The Mysteries of Intrinsic Motivation



Section Headings

Of Play and Fun

Normal: Children concentrating upon a project

Upon what are the two brothers concentrating so intently? Probably some kind of project or investigation. Is this level of concentration unusual? Not at all. In fact, most, if not all, parents would say that this behavior is the norm rather than the exception.

Children play together or by themselves

The common word for this activity is ‘play’. Sometimes children play together. In this case, the older brother (6 years of age) and the younger brother (not quite 2) are playing by themselves.

What motivates play? Biology or Rewards?

What force motivates children of all nationalities and presumably across all time periods to play? Is this mysterious activity driven by biological needs, say hunger or more perversely an unrealized sexual drive? Or is this urge to experiment with every stick, cord, pot or pan due to parental encouragement? Must parents reward their offspring with candy to entice their toddler to whap the table with cords or stick knives in live sockets?

Play happens spontaneously

No, of course not. This bizarre urge infects children of all ages, including toddlers and even babies. We are simply born that way. As soon as possible, these tiny humans grab at any and every nearby object. After obtaining the focus of their desire, they experiment with it, perhaps placing it in their mouth or smearing it on their delicate faces. There is no need to reward this behavior as it happens spontaneously without any need for encouragement.

Why play? An innate urge to solve problems? Which system?

If not biological need or reward-based, what is it that sparks a child’s desire to first open and then empty a low-lying cabinet filled with intriguing objects? What inspires them to manipulate these objects in a seemingly purposeful way? Could it be that we have an innate urge to solve problems? If so, what biological system gives rise to this peculiar urge? If not physical, then what?

Why does Play capture Attention so completely?

There are more questions associated with this common activity. Why does play capture the child’s attention so completely? For instance, parents frequently tempt their baby with the keys on a chain, a personal favorite amongst that set, as it distracts them from what they consider unpleasant activities, perhaps the intolerable imprisonment of a long car ride. Why is play so engaging that it can even defuse a volatile situation?

Why is play so enjoyable that interruptions evoke outrage?

Next question: Why does interrupting play evoke such outrage? Twenty-month-old Ives does not play because he is supposed to – like homework or taking a bath. He seems to manipulate the tools in his environment just for the fun of it. Why is opening and closing doors so fun? Why does playing make Ives and his brother Lorry so happy that they will pout, cry and scream – perhaps even erupt in a temper tantrum, if Mother Serena denies them access to their sacred objects, e.g. interrupts their fun for dinner or to go somewhere? Why is play so enjoyable?

One last question: Is play exclusive to children? Do we grow out of this childish activity? Or is there something equivalent in the adult world? Yes there is.

Just like play and fun, the historical discovery of this adult equivalent has some intriguing elements. The psychologist who uncovered, explored and even named this curious phenomenon was so startled that he abruptly shifted career paths. Then it took 20 years for a new generation of psychologists to take up the torch.

Why? This play-like activity violated the dogma of the day. Rather than motivated by extrinsic drives, i.e. rewards or biological needs, it seems to be motivated by intrinsic factors. This third human drive has some unusual features. It is optimized when left completely alone. Further, this mysterious urge is the most powerful motivational force for problem solving and creativity. The scientific community has named it ‘Intrinsic Motivation’.

Let us see what the scientific community has uncovered regarding this curious and ubiquitous behavioral complex. What is the scientific take on this everyday activity that permeates our existence?

1949: Harry F. Harlow’s Rhesus Monkey Experiments & the 3rd Drive

A psychologist ran an experiment whose results were so startling – violating the current scientific paradigm to such a degree – that he put his results aside and abruptly moved in an entirely different direction. The experimenter was Harry F. Harlow; the year was 1949. His radical experiment was performed on 8 rhesus monkeys.

Intent to explore the effects of Rewards on Learning

Harlow’s experiment was designed to determine what part rewards play in learning. He was attempting to refine his scientific community’s paradigm regarding drive, which over a half-century later still exhibits residual influence.

Initial Paradigm: 2 types of Drives – Biological & Environmental

Physicists had answered the question: what are the underlying forces that determine the behavior of matter? Inspired by this success, biologists and psychologists posed the question: what are the forces that motivate the behavior of living systems? They postulated that there are two basic types of drives that motivate animals, including humans:

1) Biological (hunger, thirst, and sex)

2) Environmental (rewards and punishment).

Biologists explore the nature of the 1st drive, psychologists the 2nd.

Harlow’s Experiment: the Effect of Rewards on Learning

As a psychologist, Harlow chose to investigate the effect of environmental rewards upon learning. To this end, he set up a tightly controlled experiment regarding the ability of rhesus monkeys to solve a puzzle. His intent was to motivate these primates to solve the puzzle through external rewards. These rewards were linked to the biological need of simple hunger for a tasty treat. In similar fashion, the rat is trained to run through a maze to procure food or a dog trained to do tricks.

Monkeys seek to solve the Puzzle without Reward.

