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Whether you’re choosing what show to watch or which job offer to accept, every choice we make involves either intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. And yes, this is true even if your big decision of the day is whether to watch “Stranger Things” or “Outer Banks.” Maybe you really want to watch Eleven fight monsters from the Upside Down, but your friends just won’t stop talking about the Pogues and the Kooks. Do you choose “Outer Banks” so that you can be part of the conversation? That’s what we call extrinsic motivation. Or do you opt for “Stranger Things” because that’s what you wanted to watch? That would be intrinsic motivation.
No, extrinsic motivation isn’t just a fancy word for peer pressure, and intrinsic motivation isn’t just the ability to ignore FOMO. These two different forms of motivation are a way to define what really drives your decisions: is it an inner desire, or an outside force? Truth is, you probably experience a mix of both intrinsic and extrinsic motivation, but pinpointing which type drives which decisions can help you learn how to truly motivate yourself in all areas of your life.
“Knowing which of these motivates you can be an eye-opening experience,” therapist Katie Luman, LPC, tells POPSUGAR. “It’s an opportunity to re-evaluate your goals, values, and relationships.” POPSUGAR spoke to four mental health professionals about intrinsic and extrinsic motivation, what makes them different and — the real question of the hour — whether one of them is actually the key to a more fulfilling life.
What Is Intrinsic Motivation?
“Intrinsic motivation involves doing something because it’s personally rewarding to you,” says clinical psychologist and author Monica Vermani, PsyD. Sure, you might receive external validation for a task after you finish it, but that validation wasn’t the reason you did the task in the first place. With intrinsic motivation, “we act and behave in certain ways because we enjoy an activity, a process, a chance to learn, experiment or grow,” Dr. Vermani says. “Intrinsic motivation springs from our authentic selves engaging in what makes us happy and joyful.”
Examples of intrinsic motivation include anything you do for pure enjoyment, like:
- Working hard in school because you enjoy learning new things
- Working hard at your job because your work is personally fulfilling and meaningful
- Exercising because it makes you feel good
- Journaling or writing for personal pleasure
- Learning a new skill or hobby for yourself, not because of external pressure
- Cleaning your space because you like feeling organized
You’re probably motivated by both intrinsic and extrinsic factors, but you may be more drawn to one over the other. According to clinical psychologist Carla Manly, PhD, people with an intrinsic motivation style will likely:
- Value their own opinions about their behaviors over others’ opinions
- Do activities for their own satisfaction, rather than being rewarded for it
- Not require compliments and praise from others to feel good about themselves
- Be involved in projects in a behind-the-scenes way, where others may not know about it
“Intrinsic motivation is our true self, not distracted or manipulated by external expectations,” Dr. Vermani says. Following where intrinsic motivation leads helps you connect more deeply with yourself and may result in positive mental health outcomes: studies show that intrinsic motivation is associated with reduced anxiety and depression.
What Is Extrinsic Motivation?
“Extrinsic motivation involves doing something because you want to earn a reward,” Dr. Vermani says. Examples of extrinsic rewards might include financial gain, incentives, acceptance, or validation — or a combination thereof. Extrinsic motivation can be compelled by positive rewards or as a way to avoid negative consequences, like punishment or rejection, Dr. Vermani explains. “When we are extrinsically motivated, our behavior is motivated by external factors pushing us to do something in hope of earning a benefit or avoiding a less-than-positive outcome,” she says.
Examples of extrinsic motivation might include:
- Working hard at work for promotions or a pay raise
- Working hard at school for good grades or academic awards
- Exercising because you want to look a certain way and impress others
- Learning a new skill for work, not because you’re personally interested in it
- Cleaning your space to impress visitors
According to Dr. Manly, people with an extrinsic motivation style are likely to:
- Want to please others
- Find compliments and praise from other people very important
- Try an activity only if there’s a reward involved
- Be less interested or involved in a project if others don’t know you’re doing it
This might seem to paint extrinsic motivation in a negative light, but it can be a useful and effective style of motivation. For one thing, expectation of a reward might push you to try something new, which you might end up finding value in — like enrolling in a required computer science class at school, only to find you have a passion for coding. “Extrinsic rewards can ignite and promote interest in a task or skill,” Dr. Vermani says. And the rewards associated with extrinsic motivation can be significant: things like pay raises, career advancements, and prizes can positively impact your quality of life.
Intrinsic vs. Extrinsic Motivation: Which Is Better?
There isn’t one motivation style that’s better than the other. “Both have a place in our lives,” Dr. Vermani says. And while you might be more motivated by intrinsic over extrinsic factors, or vice versa, both of them affect your behavior.
“There is an interplay between intrinsic and extrinsic motivations. A balance is optimal.”
Let’s say someone only experiences intrinsic motivation. Sounds OK, right? Following your own internal compass and prioritizing joy. Sure — but it’s also impractical. “As an adult, if you do things solely for your own pleasure and don’t earn extrinsic validation (in the form of pay, community affirmation) you can feel under-appreciated, disconnected, or invisible,” says clinical psychologist Janelle Peifer, PhD. It’s likely that even if you are highly intrinsically motivated, you’ll benefit from outside validation — and lose a sense of connection with your workplace, class, or family if you don’t have it. A lack of extrinsic motivation might also mean that you care less about working harder for pay raises or good grades, things that can have a significant impact on your quality of life. Plus, when you’re extrinsically motivated by outside rewards, you might feel inspired to push outside of your comfort zone and try new things or learn new skills that you might not have an intrinsic reason to try otherwise.
On the other hand, a life with only extrinsic motivation may feel empty and meaningless. “Extrinsic motivation often falls short of truly satiating an individual’s core emotional needs and masks one’s internal, individual voice,” Dr. Peifer explains. In general, she says, “people tend to feel dissatisfaction if the balance of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation is skewed.”
These are all good things to know when determining your own motivation style, but also if you’re looking to motivate people around you, whether as a leader, manager, or family member. “If you are a team leader, people manager, or parent, it is best to motivate through both intrinsic and extrinsic means,” Dr. Vermani explains. Too much of either motivation style could leave your staff, people, or kids unmotivated with expectations that are too high or low, and they can even have a somewhat symbiotic effect on each other. A 2017 study, for example, shows that employees crave validation, and that receiving it can actually boost their sense of intrinsic motivation; people recognized for their work within the previous month were 29 percent more likely to find meaning and purpose in their work, according to the research from Globoforce’s WorkHuman Research Institute.
If you’re looking for a fulfilled, satisfying life, balancing out your intrinsic and extrinsic motivations — and helping the people around you do the same — is the way to go. That way, you get both appreciation and validation from the people and institutions around you (extrinsic motivation) and a sense of personal joy and meaning from within yourself (intrinsic motivation). “There is an interplay between intrinsic and extrinsic motivations,” Dr. Vermani explains. “A balance is optimal.”