Intrinsic Motivation - What's that?!

Have you ever picked up a hobby, like learning a new piece of music, and realized after the initial excitement wore off that it became increasingly difficult to motivate yourself to continue? Maybe you even dropped the piece and found a new one (I know I have...too many times to count).

Well, the concept of motivation is highly perplexing - why do we become motivated at all? And you might also be wondering, is there a way to motivate myself in such a way that I become excited about a piece again? Maybe you used to really enjoy it, but after a year, a month, or a couple days even, the sight of it on your stand made you cringe. Except you have to play it at an upcoming concert or in your lesson...but you just. don't. want to.

Good news! Psychological research spanning decades suggests that something called intrinsic motivation may hold the key to a person's basic motivation.

Woah...what's intrinsic motivation, you ask?

Simply put, intrinsic motivation means that a person becomes motivated simply because they are interested in a specific task. So, if you really like reading blog posts, then you must be really intrinsically motivated (interested) right now. The opposite of intrinsic motivation, is something called extrinsic motivation. That basically means that a person becomes motivated because they are enticed with something. For example, I could extrinsically motivate you to check my mail by offering to pay you $20. If you were *intrinsically* motivated to check my mail for me, you would do it without asking and enjoy the process, regardless of any reward (but I'd also be concerned as to why you wanted to check my mail...)

As you can probably guess, being intrinsically motivated is a lot more enjoyable, because it fulfills your curiosity, adding joy to your life. Not that extrinsic motivation is less enjoyable, but wouldn't you rather be happy fulfilling all your obligations, tasks, (or hobbies), than doing them all just for a reward? I will leave that answer up to you! :)

Okay, that's interesting and all, but, how does one become *intrinsically* motivated?

The short answer is, it's complicated.

But it's okay, let's take it one step at a time.

First, let's start with an exploration of the process of intrinsic motivation as well as what decreases it, so that we can better understand how to cultivate it within ourselves!


The Process of Intrinsic Motivation

“Do rewards motivate people? Absolutely. They motivate people to get rewards.”

-Alfie Kohn in Punished by Rewards

Behavioral psychologists understand intrinsic motivation as a phenomenon that, “reflects the primary propensity of organisms to engage in activities that interest them and, in so doing, to learn, develop, and expand their capacities” (Sansone 2000: 16). The keyword interest is at the heart of the intrinsic motivating factor; the rewards of intrinsically motivated learning are inherent in the act itself. My job as an educator would be much easier if my students were always interested in the topics I teach. But alas, this is not so. >.<

Intrinsic motivation so elusive because it is a process, not a concrete, easily quantifiable notion. Because motivation is created by a process, the factors necessary to create it are always changing.

These factors include:

  • the reasons an individual has for learning

  • an individual’s curiosity

  • the emotional commitment derived from personal meaning

  • the social atmosphere of the learning environment.

-From Life Beyond Grades (2017)-

As you can see, each one of these factors contains an endless amount of possibilities that influence your motivation, hence why it is so complicated to give clear-cut instructions to increasing intrinsic motivation! In order to bypass this, a clear understanding of what actually decreases intrinsic motivation is a promising starting point. If you can at least understand this, then you will be able to identify aspects within yourself that can be harnessed to improve your very own intrinsic motivation.

So what hurts intrinsic motivation?

In A. H. Maslow's influential book, influential article, “A Theory of Human Motivation,” he outlines his hierarchy of needs, which he argues are necessary to be fulfilled as a foundation for human motivation and self-actualization.

Self-esteem is among those basic needs, accompanied by physiological needs, safety needs, and the need for love and belonging. If just one of these parts of the pyramid is left unfulfilled or unsatisfied, then motivation decreases. Examples of each include:

  • Physiological - If you're hungry, then you're probably thinking about your next meal, rather than your crafting hobby.

  • Safety - If you're anxious in class because you dislike your teacher (for whatever reason), you might be more worried about that rather than doing your schoolwork.

  • Belonging - If you are surrounded by strangers at a school dance, you might be less inclined to dance as opposed to being with friends.

  • Esteem - If you have poor self-esteem, you might think that completing your homework or assignments is stressful, because past experiences have led you to believe that you are not competent at the task. Therefore, you might avoid doing it.

And then there is the self-worth theory, as explained by Martin V. Covington, is the understanding that individuals strive to protect their sense of self-worth at all costs (1984).

