Intrinsic Motivation


SDT is a theory of motivation that champions the importance of considering not only the quantity or amount, but also the quality or types of motivation that characterize human and non-human animal behavior. When we say that a behavior is intrinsically motivated, we mean that the primary “reward” for doing that activity is the pleasurable feelings of interest or enjoyment that simultaneously accompany and are inextricably tied to doing that activity. In other words, the pleasure is intrinsic to the activity itself. By contrast, to the extent that behaviors are done for some consequence that could be considered separate from the activity, we call these behaviors extrinsically motivated

Following from these definitions, within SDT, intrinsic motivation is a relatively narrowly defined category, whereas extrinsic motivation is a much larger and differentiated category. This is based on the fact that consequences separable from activities can take many forms, both external and internal. External consequences include things like tangible and symbolic rewards and punishments, social approval and rejection. Internal consequences can include emotional states like pride and shame reflectively experienced upon completion, or reflective feelings of satisfaction from attainment of a valued outcome. It is important to be clear that not all internal motivation is intrinsic motivation. To the contrary, internalized extrinsic motivation is very common. It is also apparent that few activities or individuals can be neatly characterized by a single form of motivation. Motivation in most contexts is a mixture of intrinsic and different forms of extrinsic motivation, all experienced simultaneously.  

Colloquially, intrinsically motivated activities are commonly referred to as fun or playful activities, and are especially easy to observe in young children. In fact, SDT is one of many theories to posit that intrinsic motivation serves an adaptive function by energizing healthy development: physically, intellectually, and emotionally. That said, in their healthiest states, people of all ages are inquisitive, curious, playful, and active, perpetually seeking to explore and assimilate their inner and outer worlds. And while many non-human animals evidence intrinsically motivated behavior, cross-species comparisons reveal that human beings are especially so inclined. As Brown (2009, p. 58) observed: “Of all the animals, humans are the biggest players of all.” 

In Practice

Because intrinsic motivation is understood to be universally characteristic of health and well-being across all human cultures and stages of the life course, understanding the antecedents and consequences of supporting or undermining intrinsic motivation has practical implications in a very wide range of contexts and applied life domains. 

In particular, this includes educational contexts — formal and informal, from early childhood and throughout our lifespans. By understanding the factors that impact intrinsic motivation, school administrators, teachers, and parents can promote intrinsic motivation, and consequently better learning outcomes and well-being. Leisure contexts are another setting where understanding intrinsic motivation can have practical advantages for participants, designers, and organizers. This includes sedentary leisure, mentally stimulating activities (like jigsaw and word puzzles) and physical activities (like hiking or rock climbing). Other major life domains where SDT’s framework for understanding intrinsic motivation has been applied include: workplace motivation, sport and exercise, healthcare and psychotherapy, religious practice, and most recently, electronic or virtual worlds. 

Across all of these very different domains, several principles are consistently observed. The first of SDT’s six mini-theories, Cognitive Evaluation Theory(CET), is primarily concerned with outlining how events and features in the social environment impact undermining intrinsic motivation (Ryan, & Deci, 2017b). CET maintains that providing rewards, feedback, surveillance, competition, and many other external events will impact intrinsic motivation by virtue of satisfying or thwarting two psychological needs, autonomy and competence, and some but-not-all cases, a third need, relatedness. In general, external factors that support autonomy include providing meaningful options and rationale (Patall, Cooper, & Robinson, 2008). Factors that support competence include providing individually calibrated optimal challenges and informational or useful positive feedback (Fong et al., 2019). And factors that support relatedness include opportunities to give and receive warm regard, optimally in the context of stable ongoing relationships. Ultimately, however, whether an external event satisfies or thwarts any of these psychological needs is a matter of functional significance, a subjective experience colored by many factors, including a person’s unique temperament and history (Hagger & Chatzisarantis, 2011). 


  • Intrinsic motivation is always pleasurable in the moment of doing the activity
  • Be careful not to confuse internalized extrinsic motivation with intrinsic motivation, they’re different! 
  • Healthy human beings are playful by nature, as children and as adults
  • Intrinsic motivation can be reliably enhanced by supporting the satisfaction of psychological needs (and undermined by thwarting them)
  • Be playful! At work, in your relationships, in your free time. It’s good for you and those around you. 

