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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+.


Hey Michael,


of course! Please continue on this subject. To learn these differences should be the basic knowledge and first move for everyone who wants to think, talk or even do something with Gamification. 

Being involved in Gamification without differentiating between intrinsic/extrinisc motivation and intrinsic/extrinsic rewards is like getting the driver license without knowing the difference of a street and a sidewalk.


Kudos to you and thanks for your thoughtful work! 


Hi Michael,


I recently discovered your blog, and can see a wealth of great information here for anyone interested on the science behind the art of gamifying. I agree with Roman's comment, please do continue exploring Gamification.


I believe posts like these are very usefull (and necessary) for the gamification community. I consider important to continuously challenge practitioners to regain perspective of non-trivial concepts of the science of motivation always present under the hood of game design choices. 


Great work..! 

Juan Lopez

Lithium Alumni (Retired)

Hello @RomanRackwitz


Thank you for taking the time to comment on my blog. 


I heard ya, and I'm glad that you feel that these fundamental concepts are important.


Since you requested, I will definitely continue to write about gamification and motivation. However, from the lack of replies, in my last couple of post, I've already started writing on a different topic--big data, which is actually very important in gamification. But I've only wrote a couple of posts. So I will come back to gamification in no time.


One topic that I want to write about with respect to gamification is how to shift people from extrinsically motivated to intrinsically motivated. That is not something easy to do. Is this something that you like to learn more about. As I mentioned earlier, maybe I'll need to write a post linking gamification and big data, too. BTW, if there is something you like to read, or if you have a specific question, please feel free to ask it here. I'll always do my best to answer them in a timely fashion.


Stay tune... I'll be back to gamification after the 2 big data post is published.

Thx again for being a loyal supporter of my work.


Lithium Alumni (Retired)

Hello Juan ( @jdlf01 ),


Thank you for the nice comment, and I'm very glad to hear that you find my blog a wealth of useful info.


Thank you for your interest, too. With you and Roman, now I'll definitely have to plan a few more topics in gamification. As in my reply to Roman, your request came just a bit late, so I will post a couple of big data that I've written over the weeken. But it's better late than never. So I wlll definitely come back to gamification after those 2 big data post it out.


Stay tuned... for more gamification posts.

Thanks again for commenting, and hope to see you again next time.





Hey Micheal, thank you for this post. I think this is one of the key concepts that must be understood to really understand and appreciate Lithium's community package (I maybe little rough and not well versed with the lingo - pls understand 😉


I'm Maya, residing in Seoul, trying to understand how Lithium's gamification and motivation differentiates itself from the other existing gamification and motivation that is applied in let say, South Korea's mega internet giant Naver, and naver's own knowlege mecca which is Naver 지식인(Jisikin - meaning Intelligent Person in Korean) 


I can elaborate more on Naver Jisikin and the South Korean environment for your reference, but it would be awfully helpful if you can shed some light now, based on your knowledge on how I can persuade the Korean online managers and social marketing managers that Lithium's gamification and motivations are different from the other communities.


Any feedback would be helpful.




From Seoul,


Lithium Alumni (Retired)

Hello Maya ( @eongroup ),


Thank you for posting your question. And it's no problem with lingo. I'm not a native English speaker myself. So I totally understand.


Although I know Naver, I've never use it. So I would like to understand a bit more about Naver Jikikin before I comment. But lithium's gamification differentiate from the market precisely because we understand the science and behavior economics behind consumer behavior. That is the primary focus of my research and I approach it both via empirical data driven method and principle driven from the social sciences of human behavior. Other gamification products tend to be driven primarily by technology and market trends.


Perhaps we should set up a phone call, so I can learn more about Naver, so I can better answer your question in context. I will send you a private message to give you my contact info.


Thank you for your interest.

Looking forward to discuss and I hope to see you here again in my future blogs.



This is one of the most interesting blog posts that I have read in a long, long time. I have been here for what seems like hours following each internal link you've referenced. Reading each and every post for more understanding.


I think the motivations as you've presented them apply not only to gamification but most certainly to the Internet and it's communities as a whole. The implications of it are amazing when applied to social media, forums, customer feedback (or lack of it), or even interactions on blogs. 🙂


You mentioned this:

"One topic that I want to write about with respect to gamification is how to shift people from extrinsically motivated to intrinsically motivated. That is not something easy to do. Is this something that you like to learn more about? " I, for one, would love to read that post. 