What both Maslow and Covington's theories have in common is the theory that motivation is directly correlated with the well-being of an individual mentally, emotionally, and physically. The implication here is that intrinsic motivation can easily be discouraged since basically every aspect of an individual’s existence influences the motivation process! Oh boy...

Don't fret quite yet - I have narrowed down the list to two culprits of demotivation - that of fear, and that of rewards.

Of course, fear has to be a demotivator! Who doesn't fret about upcoming due dates, criticism, or bad grades? Since learning anything (a new hobby, a new concept, etc.) is entangled with a sense of self-worth, the fear of failure becomes a direct threat to motivation. Unfortunately, this fear is a product of how the Western education system is constructed; our grading system and assessment practices promote the notion that success is necessary to self-worth. This creates a moral implication of failure that suggests a person is unworthy if they fail (Covington 2017: 31). Especially in educational environments, the fear of failure is debilitating to the cultivation of intrinsic motivation, because curiosity is squashed in favor of choosing the most direct path to success i.e. high grades, recognition of talent. Why would you choose a exceedingly difficult task which risks failure if you're sense of self-worth depends on success? Since you, dear reader, have likely grown up in this education system, then you are used to this notion.

Okay but, rewards - why would they be demotivating?

You're right to question this. At surface level, rewards may appear to be motivating, despite struggles of self-worth. However, they are in fact even more damaging to motivation, because they are the largest contributor to the fear of failure.

Stick with me - remember extrinsic motivation? Rewards are a classic type of extrinsic motivator!

It's not that rewards are inherently bad, but enticing yourself or others to complete a task results in the behavior of completing the task as being motivated by the desire to obtain the reward, rather than for any actual interest in the activity.

Long-time critic of the grading system and author of Punished by Rewards (1993) Alfie Kohn, argues that rewards inhibit intrinsic motivation for numerous reasons. First, enticing someone to do something with a reward sends the message that the task is inherently uninteresting - why would you give the reward in the first place if it was interesting?

Also, rewards indicate an exercise of control over another person; people tend to shy away from controlling environments, or the opposite - they rebel.

What may come to the surprise of many is that praise is also a type of reward that can decrease intrinsic motivation. In educational environments, praise encourages students to choose activities that they think will please their teachers. This not only halts intrinsic motivators, but also decreases creative thinking. Students will avoid taking risks if praised on their achievements, because get this - it brings students back to the fear of failure, and therefore becomes a threat to their sense of self-worth.

Even further, praise can increase the pressure to live up to standards set from the first praise received, which can also feeds into this vicious cycle of fear. Alternatively, if a task is not that difficult and a student is praised for completing it, it leads the student to think they are less capable or intelligent (Kohn 1993).

So I'm sorry, rewarding yourself with chocolate every time you pick up your instrument may backfire on you, motivationally speaking. yourself a pat on the back every time you do your dishes.

With all this in mind, what is one to do?




I will offer one caveat to this, which is that a strict separation of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation is unnecessary. They can often be employed side-by-side! Yay!

There is research that suggests a combination of extrinsic and intrinsic motivation may be necessary to maintain motivation over longer periods of time. This is because a person that is initially intrinsically motivated may over time become less interested, needing extrinsic motivation to continue (Sansone 2000: 367). However, it is important to remember that every individual is motivated by different external and internal values - you know yourself best, so taking time to identify what you value is a great place to start.


Well there you have it - intrinsic motivation. Quite the puzzle, right?

In Part Two of this series, we will explore different ways to cultivate your own intrinsic motivation so you can start enjoying that music you may have left behind, or increase the enjoyment of something you play every day!

In the meantime, I suggest you check out this page about self-worth by If self-worth is something you struggle with, this is an excellent resource and will absolutely help your motivation!

Until then, happy practicing! <3



Covington, Martin V., Linda M. von Hoene and Dominic J. Voge. 2017. “Life Beyond Grades: Designing College Courses to Promote Intrinsic Motivation.” Berkely, California: Cambridge University Press.

Kohn, Alfie. 1993. “Punished by Rewards: Twenty-fifth Anniversary Edition: The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A’s, Praise, and Other Bribes.” New York, New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. Kindle Edition.

Maslow, A.H. 1943. “A Theory of Human Motivation.” Psychological Review, 50(4), 370-396.

Sansone, Carol and Jessie L. Smith. (2000). “Interest in Self-Regulation: The Relation Between Having To and Wanting To.” In Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivation: The Search for Optimal Motivation and Performance. Edited by Carol Sansone and Judith M. Harackiewicz. San Diego: California. Academic Press. 343-74. Print.

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