To familiarize them with their environment, presumably to facilitate learning, Harlow initially placed his 8 rhesus monkeys in a cage with the puzzle. No rewards were handed out. However during the 2-week acclimation period, the monkeys immediately began to attempt to solve the puzzle with “focus, determination, and what looked like enjoyment.” Neither hunger, nor reward was involved in this behavior.

Harlow postulates existence of 3rd Drive – Intrinsic Motivation

The results ran counter to the dominant model of behavior at that time. The monkey’s drive to explore their surroundings didn’t seem to be based in biological needs or environmental rewards. “The performance of the task provided intrinsic reward.” Harlow deemed this a third drive – ‘intrinsic’ motivation.

Harlow’s 2nd Experiment: Which drive is more powerful in terms of problem solving?

He initially assumed this 3rd drive to be subordinate to the other drives. To investigate this hypothesis, he performed another tightly controlled experiment. This experiment was designed to test which drive was most effective at problem solving. One group of monkeys was induced to solve a puzzle with food, while the second group had no external motivation. The question was posed: which group of monkeys learns most quickly with the least number of mistakes?

Results: Intrinsic Motivation more powerful than Extrinsic

Much to his surprise, the monkeys who were not rewarded performed this task more rapidly and with fewer mistakes than those who were rewarded. “Introduction of food in the present experiment served to disrupt performance, a phenomenon not reported in the literature.” … “It would appear that this drive … may be as basic and strong as the [other] drives. Furthermore, there is some reason to believe it can be as efficient in facilitating learning.”

Due to potential controversy, Harlow shifts his focus.

Due to the ensuing controversy, Harlow dropped this line of research – eventually earning acclaim in an entirely different area of investigation. The environmental punishments induced him to change his behavior.

1969: Edward Deci, Rewards inhibit Intrinsic Motivation

Initial Experiments: Intrinsic Motivation more fragile than Extrinsic

Two decades later in the summer of 1969, Edward Deci took up the torch. In his initial foray into the field of behavior, he performed experiments that were designed to test the relative strength of the 3 types of drives. His findings indicated that this 3rd drive – intrinsic motivation – is more fragile than biological or environmental drives – the two extrinsic drives. It seems that intrinsic motivation needs the proper environment to survive and thrive. In the ensuing decades, researchers explored the parameters of this environment – investigating the factors that enhanced and detracted from the ability of this internal drive to produce solve problems.

2 types of tasks: Algorithmic & Heuristic

Behavioral scientists have determined that there are at least 2 types of tasks1:

1) algorithmic – a tightly defined routine

2) heuristic – a more open-ended task that requires experimentation and novel solutions.

Rewards enhance ‘boring’ Algorithmic Tasks, detract from ‘interesting’ Heuristic Tasks

Numerous experiments have exhibited that reward has a positive influence upon the performance of ‘boring’ algorithmic tasks. This type of task would include factory and piece work. People work harder to perform routine tasks if they are financially rewarded for speed. Conversely, extrinsic rewards, such as pay, actually hinder and obstruct the performance of ‘interesting’ heuristic tasks.

Heuristic tasks are creative, while algorithmic tasks are rote. One researcher put it succinctly:

“Intrinsic motivation is conducive to creativity; controlling extrinsic motivation is detrimental to creativity.”2

Could it be that Rewards split the Mental Energy of Attention?

Experimental evidence indicates that a focus upon material rewards when performing heuristic, read creative, tasks diminishes performance. Could it be that splitting attention to consider rewards drains mental problem-solving energy? Pure, untainted intrinsic motivation seems to be a powerful, creative, problem-solving force. Yet anything that draws attention away from the problem seems to diminish the capacity of this non-biological, non-material force. Rote tasks respond well to rewards and punishment. Could this be because little attention is required to perform mindless and non-challenging work? Tasks that require problem solving are better left unfettered by extraneous considerations. Is it possible that the distraction of thinking about rewards and punishments inhibits mental energy due to the split of attention? Does this also indicate that the mental energy required for attention is a limited quantity?

128 experiments over 3 decades: conditional rewards negatively impact intrinsic motivation

In 1999 Deci and two colleagues reanalyzed nearly 3 decades of studies on the subject to confirm the findings.

“Careful consideration of rewards effects reported in 128 experiments lead to the conclusion that tangible rewards tend to have a substantially negative effect on intrinsic motivation.”

They continued,

“When institutions – families, schools, business and athletic teams, for example – focus on the short-term and opt for controlling people’s behavior, they do considerable long-term damage.”3

Post-accomplishment rewards enhance intrinsic motivation

 To qualify these findings, Deci did further research. His subsequent findings indicated that post-accomplishment rewards are an effective motivator for intrinsic motivation, while ‘If-Then’ conditional rewards are detrimental. In other words, individuals performing creative tasks do a better job on subsequent tasks if they are given a bonus from time to time. Yet, they do a worse job if their pay is determined by the quality of their performance. ‘If you a good job, then we will pay you more.’

Insufficient pay can have negative impact upon creative work

If workers doing heuristic tasks feel they are underpaid, this also has a negative impact on for their performance. Presumably if they are paid well enough, they do not think about money. Could it be that the mental energy of attention is again split when creative workers are frustrated with the level of their pay? Is it possible that their irritation prevents them from focusing their complete attention upon their task?

