Intrinsic Motivation: It’s Fundamentals


“Invisible doesn’t mean unimportant.” Seth Godin

Quotes on Intrinsic Motivation

“Kites rise against, not with the wind. No man has ever worked his passage anywhere in a dead calm.” — John Neal; Source: The Forbes Book of Business Quotations

“Tis easy enough to be pleasant, when life flows like a song. But the man worthwhile is the one who will smile when everything goes dead wrong.” — Ella Wheeler Wilcox; Source: Treasury of Women’s Quotations

“The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.” — Martin Luther King, Jr.; Source:The Book of Positive Quotations

“A smooth sea never made a skilled mariner.” — 
English proverb; Source: The Forbes Book of Business Quotations

“A backwoods farmer, sitting on the steps of his tumbledown shack, was approached by a stranger who stopped for a drink of water. “How’s your wheat coming along?” asked the stranger. “Didn’t plant none.” “Really? I thought this was good wheat country.” “Afraid it wouldn’t rain.” “Oh. Well, how’s your corn crop?” “Ain’t got none,” said the farmer. “Didn’t you plant any corn, either?” “Nope. Afraid of corn blight.” “For heaven’s sake,” said the stranger. “What did you plant?” “Nothin’,” said the farmer. “I just played it safe.” —The Best of Bits & Pieces, The Economics Press, Fairfield, NJ

Definition of Intrinsic Motivation

A Hungarian television set from 1959. Image by Takkk
A Hungarian television set from 1959. Image by Takkk

We understand extrinsic motivation much more than intrinsic motivation. Intrinsic motivation address the forces that exist within the black box of the mind. It’s like try to describe the insides of the television by looking at the screen.

Intrinsic Motivation Source 1: The Ego

Essentially, intrinsic motivation means that we are driven from the inside. There are three major drivers of this. The first is Ego. One may be driven due to In English, the language is driven by the word self—self-motivated, self-achiever, self-driven and so on.

In English, there descriptions of the Ego are typically preceded by the word self. This image lists twenty-six, but there really are hundreds of these types of words such as: self-motivated, self-achiever, self-driven and so on.


And nowhere does this get more heated, than the issue of pay. Do people primarily work because they are getting paid or do to intrinsic factors such as recognition or challenge? The simple answer might be that some don’t care that much about money and others care a great deal about it.

Another variable is hard work. Some people believe in the relationship between hard work and success. But not all.

Should You be a Slacker? There is always tension between the employee and the employer. The employer expects you to work 60 hours and pays you for 40; while you might prefer a job where you get paid for 40 but work 20. So how do you get ahead with minimal effort? Check out these must know dodgy techniques from the Economist.

Intrinsic Motivation Source 2: The Unconscious

Painting by: Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1836–1912): Unconscious Rivals
Painting by: Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1836–1912): Unconscious Rivals

What most people don’t realize is that the unconscious has motivational force. It influences your behavior without you knowing that you have been influenced. Many psychologists believe that most behaviors actually run automatically, without conscious awareness.

After all, where did that impulse to have another piece of pie come from? What stopped you from doing what you know you must do. Procrastinating again? What caused that? Most would say, “ I don’t know.” Indeed the Ego does not know but it should know. Worrying huh.

Of course, unconscious motivation can work in our favor as well. And that what makes it sooo interesting. You can set up motivational tendencies to do positive things as well. Essentially, that is what a hypnotist do, they plant a suggestion into the unconscious, one that has motivational force. After all, where did that love of learning come from? The drive to shop until you drop. The need to do you personal best?

View An Overview of Unconscious Motivation on a  Slide Desk

Actually, this overview overview on unconscious motivation tends to be a bit Freudian, though, so be prepared. This is appropriate sense Freud was the person who “discovered” the unconscious.

