Intrinsic and Extrinsic Approaches

Deci and Ryan (1985) identified two main types of motivation – intrinsic and extrinsic and over decades of research, these categories have been confirmed as reliable and valid [1].

When someone is intrinsically motivated to do something (study, problem solve, work) they act because of the internal satisfaction or pleasure that they personally derive from that activity. 

When someone is extrinsically motivated to do something, they act because of some perceived external reward, requirement or driver (e.g. payment, an award, an order from your boss).

When we think about how intrinsic and extrinsic motivation works for postgraduate research, we might view it as described in the table below:

Intrinsic Motivation

Seeks internal affirmation.

Studying a subject because you care about it rather than for reward.

Focus driven by the enjoyment, pleasure or fulfilment that comes from conducting research and producing research outputs.

Seeks to produce research about which you care passionately.

Extrinsic Motivation

Seeks external affirmation.

Studying a subject because it appears to be valued by others and may lead to future reward or respect.

Focus driven by the potential future reward available or by the possible risk of failure.

Seeks to produce research that might impress others.

This is not to say that extrinsic motivation is always wrong – there are times when it makes sense to use extrinsic motivation to help us perform necessary tasks. During your study there may be times when you have to undertake tasks that in themselves are dull and unenjoyable but necessary. Offering yourself extrinsic rewards for completing the task can help you keep going (e.g. if I do an hour of this, I can watch half an hour of my favourite TV programme).

However, research has shown that students who are more intrinsically motivated learn more and to a higher quality [2]. Intrinsic motivation has also been found to improve creativity and problem solving – key skills that are generally needed in research [3].

Beyond this, individuals who are more intrinsically motivated in life are also found to have better wellbeing and mental health [4]. 

This is because focussing on those things that are personally meaningful to us increases our sense of fulfilment, while focussing on external rewards tends to result in dissatisfaction and higher anxiety.

This means that if you can find ways to be intrinsically motivated by your research you are likely to learn more, produce better quality work and have better wellbeing throughout your studies.

We’ll talk more about how you can do this in the sections following.

Video Resources

Thumbnail image for video

Yasuhiro Kotera (University of Derby) Discusses Intrinsic and Extrinsic Approaches and Wellbeing

Thumbnail image for video

Supervisors Discuss Having Personal Meaning to the PGR Topic



Abuhamdeh, Sami; Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly (2012). “The importance of challenge for the enjoyment of intrinsically motivated, goal-directed activities”. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. 38: 317–30. doi:10.1177/0146167211427147. PMID 22067510.


Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (1985). Intrinsic motivation and self-determination in human behavior. New York: Plenum


Kotera, Y., Conway, E., & Van Gordon, W. (2018). Ethical Judgement in UK Business Students: Relationship with Motivation, Self-Compassion and Mental Health. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, 1–15.


Ryan, R.M., & Deci, E.L., (2000). Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivations: Classic Definitions and New Directions. Contemporary Educational Psychology 25, 54–67. doi:10.1006/ceps.1999.1020


Ryan, R. M., & Stiller, J. (1991). The social contexts of internalization: Parent and teacher influences on autonomy, motivation and learning. In P. R. Pintrich & M. L. Maehr (Eds.), Advances in motivation and achievement ( 7, 115–149). Greenwich, CT: JAI Press.