What is the difference between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation?

When you feel motivated to do well at school, exercise, or work on a hobby…where does that motivation come from? There are different types of motivation, and understanding them can give us a lot of insight into our own behaviors and emotions, as well as those of patients. This article will explore the difference between extrinsic and intrinsic motivation.

What is the difference between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation?

Extrinsic motivation refers to a sense of motivation that is based on external factors, such as anticipating a reward or avoiding a punishment. Here are a few examples of extrinsic motivation:

  • Working hard at your job because it might lead to getting a raise. 
  • Practicing for music lessons because you don’t want the teacher to be upset with you.
  • Painting because you want to submit a piece to an art show and are excited for others to see your work.
  • Exercising because you want others to admire the way you look

Intrinsic motivation is more about the inherent satisfaction of doing something. It refers to motivation that is based on our own internal sense of accomplishment and happiness. For example, working on a painting just because you enjoy painting, or exercising because it feels good.

It’s very common to experience both intrinsic and extrinsic motivation surrounding one task. For example, an artist might paint because they love it, and also because they’re expecting to receive praise and compensation.

Why does it matter?

According to one study, having intrinsic motivation greatly increases your chances of accomplishing a long-term goal. Extrinsic motivation comes from outside of an individual, and of course, external factors are subject to change. Intrinsic factors, like passion for a hobby, are more self-sustaining.

There is nothing inherently wrong with extrinsic motivation. Most of us experience it all the time! Without it, we might be much less productive. The catch is that if we are only motivated by extrinsic factors, we may be more prone to disappointment and loss of motivation.

Let’s use the example of someone learning a new skill for only extrinsic purposes. A person is learning to play guitar because they want to post videos on social media of themselves playing songs, in order to impress their friends. If they find that the videos aren’t getting as many likes or comments as they anticipated, they might quickly lose interest in learning guitar, and simply give up. 

However, if they experienced intrinsic motivation surrounding the learning process, this would probably not be the case. A lack of acknowledgement on social media might be disappointing, but they would likely continue to learn how to play the guitar because they enjoy the process of learning and simply want to learn for themselves.

How this applies to patients

If patients aren’t experiencing intrinsic motivation to work on cognitive skills, they may progress more slowly or not retain the skills as well. Their emotions around therapy may be very different depending on their motivation as well. People with intrinsic motivation can usually approach their goal with a sense of enjoyment, while people with only extrinsic motivation may feel tense and pressured when working on their goal.

Can you build intrinsic motivation?

Keeping patients engaged is an important aspect of therapy. Helping clients to build their sense of intrinsic motivation is easier said than done, but will help keep them engaged. It’s worth it for the client’s long-term wellbeing.

Narratives can be a great motivator. If a patient can see their greater trajectory, it may help them feel more internally motivated. You can try encouraging a patient to imagine how it will feel to accomplish their goals, and how their recovery will fit into their overall sense of purpose. This could start to transform their mindset to become more intrinsically motivated.

Intrinsic motivation may also stem from a sense of relatedness and community. When you client shows interest in the tasks they’re doing, engage with them and encourage their line of thought.


Understanding what motivates us and others in our lives is valuable insight. From the clinician perspective, it can help to make sense of patient progress and attitudes towards their cognitive goals. Getting to know whether clients are intrinsically motivated, and encouraging their sense of motivation and purpose if not, can be helpful for effective therapy.

Aly Castle

Aly is HappyNeuron Pro’s Content Specialist. She is passionate about mental health and well-being and loves utilizing her design background to share important cognitive information clearly and understandably.

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