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What Drives Us—Are You Intrinsically Motivated?

Lithium Alumni (Retired)

A common question I get when talking about gamification is “how can you tell if people are intrinsically motivated?” Since we can’t really measure people’s motivation, it’s not easy to tell if someone is truly motivated, let alone intrinsically motivated. Yet, understanding people’s intrinsic motivation is crucially important, whether you are trying to motivate your customers or employees to do something great. This is because extrinsic motivation is not only unsustainable in the long-term; it often leads to a backlash due to overjustification.


If you have read my earlier blog posts, you now understand the difference between intrinsic and extrinsic motivations, and how they are in turn different from intrinsic and extrinsic rewards. But the subject of motivation remains a difficult concept to truly master. That’s why so many gamification practitioners are still confused about it. After all, human motivation is inherently an abstract concept, it’s not something we can touch or measure rigorously.


For this blog, I am going to use some real life examples to make this abstract concept more vivid and realistic.


The Tell-Tale Signs of Intrinsic Motivation

late night playing.pngAs we know, when someone is intrinsically motivated to do something, the reason that drives him to do that very thing must be intrinsic to the activity that he’s motivated to do. If you are intrinsically motivated to sing, it means the motivator for you to sing must be intrinsic to the act of singing.


If we ask ourselves what motivators are intrinsic to the act of singing? Dan Pink’s Drive taught us there are 3 intrinsic motivators—autonomy, mastery, and purpose. However there is a 4th one if we dig into the academic literatures.


  1. Autonomy (a.k.a. control)—the fact that you have full control over when, where, what, and how you sing, as well as how much you sing
  2. Mastery (a.k.a competence or progress)—the fact that you can get better at singing
  3. Relatedness (a.k.a. uniqueness)—the fact that you can develop a unique way of singing relative to other singers
  4. Purpose (a.k.a. meaning)—because singing has purpose and special meaning to you


Notice that all these motivators involve the act of singing. That is precisely why they are intrinsic motivators—they are inherent to the act of singing. Because of this circular nature of intrinsic motivation, it’s often difficult for people to articulate their intrinsic motivation for an activity beyond the fact that they simply love to do it. For example, if you are intrinsically motivated to sing, then you will sing simply for the joy and love of singing.


On the other hand, there are many motivators for you to sing that are not inherent to the act of singing. For example: to get praise, to pacify your baby, to get paid, to win a contest, to entertain your friends, etc. These are all extrinsic motivators, because none of them are intrinsic to the act of singing.


I must re-emphasize that extrinsic motivation isn’t bad or worse than intrinsic motivation in any way. Some extrinsic motivation may even be magnanimous and altruistic. For example, you may be driven to sing because it makes your friends and families happy.


So if someone can easily articulate a reason—good or bad—why he does an activity, then he is probably extrinsically motivated. If they can’t quite attribute it to any reason other than the fact that they just love doing that activity, then they may be intrinsically motivated by that activity.


Intrinsic Motivation = Reward Independent

In my last post, we learned that reward is something you get after you’ve performed an activity. Logically, the reward can’t possibly be intrinsic to the act of doing the activity itself, since it only comes after you’ve completed the activity. However, all intrinsic motivators must be intrinsic to the activity you are doing. This means that if you are indeed intrinsically motivated (to do a certain activity), then it shouldn’t matter what rewards you get, or if you get any reward at all.


motivation vs reward px550.png


Many superfans on our community platform are seemingly working for free—answering questions, defending their beloved brand, and advocating for their favorite products and services. What’s their motivation? Are they intrinsically motivated? If they are indeed intrinsically motivated to participate in our community, then they will participate regardless of what reward they may receive, whether it’s a kudo, a badge, or simply a “thank you” from another member. In fact, they will participate even if there is no reward at all. That is a strong indicator that these superfans are intrinsically motivated to participate in our community platform.


So, intrinsic motivators are reward-independent, meaning that you will continue doing what you are intrinsically motivated to do, independent of any reward you might receive.


A Personal Story of Intrinsic Motivation

late night working1.pngAfter receiving my PhD in biophysics at UC Berkeley ~6 years ago, I took some time to explore my career options. I was attracted to Lithium because of the data it has collected and I was promised that I could ‘get my hands dirty’ and play with it ever day after I joined. However, there were no data teams at Lithium back then, and data scientist wasn’t a job title. So I was hired into Lithium as a software engineer and tactically shoved under engineering management. Soon enough I was debugging Java codes and writing Selenium tests.


Obviously, that wasn’t what I signed up to do, but I was also too introverted to raise the issue. All I asked is that Lithium would give me access to its huge repository of user behavior data, so I can play with it in my spare time. On weekends and late nights, I would play with the data—doing exploratory data analysis. And yes, that is the kind of thing I love to do in my spare time! However, the nature of any exploratory exercise is that you won’t know what you’ll find. You may find something interesting or nothing at all.


So why did I continue to analyze Lithium’s user behavior data for almost 9 months in my spare time? I certainly wasn’t paid for it. In retrospect, analyzing data wasn’t even in my job description. I didn’t do it for Lithium, because no one expected me to find anything from these seemingly random sequences of numbers. And I didn’t do it to please anyone. I certainly didn’t do it to build a data product, because I didn’t know what I would find. There is no guarantee that I will discover anything at all. Moreover, I didn’t do it for pure fun, because it’s actually quite frustrating at times.


I could go on and on, but the bottom line, there really is nothing else that drives me to analyze the data, so the motivator for me to do so must be inherent to the act of analyzing those data. That is intrinsic motivation.


So what drives us? The Conclusion

It’s not difficult to recognize the passion of motivated people when you see it. But it’s much harder to distinguish intrinsic motivation from extrinsic motivation. However there are indicators that could suggest whether someone is intrinsic motivated for a given activity, particularly when you find it hard to articulate the reason for you to do that activity. But the strongest indictor by far is when you are willing to do something in the absence of any reward—intrinsic or extrinsic. Remember both intrinsic and extrinsic rewards are extrinsic motivations.


I hope some of the examples here give you a more concrete understanding of intrinsic motivation. Let me know if you like me to continue on the subject of gamification. If not, don’t worry; I have a multitude of other equally interesting topics.


Stay tuned...



Michael Wu, Ph.D.mwu_whiteKangolHat_blog.jpg is CRM2010MKTAWRD_influentials.pngLithium's Chief Scientist. His research includes: deriving insights from big data, understanding the behavioral economics of gamification, engaging + finding true social media influencers, developing predictive + actionable social analytics algorithms, social CRM, and using cyber anthropology + social network analysis to unravel the collective dynamics of communities + social networks.


Michael was voted a 2010 Influential Leader by CRM Magazine for his work on predictive social analytics + its application to Social CRM. He's a blogger on Lithosphere, and you can follow him @mich8elwu or Google+.