Intrinsic Source 3: Willpower

Some behaviors are driven primarily because the person who will just succeed, it seems that willpower is associated with the ego  and just closely related to the idea of overcoming problems, adversity and showing perseverance or resilience in the face of adversity. This related to your ability to overcome your own doubts and is related to the old saying, “when the going gets tough, the tough get going. “

Arnold Schwarzenegger when he was Governor of California

Someone who exemplifies the idea of use of Will would be the former governor of California Arnold Schwarzenegger. Not only was he a well thought of politician, but he also has made quite a lot of money with the movies he started. However, prior to the movies he was a bodybuilder. Every day he had to spend many hours lifting weights most likely hundreds of hours ultimately, this dedication resulting in him winning the Mr. Universe title at the age of 20. (Wikipedia, ND)

Ego Depletion. It is often true, that we don’t have as much will power as we might wish. In other words, we lack self-control. The term in play in psychology is Ego depletion. In effect, you don’t have enough. It’s like you are in a can’t resist that impulse, the urge even though you know you shouldn’t.

Let’s assume that you feel hungry. This is a big assumption in most of the developed world given the fact that you are socialized into eating three or four big meals a day whether you are hungry of not. But let’s assume that a feeling of being hungry come up. You could eat that snack sitting on the counter but you are also carrying a bit to much weight. How many of us can resist? The fact that you cannot is partly explained by the concept of Ego depletion, where you cannot marshall the motivation force to resist an impulse

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Cognitive Motivational Theories Worth Knowing

“Measure wealth not by the things you have, but by the things you have for which you would not need money.” — Murray Johannsen


In stark contrast to the behavioral school of thought, there are many motivational theories within cognitive psychology. These theories take into account factors such as:
    • Needs,
    • Beliefs,
    • Scripts,
    • Schemas,
    • Volition,
    • Attitudes,
    • Values etc.
However, when it comes to building motivational skills, there are three worth knowing something about: needs for achievement,  equity theory, and expectancy theory. 

Theory 1: Need For Power, Affiliation, and Achievement

McClelland (1961) felt that certain needs are not preprogrammed into the body via the genes, but learned from the environment. We learn to affiliate (or not affiliate), how to exercise power, and how to be achievement oriented. This means we can teach need for achievement, something associated with success in various fields of endeavor. It’s believed, for example, that it is one of the primary motive forces driving entrepreneurs to start a business.

2. Equity Theory

Adam’s (1963) lays the groundwork to understand why people perceive something as fair or unfair. This is a most serious issue for leaders and managers, not to appear to have favorites and to treat people in such a way that they believe they are treated fairly.

3. Expectancy Theory

Proposed by Vroom (1964) this approach focuses on the beliefs that influence effort, outcomes, and performance. For example, when if one believes that one’s efforts result in a certain level of performance associated with a desired reward, one likely take action. Of course, the exact opposite is also true. A low correlation between effort, performance and reward breeds inaction.


Clicking on this image will take you to the learning site that is called LegaceePrime.
Clicking on this image will take you to the learning site that is called LegaceePrime.


Adams, John S. (1963). Toward an understanding of inequity. Journal of Abnormal and, Social Psychology67(5), 422-436.

Bandura, A. (1977) Social Learning Theory. New Jersey: Prentice Hall.

Degaura, Josephine (2001). David McClelland: Three Needs Theory.

Franken, Robert (2007). Human Motivation, 6th Edition., Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Cengage Learning.

McClelland, D.C. (1961). The Achieving Society. New York: D. Van Nostrand Company, Inc.

Murray, H. A. (1938). Explorations in personality. New York: Oxford University Press

McNerney, Same (2012). Ego Depletion, Motivation and Attention: A New Model of Self-Control, September 12.

Redmond, Brian (2013). Equity Theory Overview. Wikispace Penn State University.

Schmidt, Charles (N.D.). Motivation: Expectancy Theory. Labor Research Center, University of Rhode Island.

 Vroom, V. (1964). Work and motivation. New York, NY: Wiley.

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