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The Psychology of Intrinsic Motivation

As I mentioned briefly in my blog on the subject of Educational Psychology, motivation is something I have studied extensively. What makes humans do what they do, and why? Though my studies have revolved around motivation in education, these motivational theories can be applied to any human behavior.

There are two main types of motivation: extrinsic and intrinsic. Extrinsic motivation is an outside force that creates incentive to do something. Easy real life example: getting paid to do your job! Intrinsic motivation is an internal dynamic that encourages action. For example: I enjoy helping students learn. I feel good when someone learns something new, opens their mind a little, or has an “ah-ha” moment (this happens a lot with statistics courses). These reasons and more are why I have worked in mental health and academia. You probably experience both of these motivational aspects as well. That’s good; people are more productive and successful when they have both types of motivation working with them.

Both intrinsic and extrinsic motivations have multiple theories about them. Let’s talk about ‘em.

Humanistic Theory of Motivation

The Humanistic theory of motivation is based on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Basically, humans strive, and are motivated, to reach certain needs based on where they are in the hierarchy. The first need is food, water, and shelter; basic needs for all humans. We are first are foremost, innately motivated to receive these needs. For example, a homeless individual may not be directly motivated to go on job interviews one day because their first concern is what they will eat for dinner. According to this theory, that motivation is totally inherent.

The second level is security. As humans, we are motivated to feel safe. Sometimes this motivation can be manipulated (i.e.: think of someone in an abusive relationship), but the theory goes, if we do not feel safe, we will not accomplish the next three levels.

Maslow’s third hierarchy level states that human’s need support to order to achieve. Here is where we are motivated to have strong relationships. We choose friends who support us in our challenges and celebrate our accomplishments.

At the fourth level, comes actual achievement and confidence. As we can see by Maslow’s hierarchy of needs: achievement can only come after support. This is why communication is so critical in our lives.

Level five is called self-actualization. This is where we reach our fullest potential with all of the motivation discussed above, backing us up. There is where we get to be creative, enjoy our work and activities, and find purpose in our lives.


Albert Bandura coined the phrase “self-efficacy” as how we believe in our own abilities. A person’s self-efficacy can have a large impact on their motivation and accomplishments. This comes from four main concepts: skill mastery, experiences, social aspects, and emotional intelligence. Similar to self-actualization, this is where we gain confidence and identity.

For example: I am currently in a Ph.D. program with the purpose of furthering my skills and knowledge. By mastering more skills professors need to be successful, I continue to build upon my own self-efficacy. This skill building also shows students my capabilities and enhances their perspectives of what I will be teaching.

Modeling influences self-efficacy as well. Role-models, outside of parents and immediate family, are crucial to our confidence and motivation.

Another internal aspect of this theory is self-awareness. My Myers-Briggs profile is ENFJ, meaning I am extroverted, intuitive, and am strong in feeling and judging. This personality type has been shown to make effective leaders and educators, but I think my self-awareness of this has proved more beneficial than the personality itself. For example, being aware that I am much more extroverted than most, I can bring my verbal actions to a minimum when working with introverts, and, on the contrary, empathize with those who have similar challenges as me. Awareness allows us to be open to criticisms and feedback without diminishing our confidence. Self-efficacy is a cognitive and emotional process.

Expectancy-Value Theory

Expectancy-Value theory of motivation states that individuals try their hardest, when they believe they can succeed. Expectancy and values go hand-in-hand. In terms of education, these two concepts concern the expectancy of achievement and the value a student holds in said study. Think of your job: do you work harder on something that seems silly to do in the first place, or something that is really going to make a difference to you (or the company or community)? Do you work harder on a project you know you will do well on, or a project you got a bad review on previously? Research shows that values and expectancy predict achievement in children and adults.

Attribution Theory

Attribution theory gives us a reason for explaining our behaviors as well. I was interviewing for a job I really wanted. I thought the 2nd interview went well, but about a week later, just as I was about to reach out, I received an email saying they were moving forward with another candidate. I was at work when I read this email and immediately felt disappointed and even angry. I got up and went for a small walk, I expressed some of my frustrations to a co-worker, and I went home in a bad mood. I was crabby when speaking with my friends, snapping and them, and explaining why I was so disappointed. I was able to attribute my irritability at my friends to my not getting the position. Atkinson’s attribution theory explains this three step process:

  1. A behavior (being snappy at my friends)

  2. Behavior was deliberate (I could have chosen to explain myself in a less petulant way)

  3. The behavior can be attributed to an outside factory (my not getting the job)

I’m lucky to have amazing supportive friends who understood this attribution as well, and helped me get back to my place of determination!

Real Life Takeaway

Don’t make assumptions about someone’s motivations or reasons for doing something. There are many possible explanations. Also, be aware of where your true motivation is coming from.


Harris, K. M., Phelan, L., McBain, B., Archer, J., Drew, A. J., & James, C. (2016). Attitudes toward learning oral communication skills online: The importance of intrinsic interest and student-instructor differences. Educational Technology Research And Development, 64(4), 591-609. doi:10.1007/s11423-016-9435-8

Heslin, P. A., & Klehe, U.-C. (2007). Self-Efficacy. In S. G. Rogelberg (Ed.), Encyclopedia of Industrial and Organizational Psychology (Vol. 2, pp. 705-708). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Reference. Retrieved from

Lee, J. M., & Hanna, S. D. (2015). Savings goals and saving behavior from a perspective of maslow's hierarchy of needs. Journal of Financial Counseling and Planning, 26(2), 129-147. Retrieved from

Öztürk, E. (2012). Contemporary motivation theories in educational psychology and language learning: an overview. The International Journal of Social Sciences, 3(1), 33-46.

Plante, I., O'Keefe, P. A., & Théorêt, M. (2013). The relation between achievement goal and expectancy-value theories in predicting achievement-related outcomes: A test of four theoretical conceptions. Motivation and Emotion, 37(1), 65-78. doi:10.1007/s11031-012-9282-9

Simmering, M. J. (2006). Attribution Theory. In M. M. Helms (Ed.), Encyclopedia of Management (5th ed., pp. 22-25). Detroit: Gale. Retrieved from

Winston, C. N. (2016). An existential-humanistic-positive theory of human motivation. The Humanistic Psychologist, 44(2), 142-163. doi:10.1037/hum0000028

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