Experiments on Intrinsic Motivation and Self-Regulation

Research Reports

Trenshaw, K. F., Revelo, R. A., Earl, K. A., & Herman, G. L. (2016). Using self determination theory principles to promote engineering students’ intrinsic motivation to learn. International Journal of Engineering Education, 32, 1194-1207.

Hagger, M. S., Koch, S., & Chatzisarantis, N. L. (2015). The effect of causality orientations and positive competence-enhancing feedback on intrinsic motivation: A test of additive and interactive effects. Personality and Individual Differences, 72, 107-111. doi: 10.1016/j.paid.2014.08.012

Amoura, C., Berjot, S., Gillet, N., Caruana, S., & Finez, L. (2015). Effects of autonomy-supportive and controlling styles on situational autonomous motivation: Some unexpected results of the commitment procedure. Psychological Reports, 116, 1-27. doi: 10.2466/14.pr0.116k10w7

Renaud-Dube, A., Talbot, D., Taylor, G., & Guay, F. (2015). The relations between implicit intelligence beliefs, autonomous academic motivation, and school persistence intentions: A mediation model. Social Psychology of Education: An International Journal, 18, 255-272. doi: 10.1007/s11218-014-9288-0

Monteiro, V., Mata, L.,, & Peixoto, F. (2015). Intrinsic motivation inventory: Psychometric properties in the context of first language and mathematics learning. Psicologia: Reflexão e Crítica, 28(3), 434-443. doi:

Haerens, L., Aelterman, N., Vansteenkiste, M., Soenens, B., & Van Petegem, S. (2015). Do perceived autonomy-supportive and controlling teaching relate to physical education students' motivational experience through unique pathways? Distinguishing between the bright and dark side of motivation. Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 16, 26-36. doi: 10.1016/j.psychsport.2014.08.013

Baldassarre, G., Stafford, T., Mirolli, M., Redgrave, P., Ryan, R. M., & Barto, A. (2014). Intrinsic motivations and open-ended development in animals, humans, and robots: an overview. Frontiers in psychology, 5, 985. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2014.00985

Radel. R., Pelletier, L. G., Sarrazin, P., & Baxter, D. (2014). The paradoxical effect of controlling context on interest in another activity. Learning and Instruction, 29, 95-102. doi:

Hagger, M. S., Rentzelas, P., & Chatzisarantis, N. L. (2014). Effects of individualist and collectivist group norms and choice on intrinsic motivation. Motivation and Emotion, 38, 215–223. doi: 10.1007/s11031-013-9373-2

Kusurkar, R. A., Ten Cate, T.J., Vos, C.M., Westers, P., & Croiset, G. (2013). How motivation affects academic performance: A structural equation modelling analysis. Advances in Health Sciences Education, 18, 57-69. doi: 10.1007/s10459-012-9354-3

Dysvik, A., Kuvaas, B., & Gagné, M. (2013). An investigation of the unique relations between basic psychological needs and intrinsic motivation. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 43, 1050-1064. doi: 10.1111/jasp.12068

Legault, L., & Inzlicht, M. (2013). Self-determination, self-regulation and the brain: Autonomy improves performance by enhancing neuroaffective responsiveness to self-regulation failure. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 105, 123-128. doi: 10.1037/a0030426

Savard, A.,, Joussemet, M., Pelletier, J.E., & Mageau, G. A. (2013). The benefits of autonomy support among teenagers in social rehabilitation. Motivation and Emotion, 37(4), 688-700. doi: 10.1007/s11031-013-9351-8

Austin, S., Guay, F., Senecal, C., Fernet, C., & Nouwen, A. (2013). Longitudinal testing of a dietary self-care motivational model in adolescents with diabetes. Journal of Psychosomatic Research, 75, 153-159. doi: 10.1016/j.jpsychores.2013.04.013

