Introducing Intrinsic vs. Extrinsic Motivation

One of my “3 big causes” that I outline in this blog’s tagline is intrinsic motivation. This will be a concept that I intend on coming back to again and again. Now I know that most of you already know what these are… I just want to make sure that we’re all on the same page before I start flaunting these terms around!

Intrinsic Motivation (IM) is when you engage in an activity for its own sake. You do it, because you want to do it, and you fully endorse what you’re doing. The activity itself rewards you with a sense of satisfaction, pleasure, or enjoyment.

Extrinsic Motivation (EM) is the complete opposite of IM. It’s when you do an activity in order to receive an external reward, such as money, grades, or prizes. You perceive the activity you engage in as a means to an end.

IM and EM have been studied quite a lot in social psychology. They are at the heart of many psychological theories, including Cognitive Evaluation theory, and Self-Determination Theory. Countless studies have been done that look at the difference in effects of IM and EM, ever since the 1960s, and continuing today. Even as we speak. Heck, I’m currently a participant in a longitudinal study about EM, IM, and life goals!

For instance, studies have shown that the following correlate positively with intrinsic motivation:

1. Enjoyment
2. Pursuit of challenge
3. Cognitive flexibility and Creativity
4. Spontaneity and Expressiveness
5. Positive Emotional Tone in relating to other

The concepts of IM and EM apply so well to education. For instance, in her studies, Susan Harter found that students’ level of curiosity and interest in school actually decrease as they age (and move through the school system). There was a particular drop when students moved from elementary to junior high school. All of the following were found to be external motivators which caused this:

3.Negative Reinforcement (Threats)
7.Goal Imposition

Don’t these sound all too familiar in our current educational system? And while the solution to this is most certainly not to simply get rid of all of those external motivators, this most definitely opens the door to break down our assumptions about each of these external motivators, and to question their effectiveness. For instance, grades may be a great way to get a student to read throughout the semester, but if done in a controlling way, it may lead to students wanting to read less after they graduate from school – not quite the “future-oriented” result we were looking for!

It is often said that our current educational system was born during the time of the industrial revolution. But, I believe, now that we have made huge progress in the field of motivational psychology, it is about time to have our educational system catch up! We need to start approaching these techniques in light of the psychological advances we’ve been making over the past few decades. And I intend to help out in this effort in some of my future posts.

In the meantime, I encourage you to watch “Dan Pink on the surprising science of motivation” if you haven’t seen it already.


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