Intrinsic Motivation - The Chance To Enjoy Your Time

Do you like doing things, but you can't find the reason for it? We tell you what intrinsic motivation is and its characteristics.
Intrinsic Motivation - The Chance To Enjoy Your Time
Gema Sánchez Cuevas

Written and verified by the psychologist Gema Sánchez Cuevas.

Last update: 31 October, 2023

As humans we’re naturally curious. We seek out feelings, and have goals and objectives. We all have motivation somewhere inside us, the desire to overcome obstacles (sometimes the ones we create for ourselves, or the ones other people give us so we’ll learn, or to irritate us), and achieve juicy rewards or external incentives.

That’s how we are as humans. Or at least that’s how most of us are.

But what makes us that way? Why do we seek out goals? Where do we get the strength to reach them? Why do we reach some and leave others along the way?

Why do some people keep pushing when other people drop off even with the same negative result…? We could also ask ourselves why some people climb to the peak of Everest even though they’re risking their life.

Or how about when we read a crime novel and the detective interrogates the witnesses and suspects of a crime? Some of the questions that need to be answered to figure out who committed the crime are what caused the crime or why did the murderer act that way? The answers will bring us to the “motive” for the crime.

One of the keys to answering these questions is about motivation. Fascinating, right? Now think about how motivation, good motivation, can be just the right bit of support to move mountains.

It’s anything that gives you or takes away your courage, anything that dresses you up as a coward or a hero.

What is motivation?

We can define motivation based on three things: having an objective, deciding to reach it, and keeping up the effort to reach it. Motivation is the motive that kick starts, keeps up, and directs a person’s actions to help them achieve certain objectives. 

We have a lot of different names for it: self love, fighting spirit, and willpower. It can be an energy capable of getting you moving, or an anchor capable of holding you in place.

So motivation is an internal state of being that starts up, directs, and keeps up your behavior.

motivated woman with a red umbrella

What are the characteristics of motivation?

Motivation is a psychological construct we can’t see, but we can recognize it through its external manifestations. It’s the process that explains the intensity, direction, and persistence of a person’s efforts to reach a certain goal. 

These are the characteristics of motivated behavior:

  • It’s proactive and faces a specific goal that the person wants to reach.
  • It’s strong and persistent – people use a lot of energy trying to achieve an objective they set for themselves, and overcoming the obstacles they run into along the way.
  • Their motives are organized hierarchically. There are some motives that have to do with survival, and other ones that have more to do with personal growth.
  • Motives might be clear or inexplicable, conscious or unconscious. We’re not always aware of the motivations behind our behavior.
  • Motives can be extrinsic or intrinsic. Someone who works at a car factory might be motivated by making money or improving his reputation with his boss. This behavior comes from an extrinsic motivation, because external factors are what’s helping him do his tasks. Intrinsic motivation means that you do something out of interest or pleasure, for the sake of doing it. In the car factory worker’s case, it might be a feeling of competence or mastery.
  • Extrinsic motivation comes from outside, from someone or something that can create that motivation. Behavior that’s motivated by external factors doesn’t happen on its own. It happens for the external reward associated with it. Think about when a student’s parents promise them a present if they get a certain grade.
  • Intrinsic motivation is when a person wants to do something for their own sake. A person with intrinsic motivation has an internal energy that pushes them to take control and be successful. Think about the student who sees their exam as a way to reflect on and learn more about what they’ve already learned.

Human needs are unclassifiable because human beings are capable of needing everything, including the things that only exist in our imaginations.”
-J.L. Pinillos-

Intrinsic motivation

This has been defined very simply as a motivation naturally associated with a specific behavior. So the incentive is intrinsic to the activity itself. That is, it’s the act of doing the thing itself that moves you.

The motives that lead to doing an activity or task are built into you and the activity itself. That’s why this kind of behavior is considered intrinsic to each and everyone’s personal motivation.

For example, when you dedicate time to a specific hobby or when you do an activity just to give yourself a challenge.

We can usually see this most clearly with motivation in sports. But we can also see it when we have a personal motivation for a project that’s very valuable to us, even if it might seem to other people like it doesn’t really serve any purpose. Think about all the people who like to cook for themselves.

happy woman with her arms out

The 3 best sources of intrinsic motivation

There are a lot of different sources of intrinsic motivation. And that’s why for now we’re just going to focus on the three most important ones: 

A need for achievement

Intrinsic motivation for achievement has a lot to do with an impulse to overcome things. It’s the tendency to do a task for the pleasure of doing it, and because by doing it you gain or perfect specific skills or abilities. From there you make way for a feeling of competence.

People with high motivation for achievement share these characteristics:

  • They’re innovative and entrepreneurial.
  • They seek out excellence or professional success and trust their efforts. 
  • They persistently chase after their objectives.

A need for membership

This is the interest in establishing or keeping up a positive emotional relationship with a lot of people. The people with this kind of motivation usually seek out social contact, tend to take part in big or small groups, and don’t like being alone.

People with high motivation for membership have these characteristics:

  • Their relationships are usually better and more emotionally positive than people who have a low need for membership.
  • They’re the kinds of people that need the constant care and affection that will make them feel special.
  • They’re usually very afraid of social rejection and constantly seek the acceptance of their group. So this means they tend to do things they think the group will like.
  • They have a tendency to avoid moments of conflict at all times.
  • They prefer cooperative environments to competitive ones.
  • They’re not usually very successful at management jobs that require the ability to be commanding.

A need for self-actualization

The psychologist Abraham Maslow was the first person to define this need, or group of needs. Self-actualization is an ideal goal that all humans want to reach. 

self-actualization man with his eyes closed

You can satisfy this need through opportunities to fully develop your talent and potential and express knowledge and ideas. Or you can grow and develop into a great person, so that every human being will be unique. Maslow thought that people could reach total self-actualization if they felt fulfilled. 

Whether we add another sub-type or not, we know that intrinsic motivation is usually very consistent over time. That’s because it has more to do with personal characteristics than personal circumstances.

And intrinsic motivation is more general than extrinsic motivation, because we can satisfy it in a lot of different ways.


Bandura, A. y Walters, R. (1963) Social Learning and Personality Development. New York. Holt, Rhinehart, and Winston.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.