Intrinsic Motivation: Why It Matters (and 3 ways to increase it)

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There are many things that motivate us, that drive us to act. When there's an opportunity to explore, to learn, to actualize our potential - or when we pursue an activity for the pure enjoyment of it - we are doing so because we are intrinsically motivated.

Intrinsic motivation involves cognitive absorption and non-self-conscious enjoyment of an activity, which is also a path to flow.

Intrinsically motivated states appear to recruit the central executive network (crucial to working memory and cognitive control of thought, emotion and behavior) as well as suppress default mode network activity (involved in self-focused activity, ruminating, mind wandering, or self-reflection).

Dopamine is a key substrate of intrinsic motivation. Dopamine drives curiosity, interest and the desire for information, as well as the search for higher meaning.1

Intrinsic motivation is innate. We are born with it. As children we are inherently self-directed and curious as we explore and navigate our world.

However, modern society reinforces extrinsic rewards. For example, good grades earns college or university admission, and work promotions bring salary increases.

The problem is, with the exception of performing mundane tasks, extrinsic rewards can undermine our intrinsic motivation, thereby decreasing performance and creativity.2 It has even been shown to suppress the desire to pursue the activities we enjoy.3

So, how do we increase intrinsic motivation, and reduce the undermining effect of extrinsic rewards?

1. Find ways of doing our work, our way. The more autonomy we have, the more likely we will be to engage in the activity.

2. Set mastery goals. Mastery goals - goals based around learning, gaining skills, or improving in a particular area - are intrinsically motivating.

3. Do meaningful work. Doing work that is meaningful to us, that is, work that is based on our values (the things most important to us at the deepest level), is perhaps the biggest leverage we have for increasing our motivation.

1.Di Domenico, Stefano & Ryan, Richard. (2017). The Emerging Neuroscience of Intrinsic Motivation: A New Frontier in Self-Determination Research. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience. 11. 10.3389/fnhum.2017.00145.
2. Deci, Edward & Koestner, Richard & Ryan, Richard. (2001). Extrinsic Rewards and Intrinsic Motivation in Education: Reconsidered Once Again. Review of Educational Research - REV EDUC RES. 71. 1-27. 10.3102/00346543071001001
3. Lepper, Mark & Others, And. (1973). Undermining Children's Intrinsic Interest with Extrinsic Reward: A Test of the "Overjustification" Hypothesis. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 28. 10.1037/h0035519

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