The Power Of Intrinsic Motivation

the power of intrinsic motivation

The most powerful habits are those that come completely from within. Read on to know the psychology of intrinsic motivation and rewards.

Over decades of secrecy and solitude, Henry Darger worked obsessively at his art.

He toiled tirelessly across several mediums, but his masterpiece was an illustrated epic novel. Verbosely titled “The Story of the Vivian Girls in What Is Known as the Realms of the Unreal of the Glandeco-Angelinian War Storm Causes by the Child Slave Rebellion,” the entire document was over 15,000 pages long.

But despite dedicating his life to his art, it was never seen by anyone else until his death. It was only when he died, aged 79, that any of his work was discovered.

He also didn’t have any living relatives or friends. All of his belongings, including his opus of artistic works, fell by default to the ownership of his landlord, Nathan Lerner. On his deathbed, he told him to throw it all in the trash. However, Lerner was a photographer and instantly recognized its artistic value.

Lerner shared his pieces with the greater art world, which became similarly taken in by his work. He slowly accumulated a cult following, and today, a single original piece of his sells for more than $750,000.

Despite no formal training, Darger’s artistic ability is impressive. But that isn’t what has drawn so much attention to his work. Above anything, the fascination with Darger has to do with the unique motivational state behind his art. How could someone dedicate so much to art that he never wanted anyone to see, much less buy?

Darger and his artwork provide an interesting window into the science of motivation.

Related: 10 Reminders When You Feel You’re Never Going To Be Enough

The Psychology Of Intrinsic And Extrinsic Motivation

Motivation is complex. Let’s say we went for a run this morning. Why did we do it? Because it feels good? Because we want to be healthy? Because we simply go for a run every morning?

For any given behavior, our motivations for it fall into two general camps: extrinsic and intrinsic.

Intrinsic motivation is the drive that comes purely from within, without any ostensible external rewards. You do it because it’s inherently enjoyable, and not because of any anticipated reward, deadline, or outside pressure. This describes Henry Darger’s drive for art. He wasn’t trying to achieve anything with it: he wasn’t trying to build a following, win awards, or sell his creative output. Instead, his artwork was done for the act itself.

People who are intrinsically motivated to run do so because they simply love the act of running itself. It feels like an important part of your identity, and you love the act of it itself — regardless of anything that can come of it.

People Are Usually Much More Creative When They Are Intrinsically Motivated
The Power Of Intrinsic Motivation

Intrinsic motivation is great. In art, sports, or otherwise, truly loving the behavior itself, will keep you going like nothing else.

But of course, that’s not always the case with everything we do. We might not love our jobs but we go to work anyway; we might not love running but we lace up our running shoes every morning. This is where extrinsic motivation comes in.

Related: How To Unleash Your Inner Yoda: The 8 Step Plan To Lead Your Team Through Uncertainty

When you’re extrinsically motivated, you’re doing the behavior to gain an external reward. If you’re not a fan of your job, you’re still a fan of getting paid and so the salary serves as extrinsic motivation. If you’re training for a marathon, you’re trying to improve your speed and endurance.

You could also be driven to maintain a personal streak of consecutive days running, or trying to compete with your friends for ‘most miles’ on a running app. All of these are extrinsic motivators. Turns out, beyond an activity, motivation can also be a product.

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Matt Johnson Ph.D.

Matt Johnson, Ph.D. is the founder of the consumer psychology blog PopNeuro, and instructor of the Neuromarketing Bootcamp™, which trains marketers to ethically apply the principles of neuroscience.View Author posts