Whatever we do, we are motivated by different reasons. These reasons may arise internally or externally.
Being internally motivated is the ideal state that most hope to get – especially from other people. Teachers want students to be self-motivated in doing their homework. Parents want children to be academically driven. Managers want subordinates to take responsibility for their projects.
According to the Self-Determination Theory by psychology Professors Deci and Ryan– a macrotheory of human motivation and well-being – the three forms of internal (or autonomous) motivation are represented by: enjoyment, value, and personality.
3 Forms of Internal Motivation
Perhaps the purest form of internal motivation is enjoyment, or – in academic terms – intrinsic motivation. That’s when your drive behind doing something comes solely from your enjoyment of it. No external influence or pressure is involved.
Think about something you do in your free time, all the time. Something you do very naturally without being asked to. Something you enjoy doing just for its sake, not for any other reason (like gaining the approval of someone else, or feeling like it’s something you should be doing).
Value is when you see the behavior to be important to you in different ways. You read the newspapers because knowledge of current affairs is important for your work. You exercise because physical health is important to you. You’re there for people when they need it because you value family and friendships.
Personality is when you see the behavior to be aligned with your identity, with who you are as a person. You read the newspapers because you want to be someone who keeps up to date with current affairs. You exercise because you want to be physically fit. You’re there for people when they need it because you want to be caring for others.
Are You Internally or Externally Motivated?
This is your motivation spectrum. Your actions have the lowest internal motivation on the right, and the highest on the left. Our motivations for different activities come from different parts of this spectrum. You, for example, might feel that doing housework belongs on the right of the spectrum, while spending time with friends belongs on the left.
Even for the same activity, your motivation will differ from someone else. Some of us are more likely to do – or give up on – some pursuits than others.
Some students in class are more likely to put in effort for a new topic than others. Some people are more likely to do handicrafts than others. Some feel discouraged and give up more easily at work when they don’t perform well, but show more perseverance in photography or dance, for example.
Why do some people seem so much more internally motivated than others on specific tasks?
Does It Matter?
I don’t have to write an article to teach you that people have different interests. That’s something you already know. Maybe you’re wondering: Why does it matter where your motivation comes from? As long as you get by fairly okay, who cares if you’re driven by carrots, sticks, or internal motivation?
The answer lies in a series of studies published in the Review of Economic Studies done on undergraduates in the United States and residents in a rural town of India, by economist Dan Ariely and colleagues.
Participants were given incentives when they completed a set of challenges, such as solving anagrams, adding sums, memorizing digit strings, and throwing balls to a target.
They were separated into 3 groups. Each group was offered 1 out of 3 levels of rewards for their performance: nominal, medium, and high.
The results were surprising: In tasks requiring only mechanical skills, higher rewards led to better performance. But once the task required basic cognitive skills, higher rewards led to poorer performance.
How is this possible? Very, apparently. External motivation, even in the form of rewards, have been shown to harm performance, creativity, and our psychological well-being. Decades of psychological research have repeatedly proven this point (for more on this, read about how motivation can harm you).
Students who are relatively controlled may look as motivated as students who are more autonomous, but the former are likely to experience anxiety and cope maladaptively with failure, while the latter experiences enjoyment and proactive coping.
– Psychology Professors Deci & Ryan, who have studied motivation in multiple life domains across age groups and cultures.
You Need a CAR
To drive yourself from the right to the left of the motivation spectrum (i.e. external motivation to internal motivation), you need a CAR:
- Competence – You put in effort in the task, and people appreciate you for it. People look for you to do it for them. Maybe you’re recommended to others who want to learn about it. People praise you to the skies for this thing you do. This is your strength. This is how you can contribute to the people around you. Knowing that you are good in something naturally makes you want to do it more. You are competent.
- Autonomy – You have the freedom to decide what you want to do, when you want to do it, and who you want to do it with. You have choices, you have options. You don’t feel forced or obliged to do it. Your decisions are not driven by fear.
- Relatedness – You’re supported by people for what you do. Your friends and family see potential in you. You have friends who do it, and with whom with you can share the joys and roadblocks with. Competition is minimal, cooperation is accessible.
How does your CAR look like in your daily activities?
Research also shows that autonomy is the most crucial for moving towards internal motivation. Being competent (C) and having friends in the activity (R) doesn’t protect you from feeling controlled externally. You’ll only be able to internalize the meaning for an activity and accept it within when you are free from excessive external pressure toward behaving or thinking a certain way.
People whose motivation is authentic (self-endorsed) show enhanced performance, persistence, creativity, vitality, and self-esteem, compared to people who are merely externally controlled, even if they have the same level of perceived competence. Feelings of competence will not enhance intrinsic motivation unless accompanied by a sense of autonomy.
Getting Your Inner Drive
Not everything that has to be done in your life is inherently interesting to you. How then can you find the inner drive to commit to what you need to do?
Having this CAR will give you the drive to move from the right to the left of the motivation spectrum.
Imagine something you dislike doing but have to do. It could be a task at work, or maybe a household chore. The only reason you do it is because your manager / parent says you have to. Which of C, A, or R are you missing in this task? How can you build up the missing component?
Now imagine you have Competence, Autonomy, and Relatedness with you on this task. You do it awesomely well, much more than anyone else (C). You also have the freedom to decide when you can do the task, or how long you want to spend on it (A). You are appreciated for your efforts by your colleagues, manager, or family members, and given guidance when you need (R).
What happens? Because of your CAR, you create self-sustaining motivation for this task. What was originally a drag to you transforms into something interesting. Most likely, you’ll continue doing it in your own free time.
Choice, acknowledgment of feelings, and opportunities for self-direction were found to enhance intrinsic motivation because they allow people a greater feeling of autonomy.
Now think about how you can transform someone else’s external motivation to internal motivation on an important task. How do you help someone feel Competent, Autonomous, and Related in what they do?