Radel, R., Sarrazin, P., Jehu, M., & Pelletier, L. G. (2013). Priming motivation through unattended speech. British Journal of Social Psychology, 52(4), 763-772. doi: 10.1111/bjso.12030

Lee, W., & Reeve, J. (2013). Self-determined, but not non-self-determined, motivation predicts activations in the anterior insular cortex an fMRI study of personal agency. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 8, 538-545. doi: 10.1093/scan/nss029

Di Domenico, S. I., Fournier, M. A., Ayaz, H., & Ruocco, A. C. (2013). In search of integrative processes: Basic psychological need satisfaction predicts medial prefrontal activation during decisional conflict. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 142(3), 967-978. doi: 10.1037/a0030257

Moller, A. C., Buscemi, Joanna, McFadden, H. Gene, Hedeker, Donald, & Spring, Bonnie (2013). Financial motivation undermines potential enjoyment in an intensive diet and activity intervention. Journal of Behavioral Medicine, 1-9. doi: 10.1007/s10865-013-9542-5

Kusurkar, R. A., Galindo-Garre, F, & Ten Cate, T.J. (2013). Motivational profiles of medical students: Association with study effort, academic performance and exhaustion. BMC Medical Education, 13, 87. doi: 10.1186/1472-6920-13-87

Kusurkar, R. A., Croiset, G., & Ten Cate, Th. J. (2013). Implications of gender differences in motivation among medical students. Medical Teacher, 35(2), 173-174. doi: 10.3109/0142159X.2012.737056

Lekes, N., Joussemet, M., Koestner, R., Taylor, G., Hope, N. H., & Gingras, I. (2011). Transmitting intrinsic values from mothers to adolescents: The moderating role of a supportive family environment. Child Development Research doi: doi:10.1155/2011/167146

, & Kuhbandner, C. (2011). Money enhances memory consolidation - But only for boring material. Cognition, 119, 120-124. doi: 10.1016/j.cognition.2011.01.001

DeVoe, S. E., & Pfeffer, J. (2010). The stingy hour: How accounting for time affects volunteering. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 36, 470-483.

Weinstein, N., & Ryan, R. M. (2010). When helping helps: Autonomous motivation for prosocial behavior and its influence on well-being for the helper and recipient. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 98, 222-244.

Haerens, L., Kirk, D., Cardon, G., De Bourdeauhuji, I., & Vansteenkiste, M. (2010). Motivational profiles for secondary school physical education and its relationship to the adoption of a physically active lifestyle among university students. European Physical Education Review, 16, 117-139. doi: 10.1177/1356336x10381304

Burstyn, Jonasi, L., & Wild, T. C. (2010). Obtaining compliance with occupational health and safety regulations: a multilevel study using self-determination theory. International Journal of Environmental Health Research, 20(4), 271-287. doi:

Radel, R., Sarrazin, P., Legrain, P., & Wild, T. C. (2010). Social contagion of motivation between teacher and student: Analyzing underlying processes. Journal of Educational Psychology, 102, 577-587.

Wiechman, B. M., & Gurland, S. T. (2009). What happens during the free-choice period? Evidence of a polarizing effect of extrinsic rewards on intrinsic motivation. Journal of Research in Personality, 43, 716-719.

van Prooijen, J. (2009). Procedural justice as autonomy regulation. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 96, 1166-1180.

Vansteenkiste, M., Timmermans, T., Lens, W., Soenens, B., & Van den Broeck, A. (2008). Does extrinsic goal framing enhance extrinsic goal oriented individuals’ learning and performance? An experimental test of the match-perspective vs. self-determination theory. Journal of Educational Psychology, 100, 387-397.

Katz, I., Assor, A., Kanat-Maymon, Y., & Bereby-Meyer, Y. (2006). Interest as a motivational resource: Feedback and gender matter, but interest makes the difference. Social Psychology of Education, 9, 27-42. doi: 10.1007/s11218-005-2863-7

Sharp, E. C., Pelletier, L. G., & Levesque, C. S. (2006). The double-edged sword of rewards for participation in psychology experiments. Canadian Journal of Behavioural Science, 38, 269-277.

