Self-determination theory- Intrinsic motivation

Human beings as a species have accomplished a lot, we have shaped our environment to suit our needs and continually seek to further improve our lives. A critical aspect of human nature is portrayed by our desire to maximise our individual potential. Conceptualised by Deci and Ryan (1985), the self-determination theory is a predominant concept in the field of human motivation; it explores the specific conditions that fosters positive human potential. Within the theory, motivation is separated into two distinct categories, namely intrinsic motivation and extrinsic motivation. Here we focus on intrinsic motivation and the factors that influence levels of intrinsic motivation.

Intrinsic motivation is described as completing an activity for the inherent satisfaction of the activity itself. Deci and Ryan viewed intrinsic motivation as an innate tendency that compels us to seek out challenges and novelty in our daily lives, enabling us to exercise and strengthen out individual capacities (Csikszentmihalyi & Rathunde, 1993).

According to the self-determination theory, one factor that influences an individual’s level of intrinsic motivation is the perception of competence towards a task. Receiving positive feedback, which encourages feelings of competence, was found to heighten intrinsic motivation. Therefore, one method of encouraging intrinsic motivation, is to set tasks at a level suitable for the individual so that they are challenging but not overwhelming (Deci, 1975).

Another factor that affects levels of intrinsic motivation is that of autonomy. Humans experience a heightened level of intrinsic motivation when there is an internal perceived locus of causality (high autonomy), that is, they experience their behaviour as self-determined and self-directed. When an individual perceives their behaviour as stemming from personal choice, they cherish the behaviour and its consequences (DeCharms, 1968). Building upon the concept of autonomy influencing intrinsic motivation, it has been proposed that external sources of motivation undermine intrinsic motivation. Tangible rewards, such as monetary gain, facilitate an external perceived locus of causality (low autonomy). Awareness that one is completing a task in order to gain a reward diminishes intrinsic motivation because behaviour is no longer perceived as self-directed (Ryan & Deci, 2000). Therefore, perhaps counter intuitively, the anticipation of tangible rewards decreases intrinsic motivation for a task.

In comparing the effects of perception of competence and autonomy on levels of intrinsic motivation, autonomy is the more influential factor of the two. This is because an individual’s perception of competence cannot enhance their intrinsic motivation unless accompanied with a sense of autonomy (Patall, Cooper, & Robinson, 2008). This gives us an insight into the importance that the perception of autonomy has in human motivation.

A simple yet effective means of encouraging the perception of autonomy involves the provision of choices. When an activity involves personal choice or provides the opportunity to make choices, there is an increased sense of personal control. Individual see that their personal decisions have an impact on the outcome of the task at hand. This has been found to enhance interest and increase motivation to persist at the task (Cordova & Lepper, 1996). Research by Becker (1997) revealed positive effects of providing choices on task performance, effort as well as subsequent learning from the task. Further research found that the participants performed best when they were allowed to make a choice from a range of possible tasks, rather than having the decision made for them (Iyengar & Lepper, 2000). On a practical level, such research suggests that students and employees would work more effectively and efficiently if provided with varying means of accomplishing a task.

As mentioned earlier, the self-determination theory encompasses both intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. Extrinsic motivation involves engaging in an activity in order to obtain some form of external reinforcement. In comparing these two forms of motivation, we can likely infer from personal experience that intrinsically motivated behaviour generates better task results. When motivation is self-directed as compared to externally controlled, individuals have greater interest and confidence in the task, manifesting in enhanced persistence, performance and creativity (Sheldon, Ryan, Rawsthorne, & Ilardi, 1997). Unfortunately, in society today, the freedom to be intrinsically motivated is steadily curtailed as one ages. This is due to increasing social pressures to assume new responsibilities (Malhotra, Galletta & Kirsch, 2008). As such while intrinsic motivation generally results in enhanced task performance we cannot neglect extrinsic motivation.


Becker, D. A. (1997). The effects of choice on auditors’ intrinsic motivation and performance. Behavioural Research in Accounting, 9, 1-19.

Cordova, D., & Lepper, M. (1996). Intrinsic motivation and the process of learning. Journal of Educational Psychology, 88, 715-730.

Csikszentmihalyi, M., & Rathunde, K. (1993). Developmental perspectives on motivation. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.

DeCharms, R. (1968). Personal causation. New York: Academic Press.

Deci, E. L. (1975). Intrinsic motivation. New York: Plenum.

Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (1985). Intrinsic motivation and self-determination in human behaviour. New York: Plenum.

Iyengar, S. S., & Lepper, M. R. (2000). When choice is demotivating: Can one desire too much of a good thing? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 79, 995-1006.

Kirsch, L. J., Galletta, D. F., & Malhotra, Y. (2008). How endogenous motivations influence user interntions: Beyond the dichotomy of extrinsic and intrinsic user motivations. Journal of Management Information Systems, 25(1), 267-300.

Patall, E. A., Cooper, H., & Robinson, J. C. (2008). The effects of choice on intrinsic motivation and related meta-analysis of research findings. Psychology Bulletin, 134(2), 270-300.

Ryan, R., & Deci, E. L. (2000). Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development and well-being. American Psychologist, 55(1), 68-78.

Sheldon, K. M., Ryan, R. M., Rawsthorne, L., & Ilardi, B.  (1997). Trait self and true self: Cross-role variation in the big five traits and its relations with authenticity and subjective well-being. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 73, 1380-1393.



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2 responses to “Self-determination theory- Intrinsic motivation

  1. Pingback: Intrinsic Motivation and Transformational Leadership | Old Dog - New Tricks

  2. Ceri

    Intrinsic motivation is often seen as the most important of the two main focuses – intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. Triggered from the inside, individuals with high intrinsic motivation usually succeed more than those who are extrinsically motivated. Individuals who are intrinsically motivated complete a task because of the enjoyment and pleasure; whilst individuals who are extrinsically motivated do it for the rewards afterwards, or because of other people’s influences. Deci and Ryan (2000) defined intrinsic motivation as proactive and engaged, and extrinsic motivation as passive and alienated.
    Sportsmen and women are often examined to see whether they are influenced by intrinsic or extrinsic motivation. Many would admit that they are extrinsically motivated, and aim for the reward at the end, but they will also try to perceive that the main aspect of their career is the enjoyment and pleasure of fulfilling their dreams. Individuals who compete and are intrinsically motivated will often perform better because they are motivated to do it based on satisfaction etc.
    Deci (1971) conceptualised a theory that looked into how people were motivated and how external rewards were given; there was a control and experimental group; the experimental group were given money as a reward where the control group were given no money. Deci found that when money was the reward, intrinsic motivation decreased. Contrary to this, when verbal reinforcement and positive feedback was given to the participants, the intrinsic motivation increased.
    Deci, E.L., (1971) Effects of externally mediated rewards on intrinsic motivation. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 18(1), 105-115.
    Ryan, R.M. & Deci, E.L., (2000) Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development, and well-being. American Psychologist, 55(1), 68-78.

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