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The Definition Of Intrinsic Motivation

by TeachThought Staff

A decent working definition of intrinsic motivation is “motivation that stems directly from an action rather than a reward.”

Teachers often think of the idea of motivation in terms of student engagement but as Dr. Richard Ryan and Edward Deci explain below, it’s a little more nuanced than that. From more their book, “Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivations: Classic Definitions & New Directions”:

Intrinsic motivation is defined as the doing of an activity for its inherent satisfaction rather than for some separable consequence.

When intrinsically motivated, a person is moved to act for the fun or challenge entailed rather than because of external products, pressures, or rewards….In Self-Determination Theory, we distinguish between different types of motivation based on the different reason or goals that give rise to an action. The most basic distinction is between intrinsic motivation, which refers to doing something because it is inherently interesting or enjoyable, and extrinsic motivation, which refers to doing something because it leads to a separable outcome. Extrinsic motivation thus contrasts with intrinsic motivation, which refers to doing an activity simply for the enjoyment of the activity itself, rather than its instrumental value.”

Put another way, if a student studies for a test to make a qualifying grade to play for the basketball team, that would be an example of extrinsic motivation. Another example? Studying to ‘get good grades.’ And as you probably know by now, its polar opposite, intrinsic motivation, is the more powerful of the two, though not necessarily more common.

In the following video, Daniel Pink explores the incredible impact of intrinsic motivation on performance, innovation, and the way we learn. While he frames the idea around ‘business,’ he is clearly discussing learning and performance, which is ground zero for educators.

*previously published at


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