Passion – Understanding Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivation

There is a lot of discussion about motivational theories among the business community. Most all of these theories and discussions revolve around how to motivate your employees to work harder and reach the goals set by the company. I have studied these theories at length and find most of them manipulative and frustrating as they all center on what is best for the company, but not what is best for the person. However, one discussion around motivational theory has challenged me more than any other in seeking to find my own motivation and passion in life and work. I would like to challenge you in the same way to ensure that you continue to challenge and stimulate yourself in your business to remain motivated and lead a passionate life.

The motivational theory that has challenged me in this way is that of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. I will start by defining both of these terms:

Intrinsic Motivation: Stimulation that drives an individual to adopt or change a behavior for his or her own internal satisfaction or fulfillment. Intrinsic motivation is usually self-applied, and springs from a direct relationship between the individual and the situation. (Source:

Extrinsic Motivation: Drive to action that (as opposed to intrinsic motivation) springs from outside influences instead of from one’s own feelings. (Source:

Intrinsic motivation is an internal drive and passion that leads you into an activity or work for the shear joy and pleasure of doing it. For many, this is found in the arts, sports, writing, reading, and painting. Intrinsic motivation is bringing a bunch of kids into a room filled with paper, markers, paint, stickers, and crayons and letting them do whatever they want to do. How many kids do you think would sit down and whine about being overworked and complain about how hard it is to draw? As my two daughters Eva and Norah and will attest to, the only thing that will get them to stop creating is when we force them to stop for lunch or if one of them takes the other’s paper. Even so, Eva will bring paper and markers to the table with lunch and is working on leaving me no space on my wall in my office for all the pictures I put up there. I think you get the idea about intrinsic motivation.

Now let’s discuss extrinsic motivation. My favorite study on this motivational theory was with the same situation with the kids and art supplies above with 3 conditions of no reward, expected reward, and unexpected reward. The first control group with no reward was not told anything and was free to go about doing whatever they felt like doing in the room. In the second control group with expected reward, children were shown an extrinsic reward or an attractive Good Player Certificate featuring the child’s name and a big blue ribbon-and asked if they wanted to draw in order to win the reward. The final control group with an unexpected reward asked children if they wanted to draw, and afterward they unexpectedly received the Good Player Certificate after drawing. The following discusses the results of this test (from Reeve, J. (2001). Understanding Motivation and Emotion, 3e. Pages 101-103):

One week later, the experimenters provided the children with another opportunity to draw at their choice. During this week, children who initially drew in order to win the certificate (expected reward group) spent significantly less time drawing than did children in the other two groups. In effect, children in the expected reward group lost their intrinsic interest in drawing. The no reward and unexpected reward groups showed no such interest decline. The interest maintenance of the unexpected reward group is important because it shows that the extrinsic motivational orientation (rather than the reward per se) was the causal agent that decreased the children’s interest in drawing. It was not the reward that undermined interest, but rather, it was the “in order to” contingency between “what you do” and “what you get” that undermined self-determination and shifted perceived locus of causality from internal to external. Expected rewards undermine intrinsic motivation, while unexpected rewards do not. Rewards that one can see, touch, feel, and taste generally decrease intrinsic motivation, whereas verbal, symbolic, or abstract rewards do not.

Expected, tangible rewards also put more at risk than just intrinsic motivation (Condry, 1977, 1987; Deci & Ryan, 1987; Kohn, 1993). Extrinsic reinforcers not only decrease intrinsic motivation, they also interfere with both the process and quality of learning. During information processing, extrinsic rewards distract attention away from learning and toward its product (i.e., toward getting the reward). Rewards shift the learner’s goals away from attaining mastery in favor of attaining extrinsic gain. Compared to those who are intrinsically motivated, extrinsically motivated individuals choose to engage in easy tasks because these tasks maximize the probability of a quick reward (Harter, 1978b; Pittman, Boggiano, & Ruble, 1983; Shapira, 1976). Extrinsically motivated learners are also more prone to a negative emotional tone (e.g., frustration; Garbarino, 1975) and less prone to positive emotion (e.g., enjoyment; Harter, 1978b; Ryan & Connell, 1989; Skinner & Belmont, 1993). Further, extrinsically motivated learners are relatively passive information processors (Benware & Deci, 1984).

Rewards interfere with the quality of learning by narrowing one’s attention on focusing on rote factual information at the expense of conceptual understanding (Benware & Deci, 1984; Boggiano et al., 1993; Flink, Boggiano, & Barrett, 1990). Rewards further put at risk a learner’s flexibility in her way of thinking and problem solving (as she tries to produce a right answer quickly rather than discover an optimal solution; McGraw & McCullers, 1979). Rewards also undermine creativity (Amabile, 1985; Amabile, Hennessey, & Grossman, 1986), as people are more creative when they draw and write out of interest than when they draw and write for rewards. And when rewards are involved, learners typically quit as soon as some reward criterion is attained (e.g., reading only the 100 pages required for the test). When rewards are not involved, learners generally persist until curiosity is satisfied, interest is exhausted, or mastery is attained (Condry, 1977; Condry & Chambers, 1978). Thus, not only is intrinsic motivation potentially at risk with the use of expected and tangible rewards, but the learning processes (e.g., attention, preference for challenge, emotional tone, active information processing, cognitive flexibility, and creativity) and the learning quality (e.g., conceptual understanding) are also at risk.

A final point is that rewards interfere with the development of self-regulation (Lepper, 1983; Ryan, 1993). When the social environment tells people what to do and also provides expected and tangible rewards for taking that action, people have little difficulty regulating their behavior in rewarding ways. But schools, families, places of work, and other settings often value self-regulation (i.e., initiative, autonomy, intrinsic motivation). Learning to depend on rewards can forestall the development of self-regulatory abilities.

So that was a bit of a detailed review, but I wanted to share a full picture of this case study and the incredible implications it has for maintaining your passion in your business. The point I would like to emphasis concerning intrinsic motivation for you in your business is: “when rewards are not involved, learners generally persist until curiosity is satisfied, interest is exhausted, or mastery is attained.” It is at this point that your passion (intrinsic and internal drive to create, explore, and achieve) and business success meet – when you are internally motivated and creating beyond the influence of external rewards.

What does this lead to? This leads to endless creativity, high quality, contagious passion, and enjoyment and pleasure in the work you are doing. The goal for my work in my business and my goal for you in your business is to develop systems and processes that encourage spontaneous creativity and hard work by providing “unexpected rewards.” These rewards are a very real but indirect result of you living out your passion and purpose in the form or a business.

So if you think that you have lost your intrinsic enjoyment in what you do, seek to define when, where, and how you lost that joy. I believe you will find that it was due to a transition from intrinsic to extrinsic motivation where money and rewards became the focus for what you did instead of the simple joy of the activity itself. If you want to do what you love and earn a living doing so, you need first focus on how you are going to keep the main thing the main thing. If not, a small business can turn into the same trap as that “dream job” that turned into a nightmare.

Keep Reaching!


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