Internal vs. Instrumental Motivation

Internal vs. Instrumental Motivation

Motivations are the reasons why we do things; the underlying cause that creates the effect. Two different people can, of course, have different motivations to do the same things. Most folks eat because they’re hungry, though some eat because they enjoy the taste; I try to eat more than normal everyday because I’m trying to gain weight, while for some the opposite motivation would have them conduct themselves in the opposite way. Ascertaining someone’s motivation for doing something can be difficult, but what we can do is categorize motivations into two types; internal and instrumental.

Internal motivations results from internal processes; a desire to be the best you can be. When you become a chocolatier because chocolate makes you happy, and you love the taste of chocolate, and the search for the best recipe, you’re internally motivated. Instrumental motivation, conversely, is the search for some external reward. If you want to be a chocolatier because your high school rival is one, and you want to beat them at their own game, or you’re attracted to the money that can be made chocolatiering (you can make your own chocolate dollars, after all), you’re instrumentally motivated.

When you’re doing something for the love of it, you may well find you’re instrumentally rewarded for it; what matters, though is the pattern of motivation behind it. It’s intuitively understood that internal motivation is more powerful, and studies seem to bear this out. Who will be the better chocolatier, the soulless corporate type or the passionate chocolate tinkerer? Our stories and experience all bear out that the latter will succeed. One might think, though, that a great motivation structure involves both types; if you’re motivated for your love of chocolate and money, you’ll do better than anyone who is just motivated by one thing. As it turns out, however, instrumental motivation can actually weaken our overall motivation; it may be better to just be internally motivated. A study of West Point cadets demonstrated that those who were primarily driven by internal motivations found more success than those with dual or instrumental motivations.

This gives us an important insight about how we might motivate the people within our organization. It can be tempting to offer salary bonuses, days-off or pizza parties for success; these incentives, however, may actually decrease overall motivation in your organization’s members. After all, if I’m working as hard as possible just for a pizza, I might as well make pizza at home. Anyone who works wants to do so because they believe passionately in what they do.

This is where motivational speakers can do something a pizza lunch will never do. By sharing stories about how their internal motivators got them to the top, they can ignite the spark of passion latent in each and every one of us. When you see someone who has decided to live their truth so completely they’re being paid to talk to you about it, it helps you to understand the value of living your own truth; from there, the sky’s the limit.