I do wonder about the dangers of what appears to be a society as a whole that seems more extrinsically motivated as well. The youngest of our generations seem particularly extrinsically motivated. Perhaps that has always been so to some extent? It does bring to mind what challenges businesses in the future will face in regards to this.


Is there a way to subscribe to your blog posts via email? Perhaps I missed it somewhere? I'd like to make sure I don't miss your forthcoming posts. 


Kudos to you for such a thought provoking piece. 

Lithium Alumni (Retired)

Hello @Adonna,


Thank you for the nice comment and your interest in this topic.


Well, motivation is actually much more general concept in human behavior than gamification. Gamification is just one application that leverages human motivation to drive behaviors. But there are many other applications that leverages motivation—as you said, in the context of social media, customer feedback, etc.


I’m glad that you voice your interest. I’ve spoken at conferences about how to shift people from extrinsically motivated to intrinsically motivated. This topic is also briefly described this in my 2nd books—the science of social 2. I just never got the time to blog about it. I will set aside some time to turn my talk into a blog and hopefully publish it soon. So stay tuned.


As I described in this blog post, extrinsic motivation isn’t inherently bad or anything. In fact it is quite important for the survival and well-being of the human species to be extrinsically motivated. It allows us to be more adaptive to the ever changing environment. The problem is that extrinsic motivation is not a sustainable driver of human behavior in the long run—people eventually find reasons to not carry out the behavior, or become more motivated to do something else. This could be a problem, b/c people’s extrinsic motivation can change fairly quickly, so we may not be able to reliably drive the behavior we want with the same extrinsic motivators (e.g. good grades, money, fame, or other types of ewards).


Businesses are already seeing a huge problem with this, since ~70% of the American workers are not engaged or actively disengaged at work. Companies are struggling to drive performance when so much of their work force are not engaged. This is why there is a huge interest in gamification at work, school, and many other context. I can literally go on for days on this topic. Now, I just need some quiet time to write something cohesive.


You can subscribe my blog to an RSS feed under the Article Options on the top of every post. I don’t think you can subscribed via email, but it should notify you via email when there is new activity on my blog. However, if you follow me on twitter or other social media, you will get updates when new blog posts are published, b/c I’ll usually tweet and share about it.


Anyway, thank you again for your interest. Follow me, or come back in a few weeks. I will definitely do more writing on gamification.



@MikeW Hi Michael,


I was wondering if you ever got around writing the follow-up blog about how to shift people from extrinsically motivated to intrinsically motivated?


I'm fairly certain I've caught up reading all your blogs so far, but I keep finding new gems I hadn't read before through deeplinks / references I missed. So maybe I still have to uncover it. If so, could you point me to it?



Lithium Alumni (Retired)

Hello @Jochen,


My apology for the late reply. I've been on the road quite a bit lately and didn't have time to respond as timely to my blog comments as I'd like.


The shift from extrinsic to intrinsic is a very challenging topic. It's difficult to understand and rather difficult to write as it requires some background info on how people learn and internalize data and turn them into beliefs.


Short answer is that I've got the time to write that up yet. I will eventually. I just need a good chunk of time to sit down and write. So... another apology from my end.


But I will make a note of that and try to write a few more gamification blog post intermittent throughout some of my big data/data science posts. And I will try to write in such way that it leads up to that shift. OK?


Thank you for being supportive of my work and taking the time to comment.

See you again at my blog.



@MikeW No apologies needed, I'm very happy that you take the time to write these blogs and comments and have no intention to put any pressure on you. Would be great to read more about gamification and behavioral science in the future.


Any chance you'll be speaking on an event in Europe in the future by the way? If so and if it's nearby I'd love to get a heads up so I can attend. Any way I can subscribe to receive a notification about such events? 

Lithium Alumni (Retired)

Hello @Jochen,


I think a little pressure is good. It does get me motivated about writing knowing that people are waiting on them. So Thx. And I will put on my writing hat once I am done with all the external speaking at conferences and lecturing at Universities.


I'm not sure if there is any easy way to subscribe and get notification to my speaking events. I think that if you follow my tweets and blogs, I should have some mention about upcoming events. Sorry there isn't any simpler ways that I can think of.


But really appreciate your interest and support.

See you again on my blog.