Ryan, R. M., Rigby, C. S., & Przybylski, A. K. (2006). Motivational pull of video games: A self-determination theory approach. Motivation and Emotion, 30, 347-365.

Moller, A. C., Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (2006). Choice and ego-depletion: The moderating role of autonomy. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 32, 1024-1036.

Standage, M., Duda, J. L., & Pensgaard, A. M.  (2005). The effect of competitive outcome and task-involving, ego-involving, and cooperative structures on the psychological well-being of individuals engaged in a co-ordination task: A self-determination approach. Motivation and Emotion, 29, 41-68.

Isen, A., & Reeve, J. (2005). The influence of positive affect on intrinsic and extrinsic motivation: Facilitating enjoyment of play, responsible work behavior, and self-control. Motivation and Emotion, 29, 297-325.

Assor, A., Kaplan, H., Kanat-Maymon, Y., & Roth, G. (2005). Directly controlling teachers' behaviors as predictors of poor motivation and engagement in girls and boys: The role of anger and anxiety. Learning and Instruction, 15, 397-413.

Vereneau, M. H., Koestner, R., & Abela, J. (2004). Intrinsic need satisfaction and well being in children and adolescents: An application of self determination theory. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 24, 280-292.

Vansteenkiste, M., Simons, J., Lens, W., Sheldon, K. M., & Deci, E. L. (2004). Motivating learning, performance, and persistence: The synergistic role of intrinsic goals and autonomy-support. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 87, 246-260.

Joussemet, M., Koestner, R., Lekes, N., & Houlfort, N. (2004). Introducing uninteresting tasks to children: A comparison of the effects of rewards and autonomy support. Journal of Personality, 72, 140-166.

Vansteenkiste, M., & Deci, E. L. (2003). Competitively contingent rewards and intrinsic motivation: Can losers remain motivated?. Motivation and Emotion, 27, 273-299.

Levesque, C. S., & Pelletier, L. G. (2003). On the investigation of primed and chronic autonomous and heteronomous motivational orientations. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 29, 1570-1584.

Grolnick, W. S., Gurland, S. T., DeCourcey, W., & Jacob, K. (2002). Antecedents and consequences of mothers' autonomy support: An experimental investigation. Developmental Psychology, 38, 143-155.

Houlfort, N., Koestner, R., Joussemet, M., Nantel-Vivier, A., & Lekes, N. (2002). The impact of performance-contingent rewards on perceived autonomy and competence. Motivation and Emotion, 26, 279-295.

Reeve, J., Jang, H., Harde, P., & Omura, M. (2002). Providing a rationale in an autonomy-supportive way as a strategy to motivate others during an uninteresting activity. Motivation and Emotion, 26, 183-207.

Nix, G. A., Ryan, R. M., Manly, J. B., & Deci, E. L. (1999). Revitalization through self-regulation: The effects of autonomous and controlled motivation on happiness and vitality. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 35, 266-284.

Rawsthorne, L  J., & Elliot, A. J. (1999). Achievement goals and intrinsic motivation: A meta-analytic review. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 3, 326-344.

Joussemet, M., & Koestner, R. (1999). Effect of expected rewards on children’s creativity. Creativity Research Journal, 12, 231-239.

Deci, E. L., Koestner, R., & Ryan, R. M. (1999). The undermining effect is a reality after all: Extrinsic rewards, task interest, and self-determination. Psychological Bulletin, 125, 692-700.

Wild, T. C., Enzle, M. E., Nix, G., & Deci, E. L. (1997). Perceiving others as intrinsically or extrinsically motivated: Effects on expectancy formation and task engagement. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 23, 837-848.

Reeve, J., & Nix, G. (1997). Expressing intrinsic motivation through acts of exploration and facial displays of interest. Motivation and Emotion, 21, 237-250.

Reeve, J., & Deci, E. L. (1996). Elements within the competitive situation that affect intrinsic motivation. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 22, 24-33.

Enzle, M. E., Wright, E. F., & Redondo, I. M. (1996). Cross-task generalization of intrinsic motivation effect. Canadian Journal of Behavioural Science, 28, 19-26.

