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Trinsic Motivation

Why do we do what we do?

J. Krueger
Arnie's booth in Thal, Austria
Source: J. Krueger

I think that people are interested in seeing me on the screen. —A. A. Schwarzenegger, musing about other people’s intrinsic motivation

Can scientific psychology explain human behavior? It depends on what we mean by "explain." Astonishingly, scientific psychology is not all that interested in why a particular person behaved in a particular way at a particular time. Of course, many people unfamiliar with the goals, tools, and limitations of scientific psychology are interested in just this kind a question. Hans-Christian Strache (to use a contemporary example from Austria, where I am at this writing) made ill-advised promises to a Russian oligarch, costing him his Vice–Chancellorship and throwing the republic into a constitutional crisis. Why did he do it? Social and cognitive psychology have more elaborate theories about how observers’ make causal attributions to explain Herr Strache’s behavior than about his behavior itself (Kelley & Michela, 1980). This makes it difficult to refute any particular folk explanation of his (or your or my) behavior.

Scientific psychology seeks forward inferences or predictions, whereas folk psychology wants backward inferences or explanations. At the same time, scientific psychology is (mostly) limited to predicting general trends, or means or modes. Its dominant statistical model makes it virtually impossible to predict outliers and extremes, which arguably are sometimes the most interesting and important cases. In contrast, folk psychology is especially interested in such cases; outliers and extremes cry out the loudest for an explanation, and moral outrage creates the greatest urgency - witness Herr Strache (Weiner, 1985).

When scientific models succeed in predicting behavior, scientists claim – with good reason – that the behavior has been explained. Turning these prediction-based explanations around to explain specific past behavior is difficult, however, to the enduring frustration and puzzlement of the folk. Forward inferences focus on a few, and typically just one, candidate causes. Clean forward inferences are typically achieved by the random assignment of research participants to an experimental condition, where the cause of interest is active, and a control condition, where it is not. If a difference between conditions is observed, the inference that the one factor that was different explains the behavior is compelling, though not without challenge (Quine, 1951).

When the need arises, as it often does is everyday life, to explain a particular bit of behavior after it occurred, the observer does not have the luxury of looking back on an experimentally controlled scenario. Many plausible explanations suggest themselves, whereas others that might seem equally plausible if they were known, remain outside of awareness. The long and short of this is that the folk and the experimentalists ask different questions. These questions are related to one another, but the answers they produce can differ dramatically.

This brings us to motivation, and to trinsic motivation in particular. The world of motivation bifurcates with the prefixes ‘in’ and ‘ex.’ If we have great tolerance for lumping, we can claim that there are two ways to be motivated to do anything: intrinsically and extrinsically (Ryan & Deci, 2000). Motivation is extrinsic if it is instrumental. We do X because we want to achieve a particular goal, e.g., attain a particular re- or award, the archetype being money. If you do it for the money, you are extrinsically motivated. Money is a clear, if crass, kind of an extrinsic motivator. All behavior that is not performed for its own sake is then said to be extrinsically motivated. You drink a glass of water because you are thirsty; you seek the company of Russian oligarchs because you enjoy the prospect of power. Now, if there is a desire that the behavior can satisfy, it is this desire and its satisfaction that explain the behavior, and not the pleasure felt during the performance of the behavior. The thirsty wanderer reaching the oasis experiences pleasure when drinking water, but it is not the act of drinking that is pleasurable on its own; it is the quenching of the thirst.

If the concept of intrinsic motivation is not to reduce to desire satisfaction, that is, if intrinsically motivated behavior is to be behavior performed for its own sake, we have to look harder for good examples. What about sex? The performance of sexual activity tends to be associated with rather pleasurable sensations. Is then the pursuit of sex an intrinsic motive? Perhaps not, as the desire for sex is, at least in part, a matter of a psycho-physiological need state or allostatic deficit. What is pleasurable, in this view, is not the act itself but the restoration of homeostasis. And indeed, sex is rarely offered as an example of intrinsically motivated behavior. But it could be, for if you are offered money for sexual services, your enjoyment might decline.

Play is a better example of intrinsically motivated behavior. Getting paid for play takes the fun out of it (Lepper & Henderlong, 2000). Therefore, play might be intrinsically motivated. Play feels good at the time of playing, and it is hard to think of any other desire being satisfied by play, other than the desire to play. Therefore, play must be intrinsically motivated. Or so they say. This claim, though simple and beautiful, is probably both false and useless. The claim that behavior is performed for its own sake and that this sake is the cause that produces this behavior is circular. It boils down to saying that the person plays (or does whatever) because she wants to.

To have explanatory force, a cause must be separated from the effect, and it must be able to be broken. What, for example, happens when children (or others) are barred from playing? They might get sad, but that doesn’t make the case for intrinsic motivation. More critically, these children fail to hone their social intelligence and they fail to acquire important survival skills (Bateson & Martin, 2013). Their development will be stunted and their chances in life reduced, much like mammalian cubs that don’t get to play. They become more vulnerable as prey and less effective as predators. Play has evolved as a learning laboratory (Brussoni, M., Gibbons, R., et al. (2015). Note that this explanation of play does not appeal to desire satisfaction but to functionality. Play’s adaptive value reveals itself over time or in experiments. To say that children play because they want to is at the same time true and pointless. It is pointless because it fails to tell us why play is enjoyable. The same type of functional analysis can be made for sex. At the end of the day, there's reproduction, much as unproductive sex remains pleasurable.

Attributing behavior to intrinsic motivation flirts with tautology. The truly dark side of a tautology is not just that it is barren but that it closes the door on the search for the actual causes of behavior. Economists are slowly waking up to the fact that the long-dominant doctrine of revealed preference (Samuelson, 1938) is explains nothing (Sen, 1977, 1987). To say that Benjamin bought a Bentley and not a Beetle because that was his preference is a waste of words. To say that he was intrinsically motivated to buy the Bentley is pretty much the same thing in psychological lingo. We can do better. See, for example, Reiss (2012) for a critique of the intrinsic-extrinsic dualism and an alternative model.


Bateson, P., & Martin, P. (2013). Play, playfulness, creativity and innovation. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Brussoni, M., Gibbons, R., et al. (2015). What is the relationship between risky outdoor play and health in children? A systematic review. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 12, 6423–54.

Kelley, H. H., & Michela, J. L. (1980). Attribution theory and research. Annual Review of Psychology, 31, 457-501.

Lepper, M., & Henderlong, J. (2000). Turning “play” into “work” and “work” into “play”: 25 years of research into intrinsic vs. extrinsic motivation. In C. Sansone & J. M. Harackiewicz (Eds.), Intrinsic and extrinsic motivation: The search for optimal motivation and performance (pp. 257–307). New York: Academic Press.

Quine, W. V. O. (1951). Two dogmas of empiricism. The Philosophical Review, 60, 20-43.

Reiss, S. (2012). Intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. Teaching of Psychology, 39, 152-156.

Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. (2000). Intrinsic and extrinsic motivations: classic definitions and new directions. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 25, 54–67.

Samuelson, P. A. (1938). A note on the pure theory of consumers’ behavior. Economica, 5, 61-71.

Sen, A. K. (1977). Rational fools: A critique of the behavioral foundations of economic theory. Philosophy and Public Affairs, 6, 317-344.

Sen, A. K. (1987). Rational behavior. In J. Eatwell, M. Milgate, P. Newman (Eds.), The new Palgrave dictionary of economics (pp. 68-76). London: Macmillan.

Weiner, B. (1985). "Spontaneous" causal thinking. Psychological Bulletin, 97, 74-84.