Extrinsic and intrinsic motivation

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In this post, we’ll have a discussion on the subject of extrinsic and intrinsic motivation.

The subject of motivation has been around for a long time. This is so for a reason. Without motivation pushing us to do the hard things in life, the hard things don’t get done. Without motivation to push us your dreams quickly take a back seat, since it’s often the case that serious accomplishment requires some form of sacrifice.

The subject itself is a mystery. A mystery so big and important that year after year millions if not billions of dollars are spent on all sorts of material whose purpose is to help us go through the difficulties of life on our way to our goals and dreams.  If you read enough on the topic you eventually get to the subject of extrinsic and intrinsic motivation, and that is what this post is about.

Extrinsic and intrinsic motivation

According to the oxford dictionary motivation is, to put simply:” Desire or willingness to do something; enthusiasm.”. Because we are emotionally driven animals this desire to do something is usually emotional.

I’m sure you’ve observed this within yourself. It’s easy to think logically about why something should or should not be done. Whether that one thing is done or not depends on some emotional desire for or for the avoidance of it.

What is extrinsic and intrinsic motivation about?

In the subject of motivation, by “extrinsic” or “intrinsic” we are referring to the source of that desire. If we want to break it down, even more, we are referring to where that emotion that drives us to do something comes from. What’s its source?

It’s this understanding that can lead us to

1.Knowing ourselves better

2.Having the means/ability to influence our own motivation

What is extrinsic motivation?

Put simply extrinsic motivation is the kind of motivation whose source is some obvious reward or obligation. As the word gives it away, it’s the kind of motivation that comes from something extrinsic.

Taking the example of the school, a student can be made extrinsically motivated by promising to him/her that if they have good grades for the semester or year, they will be rewarded with a paid vacation to anywhere they desire to go at the end of the year or semester.

At work, the same dynamic can be observed. The boss comes to the employees and promises a pay raise to the employee who makes the most sales for the quarter. Just like any other kind of motivation extrinsic motivation can also be based on something negative. An example of that is when we feel motivated to get early to work because we fear we might lose our job if we arrive late.

Still, in the same tone, we work for money, because if we don’t we can’t pay the rent, eat, etc.

One way I think about it is by asking the question: can the source of the motivation be removed without removing me? If the answer is yes, then chances are that the source of your motivation is of an extrinsic nature.

What is intrinsic motivation?

Intrinsic motivation, on the other hand, is the kind of motivation you can’t pinpoint any other source than yourself. When we talk about intrinsic motivation, we often find ourselves talking also about what makes us who we are. I’m talking about our values and our personal traits, and these and no obvious external force is what we often attribute to be the reason why we do the things we do. The things “intrinsic” to us are often our intrinsic motivators, and by intrinsic what we actually mean is “from within”. So another way to rephrase intrinsic motivation is motivation from within.

Often the reason why we chose to do to or not do something is driven by a blend of intrinsic and extrinsic motivators. Think about a fight between two men. At first one can say that the cause of the fight is purely extrinsic, where the source would be the desire to not look weak in front of other people, but there is also a potential intrinsic component to it.

The intrinsic component would be pride. Proud people are often born proud people. They have an inflated view of themselves and this view is often the reason why they might not take criticism or insult very well.  The pride is something intrinsic to their being. You can’t fake it. It’s who you are.

Another example of intrinsic motivation is what drives a person to spend countless hours working on its craft when there is no obvious immediate reward for their efforts. Even more evident is when there is absolutely no reward coming after years or decades of dedication. I’m talking about the failing artist who never becomes as famous as they hoped even though they have relentlessly continued to work on their craft year after year. What else can be the explanation for this kind of behavior other than the intrinsically motivated desire to play music for the sake of playing music?

This is what we today call “passion” or “drive”. The thing that makes us paint or sing when everyone around tells us not to. The thing that makes us keep on working long after hours, ignoring tiredness and hunger. It can be taken from you.

A variant of the test question for motivation is: can someone manually take my motivation away from me? If the answer is yes then there is a big chance the source of your motivation is extrinsic. One may say that a person coming with demotivating words can make us demotivated, but here one of two things usually happen. Either you naturally gravitate back to the state that drives you to keep on doing what you’re doing or you stop. If the latter happens, then there is a very high chance that you were extrinsically motivated in the first place.

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs

In Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, the need for self-actualization, which is, in essence, the need to live to our full potential can be thought of as one potential source of intrinsic motivation, and at the same time also the kind of objective that is often better achieved by the motivation of an intrinsic source. Meaning that the desire to live up to your full potential can help you push through the difficult moments of practice that are required for one to be great. This desire is based on some self-belief that urges to be fulfilled/manifested. On the other hand, sometimes wanting to live up to our full potential might not be enough of a motivator on its own. It might be the case that what you need to fulfill this wish is an extra dose of an intrinsic drive.

Which motivation is better?

One natural question to ask is which kind of motivation is better? At first, you might assume that based on this post that intrinsic motivation is better than extrinsic motivation, but this is a very simplistic observation. Which one is better depends on the situation and below is an explanation.

In general, it’s better to have an internal driver over an external one because the first is arguably more powerful and to some degree under your control. If a money prize is what motivates you to do your best work, all it takes to make you stop working is to remove the reward. If your desire to do your best work comes from within it’s much more difficult to remove/reduce your drive. But what happens if that “drive” doesn’t exist? What happens if you still need to get things done but you’re not necessarily passionate about the work? For these cases going for the most appealing of extrinsic motivation is probably your best bet.

When it comes to intrinsic vs extrinsic motivation, I prefer to think about each as a tool in my toolbox. Once in a while, only one will do the job, and that’s what I choose. If what you’re trying to do is life-defining, like choosing a carrier, or starting a business, relying on extrinsic motivation might not be the best idea, although it can still be very useful.


Motivation is a difficult subject. To claim to know how it works is an attempt to deceive oneself. There is still much more to be read, and my first recommendation is a psychology book. Really any psychology 101 textbook will do, at least to light and deep enough way to allow you to quickly understand the basics of psychology and human behavior, while not causing demotivation because the material is too difficult for your background knowledge.

Other recommendations are:

1.The rise of superman by Steven Kotler. This is a great book on how to get into flow states.

2.The power of when by Michael Breus.

3.The obstacle is the way by Ryan Holiday.

It is all about knowledge and experience 😉

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Motivation: https://www.lexico.com/definition/motivation

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maslow%27s_hierarchy_of_needs

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