Self-determination Theory & Autonomy

3 basic human needs – competency, autonomy & relatedness

Since his early findings, Deci teamed up in 1977 with his graduate student, now colleague, Richard Ryan, who was inspired by Deci’s book Intrinsic Motivation. The two teamed up to develop what they call ‘self-determination theory’. SDT theory states that humans have 3 universal needs: competency, autonomy, and relatedness. When these needs are thwarted, productivity, motivation and happiness plummet. Hundreds of studies over the last 30 years have shown that when these needs are met that humans lead happier, more productive lives4.

Non-supportive environments transform natural intrinsic into extrinsic motivation

Liberating intrinsic motivation is one pathway that enables us to satisfy these ‘needs’. Recall that this 3rd drive is more fragile than the others. A non-supportive environment can crush this inner drive. According to SDT theory, humans are all born with intrinsic motivation. However parents, schools and jobs can inadvertently through reward and punishment transform an individual into someone who is instead extrinsically motivated.

Those who are extrinsically motivated lead unhappier lives

This transformation has unfortunate consequences.

“According to a raft of studies from SDT researchers, people oriented toward autonomy and intrinsic motivation have higher self esteem, better interpersonal relationships, and greater general wellbeing than those who are extrinsically motivated. By contrast, people whose core aspirations are … validations such as money, fame or beauty tend to have poorer psychological health.”5

Intrinsic motivation more sustainable than extrinsic

In addition to being happier, those who were motivated by internal sources tended to outperform those motivated by external sources, at least in the long run. When the rewards come from within, the drive to accomplish is sustainable over longer periods of times. External rewards might motivate the worker to accomplish more in a short time, but the drive is not sustainable over a longer period. For instance, social workers who are motivated by external praise tend to burn out more rapidly than those who derive their rewards from the inner satisfaction of helping others.

3 foundations of internal motivation: autonomy, mastery & purpose

 The researchers found that autonomy, mastery, and purpose are the 3 foundations of internal motivation. In other words, the self-directed quest for mastery of something meaningful liberates and nourishes the energy behind the 3rd drive.

Autonomy most important: freedom to choose what, when, how & with whom

Of these 3 foundations, experiments exhibited that autonomy was the most important. Autonomy means acting with intention. The researchers found that there are 4 elements to autonomy: what, when, how and with whom. Autonomy was so important that the researchers shifted their verbiage.

“In the 1980s, Deci and Ryan moved away from categorizing behavior as either extrinsically motivated or intrinsically motivated to categorize it as either controlled or autonomous.” 6

Unanswered Questions

Intrinsic Motivation: a basic human drive, key to psychological health, rooted in autonomy

Let us consolidate our findings. Originally the scientific community believed that humans were motivated by either biological or environmental drives. However, the scientific literature overwhelmingly suggests that there is also a powerful 3rd drive motivating human behavior. It has been deemed intrinsic motivation. Tapping into this internal 3rd drive is a more powerful motivator for creative, problem solving tasks than employing external rewards and produces a better product. Experimentation reveals that autonomy, i.e. freedom of choice, is at the heart of intrinsic motivation. Humans who are motivated from internal sources tend to have a more sustainable, happy, productive life than those who are motivated by extrinsic factors, such as money. In essence: Intrinsic motivation is a basic human drive that is the root of psychological health and based in a need for freedom of choice.

Questions regarding Intrinsic Motivation

These results raise many questions regarding Intrinsic Motivation. What is the source of this basic human drive? Why is it so powerful? Why is autonomy, i.e. freedom to choose, a fundamental foundation of the 3rd drive? Why do rewards have a negative impact upon the performance of heuristic, i.e. problem solving tasks? Why is Intrinsic Motivation more powerful than Extrinsic Motivation in performing these types of undertakings? Put in our original terms, why do we play and why is play so fun?

No material explanation

What explanation does the current scientific community have for the origination of this powerful drive? Are its sources primarily biological or neurological like the other drives? Although many theories have been proposed, none have proved conclusive. A theoretical underpinning for this fundamental human drive is still lacking.

Is it possible that the explanation lies in Life’s method of information digestion?

What other sources are there besides the material? Could living systems have an immaterial component based in mental energy and information digestion? Is it possible that Life’s immaterial component is the root of Intrinsic Motivation? Could a theory of information digestion provide some clues to this mysterious force?

I certainly don’t know. You might check out the next article ‘Intrinsic Motivation & our Information Digestion System for some plausible answers.


1 Daniel H. Pink, Drive, Riverhead Books, 2009, p.27

2 Pink, Drive, p. 29

3 Pink, Drive, p. 37

4 Pink, Drive, p. 70

5 Pink, Drive, p. 78

6 Pink, Drive, p. 89

Other Articles in the Series

Why Intrinsic Motivation belongs to Life’s Information Digestion System, 2020

Why Rewards inhibit Intrinsic Motivation, 2020

Why the Creative Process is so Enjoyable, 2020

Why Autonomy enhances Intrinsic Motivation, 2020


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