Pelletier, L. G., & Vallerand, R. J. (1996). Supervisors' beliefs and subordinates' intrinsic motivation: A behavioral confirmation analysis. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 71, 331-340.

Deci, E. L., Eghrari, H., Patrick, B. C., & Leone, D. (1994). Facilitating internalization: The self-determination theory perspective. Journal of Personality, 62, 119-142.

Enzle, M. E., & Anderson, S. C. (1993). Surveillant intentions and intrinsic motivation. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 64, 257-266.

Deci, E. L., Driver, R. E., Hotchkiss, L., Robbins, R. J., & Wilson, I. M. (1993). The relation of mothers' controlling vocalizations to children's intrinsic motivation. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 155, 151-162.

Wild, T. C., Enzle, M. E., & Hawkins, W. L. (1992). Effects of perceived extrinsic versus intrinsic teacher motivation on student reactions to skill acquisition. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 18, 245-251.

Ryan, R. M., Koestner, R., & Deci, E. L. (1991). Ego-involved persistence: When free-choice behavior is not intrinsically motivated. Motivation and Emotion, 15, 185-205.

Koestner, R., Zuckerman, M., & Koestner, J. (1989). Attributional focus of praise and children's intrinsic motivation: The moderating role of gender. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 15, 61-72.

Koestner, R., Zuckerman, M., & Koestner, J. (1987). Praise, involvement and intrinsic motivation. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 53, 383-390.

Plant, R. W., & Ryan, R. M. (1985). Intrinsic motivation and the effects of self-consciousness, self-awareness, and ego-involvement: An investigation of internally-controlling styles. Journal of Personality, 53, 435-449.

Koestner, R., Ryan, R. M., Bernieri, F., & Holt, K (1984). Setting limits on children's behavior: The differential effects of controlling versus informational styles on children's intrinsic motivation and creativity. Journal of Personality, 54, 233-248.

Vallerand, R. J., & Reid, G. (1984). On the causal effects of perceived competence on intrinsic motivation: A test of cognitive evaluation theory. Journal of Sport Psychology, 6, 94-102.

Ryan, R. M., Mims, V., & Koestner, R. (1983). Relation of reward contingency and interpersonal context to intrinsic motivation: A review and test using Cognitive Evaluation Theory. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 45, 736-750.

Ryan, R. M. (1982). Control and information in the intrapersonal sphere: An extension of Cognitive Evaluation Theory. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 43, 450-461.

Deci, E. L., Betley, G., Kahle, J., Abrams, L., & Porac, J. (1981). When trying to win: Competition and intrinsic motivation. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 7, 79-83.

Zuckerman, M., Porac, J. F., Lathin, D., Smith, R., & Deci, E. L. (1978). On the importance of self-determination for intrinsically motivated behavior. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 4, 443-446.

Deci, E. L., Cascio, W. F., & Krusell, J. (1975). Cognitive evaluation theory and some comments on the Calder and Staw critique. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 31, 81-85.

Deci, E. L. (1972). The effects of contingent and non-contingent rewards and controls on intrinsic motivation. Organizational Behavior and Human Performance, 8, 217-229.

Deci, E. L. (1972). Intrinsic motivation, extrinsic reinforcement, and inequity. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 22, 113-120.

Chapters, Overviews, and Commentaries

Teixeira, P. J. (2016). Health behavior change: a field just picking up speed. A comment on Ogden (2016). Health Psychology Review, 1-5. doi: 10.1080/17437199.2016.1183507

Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2013). Toward a social psychology of assimilation: Self-determination theory in cognitive development and education. In B. W. Sokol, F. M. E. Grouzet, U. Muller (Eds.), Self-regulation and autonomy: Social and developmental dimensions of human conduct (pp. 191-207). Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press. doi: 10.1017/cbo9781139152198.014

Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (1989). Bridging the research traditions of task/ego involvement and intrinsic/extrinsic motivation: A commentary on Butler (1987). Journal of Educational Psychology, 81, 265-268.