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2021 Dec 28;19(1):289. doi: 10.3390/ijerph19010289. PMID: 35010549; PMCID: PMC8744968.

[7] Gina B. Gonzalez. (2019, March). Gale – Product Login. Galeapps.gale.com. https://go.gale.com/ps/i.do?p=AONE&u=googlescholar&id=GALE%7CA582622373&v=2.1&it=r&sid=googleScholar&asid=f26413d4

[8] Johnson, M. (2021, January 5). The Power of Intrinsic Motivation. Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/mind-brain-and-value/202101/the-power-intrinsic-motivation

[9] Lawler, E. E. (1968). Equity theory as a predictor of productivity and work quality. Psychological Bulletin, 70(6, Pt.1), 596–610. https://doi.org/10.1037/h0026848

[10] Segal, E. (2022, February 4). Flexibility Is The Most Empowering Benefit For Employees: New Poll. Forbes. https://www.forbes.com/sites/edwardsegal/2022/02/04/flexibility-is-the-most-empowering-benefit-for-employees-new-poll/?sh=1035e3448b19

Picture of Alisha Verly Jensen
Alisha Verly Jensen
I am a freelance wellness writer passionate about positive psychology and gentle productivity. I enjoy studying personal development and sharing what I’ve learned to help others create a balanced and fulfilling life. When I am not writing, I am tending to my garden.