Understanding Intrinsic vs. Extrinsic Motivation Could Be the Key to Unlocking Your Drive — for Good

Your good intentions only get you so far when working toward a goal. So, knowing what type of motivation to lean on could be the thing that brings your dedication back to life.

Intrinsic vs. Extrinsic Motivation
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Whether you’re training for a half marathon, practicing your first push-up, or simply trying to add more veggies to your plate, it can be challenging to find the motivation to start — and stick — to the routines that will get you across that finish line. But you might not realize that when momentum starts to dwindle, you have two types of motivation that can keep you going: intrinsic and extrinsic.  

Both types of motivators are valuable and can be used in combination with one another, but in certain situations, one might be more effective than the other. Learning how to dial up the perfect source of motivation can be the difference between nailing the paces in your tempo run and snoozing that early alarm one time too many. Learn more about the definitions of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation, why the difference matters (a lot), and how to use both to build sustainable habits that last.

What Is Intrinsic Motivation?

“Intrinsic motivation is when people engage in an activity because they find it exciting and inherently satisfying,” says Samantha Gambino, Psy.D., licensed psychologist and founder of Strong + Mindful LLC. “Their inspiration comes from inside of them; an intrinsically motivated person chooses to do something because it brings them joy or satisfaction,” she says.  

For example, you’ll likely stick to your yoga routine if you come away feeling accomplished, de-stressed, peaceful, and calm. The memory of these feelings will make your next yoga session a welcome part of your day.

Here are some specific benefits of intrinsic motivation.

Greater Persistence

“When someone is intrinsically motivated to do something, it makes them happy,” explains Gambino. “The activity brings them joy, satisfaction, and a sense of achievement. These feelings create a self-reinforcing cycle where people are more likely to persist with a task because it feels good.” 

If you truly enjoy your weight lifting sessions, the likelihood you’ll stick to your periodization training is much higher. “Some people just like working out, and that enjoyment is intrinsically motivating, so they keep doing it,” says Andreas Michaelides, Ph.D., chief of psychology at Noom.

Research published in Clinical Rehabilitation shows that even highly motivated exercisers are less likely to stick to their programs unless they actively enjoy their activities. So finding something you love to do will make consistency much more feasible.

Improved Confidence and Performance

Intrinsically motivated people usually perform better when doing their goal-oriented activities because they are more engaged and genuinely interested in their actions. “When something is internally rewarding, a person wants to do it more, which leads to improved performance and feeling capable and confident in themselves,” explains Gambino. “It’s another self-reinforcing cycle.” 

But you don’t just feel like you’re doing better at something when you’re intrinsically motivated, research shows you actually are better — period. A study published in Psychology & Health shows that intrinsic motivation leads to self-efficacy, meaning you feel more confident and perform better at what you’re doing. For instance, if you start a new running routine that you really enjoy, you’ll feel more self-confident about your abilities and therefore will be likelier to improve your running skills over time.

Greater Autonomy

An intrinsically motivated person is more independent in exploring a new activity's learning and growth process. “Because it’s enjoyable, this person will take more initiative and be more curious about the task, leaving them to explore more independently,” says Gambino. And that nudge of curiosity might just be the thing to help you level up as your chase that goal. For example, if you’re already obsessed with your weekly boxing class, you might be motivated to practice longer combos on your own — which will then increase your boxing skills even more. 

Even better, a sense of control or freedom further enhances feelings of intrinsic motivation around exercise specifically, according to research published in the International Journal of School Health. Participants with the most autonomy over their training routine (think: choosing the order of exercise) reported higher levels of intrinsic motivation and physical activity intention (that is, the will to participate in exercise) than the group without any choice in their training. 

What Is Extrinsic Motivation?

Positive and negative reinforcement drive extrinsic motivation. (Editor’s note: Many published scientific research studies or papers refer to these mindsets as “rewards” and “punishments” respectively, so you may see these terms used in this article. Please keep in mind that failing to complete a task should never result in self-punishment or shame, nor should you restrict food or other “rewards” for falling short of a goal.)

