Five studies highlighting the power of intrinsic motivation

While there are debates over how many types of motivation exist, there are two forms that are pretty much universally accepted: extrinsic and intrinsic motivation.

Intrinsic motivation comes from inside you; it’s when you’re motivated to do something because it’s internally rewarding. In other words, it’s giving you a positive emotional return, perhaps because it’s fun or because it’s something you take pride in. It gives you a sense of personal satisfaction. When you’re extrinsically motivated to do something, however, it’s because you’re doing it to achieve an external reward or gain. That could be money or power. It could be approval from someone or achieving a grade. It could be to obtain more followers or likes on a social media post. Or it could be because you’re trying to avoid a negative consequence – like losing your job.

Research confirms that intrinsic motivation is the one that generally leads to the most positive outcomes. You might have heard of Self Determination Theory (Deci and Ryan) which looks at the interaction between extrinsic forces and intrinsic motives and needs. With intrinsic motivation, you’re driven from within, and as such you’re meeting some fundamental psychological needs like autonomy and competence or feeling related to others. Essentially, it’s doing the activity for ‘all the right reasons’. You’re pursuing the goal because it’s connected to something you value, or has real purpose for you. It’s about inspiration rather than obligation.

Once we start to understand the implications of intrinsic motivation, it becomes clear that it’s important to develop a culture and way of working that fosters and maintains it in employees. Here are 5 studies (plus a few extra bits of research we like!) that help to really illustrate the power of intrinsic motivation…

Intrinsic motivation leads to greater persistence

Prosocial motivation is essentially being motivated by a desire to protect or promote other people’s wellbeing without seeking to gain any personal benefits. When intrinsic motivation is high, does it have any impact on prosocial motivation and persistence as a result?

This study suggests it does, by acting to strengthen the relationship between the two. In the research, firefighters who reported high levels of both prosocial and intrinsic motivation then went on to demonstrate greater persistence by subsequently working considerably more overtime hours per week over a two month period. The desire to help others had resulted in increased effort and increased levels of persistence.

Intrinsic motivation enhances engagement

This 2012 study from Cho and Perry showed that intrinsic motives have three times the impact on employee engagement levels compared to extrinsic motives. The research found that intrinsic motivation was positively associated with employee satisfaction and, unsurprisingly, was negatively associated with the intention to leave. When there were higher levels of managerial trustworthiness and goal direction, that link grew even stronger.

This connection’s been backed up in other research; for example, research by Kuvaas & Dysvik (2009) found that intrinsically motivated employees were more likely to be highly engaged and more involved in their work, as well as display a greater readiness to step up and take responsibility.

Intrinsically motivated learning is more effective

Did you know it’s been shown that the use of rewards in the classroom can actually negatively affect both the rate and how effectively students learn? That was one of the findings in this research from Grand Valley State University, which identified that these kinds of external motivators can actually slow learning down and lead to students making more errors during the learning process. What really matters is the level of intrinsic motivation and how much the student wants to learn. If the student’s learning because it’s fulfilling them and it’s enjoyable, rather than because they’re fixated on getting high grades or pleasing someone, then it actually improves the whole learning experience.

Inevitably there’s debate over the extent of the effect. Extrinsic motivation does appear to be better than no motivation at all but if that is what’s predominantly driving the learning behavior, it’s not going have anything like the positive impact that could be attained through intrinsic motivation. The balance of evidence does seem to confirm that the most powerful kind of learning happens when someone’s intrinsically motivated to do it, rather than when they’ve been told to do it then rewarded in some way.

Employees perform better when they’re intrinsically rewarded

Intuitively it makes sense that if we enjoy something, and there’s an internal drive to do it, we’re likely to make a better job of it. Research backs that up. This research presented at the 3rd International Conference on Management and Economics looked at intrinsic rewards – in other words, the sense of accomplishment and satisfaction someone gets from successfully completing a piece of work. It showed that employee performance and motivation are directly influenced by such rewards, encouraging people to work harder to achieve and benefit from those feelings. As this research from the European Journal of Business and Management indicates, it appears that intrinsic motivation is a better predictor of long term job performance than extrinsic motivation too.

Intrinsically motivated employees are more likely to stay

Research by management consulting firm McKinsey revealed that when employees are intrinsically motivated, they show 46% higher levels of job satisfaction and 32% greater levels of commitment to their jobs. At the same time, they’re a lot less likely to experience job-related burnout – which all means that employees are a lot more likely to want to stick around with their employer.

Read more: Why managers need to understand contagious emotions

University of Waikato researchers O’Driscoll and Randall found a similar relationship, noting that intrinsic rather than extrinsic rewards have a far greater impact on retention.