Is intrinsic motivation important for people to act on their prosocial intentions? Intrinsic motivation entails acting for the task’s inherent satisfaction (Ryan & Deci, 2000). Prosocial motivation is the desire to improve others’ lives (Grant, 2008). Prosocial motivation is usually considered a type of extrinsic motivation, which focuses on earning rewards or avoiding punishment by achieving a goal (Grant, 2008). The “reward” is satisfaction of benefiting others.
If prosocial motivation only comes from reaching the goal of seeing others helped or better off, then it is extrinsic. When individuals push themselves to complete tasks only for the end benefit, they may experience stress and frustration when things don’t go as planned (Grant, 2011). While it is likely that prosocially motivated individuals would like to see positive results for their efforts, those who work in social justice or systemic change efforts often have to persevere for long periods before they can hope to see change in society.
That is where intrinsic motivation may be important. It provides psychological tools to persist through adversities. These tools include higher self-esteem, a sense of fulfillment, better cooperation skills, and more problem-solving and creativity (Covington, 2000; Finkelstien, 2009; Forgeard & Mecklenburg, 2013; Grant, 2011). People with intrinsic motivation focus on the process, not the end goal (Hennessey, Moran, Altringer, & Amabile, 2014). So they can take enjoyment from the hard work of prosocial endeavors even if there are setbacks (Moran, 2010).
Consider Betty, who recently discovered the harsh living conditions of homeless children and felt motivated to improve them. She volunteers to entertain homeless children while their parents look for jobs. However, it takes several weeks for the children to warm up to her because they are used to volunteers coming and going. And it takes months for parents to make progress in their job searches. If Betty is only extrinsically motivated, she may feel frustrated that her time does not seem to make any difference. This puts her at risk for abandoning the effort.
But if Betty is at least partially intrinsically motivated, she is more likely to endure the children’s and parents’ setbacks because she enjoys hearing children’s laughter, or learning how to play new childhood games, or encouraging children to try something new. By enjoying the tasks themselves, not just the results of the tasks, she starts to devise plans for new activities with the children.
This intrinsic motivation—love of the actions themselves—is a form of personal meaning, which is a dimension of youth purpose (Moran, 2009). Thus, intrinsic motivation may better sustain prosocial actions. Betty, instead of giving up due to frustration of not reaching her goal fast enough, could focus on the daily joys of small acts, which could keep her going. Then she would be more likely to actually make a difference.
By Despoina Lioliou, Clark University, USA
Covington, M. V. (2000). Goal theory, motivation, and school achievement: An integrative review. Annual Review of Psychology, 51(1), 171-200. doi: 10.1146/annurev.psych.51.1.171
Finkelstein, M. A. (2009). Intrinsic vs. extrinsic motivational orientations and the volunteer process. Personality and Individual Differences, 46(5-6), 653-658. doi: 10.1016/j.paid.2009.01.010
Forgeard, M. J. C., & Mecklenburg, A. C. (2013). The two dimensions of motivation and a reciprocal model of the creative process. Review of General Psychology, 17(3), 255-266. doi: 10.1037/a0032104
Grant, A. M. (2008). Does intrinsic motivation fuel the prosocial fire? Motivational synergy in predicting persistence, creativity, and productivity. Journal of Applied Psychology, 93(1), 48-58. doi: 10.1037/0021-9010.93.1.48
Grant, A. M., & Berry, J. W. (2011). The necessity of others is the mother of invention: Intrinsic and prosocial motivations, perspective-taking, and creativity. Academy of Management Journal, 54(1), 73-96. doi: 10.5465/AMJ.2011.59215085
Hennessey, B. A., Moran, S., Altringer, B., & Amabile, T. A. (2014). Extrinsic and intrinsic motivation. In C. Cooper (Ed.), Wiley encyclopedia of management, Vol. 11 (3rd ed., pp. 1-4). New York, NY: Wiley.
Moran, S. (2009). Purpose: Giftedness in intrapersonal intelligence. High Ability Studies, 20(2), 143-159. doi: 10.1080/13598130903358501
Moran, S. (2010). Changing the world: Tolerance and creativity aspirations among American youth. High Ability Studies, 21(2), 117-132. doi: 10.1080/13598139.2010.525342
Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2000). Intrinsic and extrinsic motivations: Classic definitions and new directions. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 25(1), 54-67. doi: 10.1006/ceps.1999.1020