Intrinsic or Extrinsic? The Importance of Figuring Out What Makes You Tick

Doing research (one of my favorite - and intrinsically motivated - activities). Photo by James E. Moriarty.
Doing research (one of my favorite – and intrinsically motivated – activities). Photo by James E. Moriarty.

Do you know what makes you excited, motivated, and eager? Psychologists tend to distinguish between two main types of motivation: intrinsic and extrinsic. In this post I’ll discuss some relationship-oriented examples of each and encourage you to figure out your own motivation map. Funnily enough, the idea for this blog post came about while I was procrastinating a pile of grading by chatting with author Cooper S. Beckett (so thanks for the inspiration!).

People experience motivation in various forms, and I would argue that people can be motivated in different ways when it comes to different needs and desires in their lives. For instance, I am intrinsically motivated to talk when I find the subject – or the person I’m talking to – interesting. When those conditions are met, it can be hard to get me to shut up. However, when I cook, it’s rarely for myself. I truly love cooking and baking, but it seems pointless without people to feed.

Based on these examples, I can state that I’m intrinsically motivated to talk, and extrinsically motivated to cook. If I wanted to more fully map out my motivation when it comes to interacting with others, I could make a list of the activities I share with the people in my life. From there, I could reflect on what motivates me to do them: my own internal sense of satisfaction, the joy it brings me to help out a partner or friend, or something else entirely?

Further, I might categorize lists by topics as follows:

  • Household chores (I’m intrinsically motivated to wash dishes because I hate to see them sitting there, but I’m extrinsically motivated to vacuum because I feel shame when people come over and see how dirty I let the carpet get)
  • Relationship maintenance (I’m extrinsically motivated to make sacrifices to spend extra time with my partner, since I wouldn’t do it often unless I felt like I had to; I’m intrinsically motivated to share meals with my partner because it just feels important to me)
  • Sex acts (I’m intrinsically motivated to touch and be touched, since it feels good, whereas anything that doesn’t automatically make me excited would have to be extrinsically motivated, something that my partner asks for and I’d consider and either consent to or not)

This is a neat activity not only because (self-)knowledge is power, but also because it can prevent conflicts. I always encourage people to figure out which love languages they speak, and I believe there may be a tie-in here. If you can make someone feel appreciated but it requires extra effort since you’re not intrinsically geared toward those kinds of activities, you can take this information into account when making plans to support that person.

To give a slightly more personal example, my life partner has been stressed recently about various projects that he’s taken on in our community. I would check in on him during evenings when we’re both at home, and find him procrastinating. Since I’m extremely intrinsically motivated to accomplish and achieve, it looked to me like he wasn’t that interested in his projects to begin with, so I didn’t see any point in getting involved or having lengthy conversations about those projects. However, after talking, we realized that he’s more extrinsically motivated than me in this area, and having me engage him about his projects is actually really helpful for him. I have to go out of my way to remember to do it, since this strategy opposes my normally-intrinsic way of going about things, but building healthy relationship habits can take some work to get started at first, and that’s okay. The payoff – a partner who feels like their needs are being met – is worth it.

I’m sure there are more ways to engage with motivation than simply breaking down whether it’s intrinsic or extrinsic and whether it corresponds to a love language, but this seems like a good start. Does anyone have any resources or ideas to add surrounding motivation?

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