This is the kind of external motivation you use when you do something for a reason other than because it is inherently satisfying. For instance, promising yourself a new pair of running shoes once you complete your 5K training plan would be a form of extrinsic motivation, as would the possible penalty of having to pay up if you lose your StepBet.

Sounds simple, but extrinsic motivation is more than just glorified bribery, says Michaelides. In fact, extrinsic motivation doesn’t have to take the tangible form of a “thing” at all; instead, it can be a feeling or an outside influence. “For example, exercising because someone paid you and exercising for your health are both considered external motivators,” he explains. That’s because in both cases, you’re exercising for reasons other than just because you love your cycling routine.

Extrinsic motivation has upsides beyond the pleasure of earning a prize. Here are more potential benefits.

Can Help You Get Started

For specific tasks, extrinsic motivation is highly effective. Motivation can come from prestige, money, or accolade, explains Gambino. For instance, if you keep a habit tracker and hit your goals, you might reward yourself with a new pair of leggings. Non-tangible feelings can also be viewed as a reward for your efforts, such as finding motivation from the possibility of winning your age group in your hometown’s annual Turkey Trot. 

Changes Habits and Improves Performance

Beyond physical rewards, extrinsic motivation can include wanting to lower your cholesterol levels, improve your stress levels, or increase your step count. Exercising because your doctor suggested lifestyle changes due to certain test results, for example, is more intrinsically motivating than doing it for money, but it is still an extrinsic motivator, according to Michaelides. 

And if you’re not that excited about a new health habit, extrinsic motivation can ensure you still perform that habit well. That’s because when a person has low intrinsic motivation, extrinsic motivation can enhance their performance, even when they are not interested in the task, according to research published in the Journal of Personality. So if you find yourself ambivalent about a weekly date with your personal trainer, adding extrinsic motivation into the mix can ensure you’re still pushing yourself during those sessions.

Feels Good

To put it simply, receiving positive reinforcement for performing a task feels good. “It can be empowering to receive a reward and know you worked hard for it, especially when you are not interested in a task,” says Gambino. This external validation also releases a jolt of dopamine, a neurotransmitter that strengthens the ties between performing a task, such as finally taking that restorative yoga class, and the praise you might get for doing so. This positive, feel-good effect can help drive future behavior, and it’s why having an accountability partner or supportive friend can help extrinsically motivate you to stick to your goals.

Why You Need Both Types of Motivation to Pursue Your Goals

To be clear: Motivation doesn’t have to come from just one source. “People can and do have both intrinsic and extrinsic motivations, particularly for health behaviors,” says Michaelides. “Some people really enjoy eating more vegetables, and they do it because it’s good for them. This person is both intrinsically and extrinsically motivated.”

But be warned: If you try to layer rewards on top of things you already love, the results can backfire. 

“It may be that when you pair a reward with something someone genuinely enjoys, you take the fun or pleasure out of the task, causing a decrease in motivation,” says Gambino. So if you already love hitting up a Pilates class, you don’t need to pair it with a treat-yourself smoothie post-workout. At least, not every time: “Extrinsic motivators can also be helpful when you know that the result of the task will feel good, but you still lack motivation” in the moment, she adds. 

So, Which Is Better – Intrinsic or Extrinsic Motivation?

“People with high levels of intrinsic motivation will likely have an easier time maintaining a health behavior over time than someone with low levels of intrinsic motivation,” says Michaelides. 

However, while people with high levels of intrinsic motivation are more likely to maintain healthy behavior in the long run, external motivation can be a great way to get someone with low motivation to get started with a beneficial new habit — as long as there’s a path toward that intrinsic end of the motivation spectrum. Otherwise, you’ll stop when the rewards stop, says Michaelides. 

In short, there’s not one clear-cut answer to which type of motivation is best in all circumstances. The key is finding that balance of intrinsic vs extrinsic motivators to keep you working toward your goals in the long run — because sustainable motivation is the best kind of all.

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