October 28, 2014

4 Real-World Examples That Explain Intrinsic Motivation

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Tags: Gamification

If you’re studying gamification, you won’t have to dig very deep to come across references to intrinsic motivation and all its glorious power.

Intrinsic motivation – which refers to a person’s internal drive to perform an action purely because of the enjoyment they get from it – plays a foundational role in Self-Determination Theory (SDT). It’s one of the key psychological theories for gamification designers, as well as many social psychologists.

In a broad sense, SDT posits that three psychological needs internally motivate humans to take action. These needs are not only essential for motivation without external influences, but also for mental well-being.

These needs are:

–          Competence

–          Autonomy

–          Relatedness

In SDT theory, intrinsic motivation is the opposite of extrinsic motivation. As you might expect, extrinsic motivation refers to stimulus that originates from external influences, such as money or other types of rewards. While the two types are often painted as distinct entities, the reality is often more complex.

For businesses, understanding intrinsic vs. extrinsic motivation is critical to implementing an effective gamification program. It’s also central to gaining a better understanding of what motivates your employees to engage with their work.

Intrinsic Motivation for Business

As mentioned before, SDT identifies three universal needs that intrinsically motivate all humans. Dan Pink, author of the influential book Drive introduces a fourth: purpose. In his 2009 TED Talk, Pink explains the need to understand and promote intrinsic motivation. As he says, “there’s a mismatch between what science knows and what business does.”

You can see the author’s entire speech here:


According to social science research, external rewards are not the best motivators for white collar workers. Of course employees want their basic needs like food and shelter covered, but once every day comforts are addressed, pay raises, bonuses, and other monetary prizes don’t encourage long term motivation on a consistent basis.

Yet a majority of the business world still relies on extrinsic motivation to encourage their employees to be productive.

Traditional extrinsic rewards work well for motivating workers to perform repetitive tasks – studies have found that rewards don’t undermine internal motivation to perform uninteresting tasks – but when applied to job functions that require innovation, these rewards can actually harm intrinsic motivation.

If businesses want to move beyond the current landscape of employee malaise, identifying and catering to intrinsic motivation represents the only way forward.

Real-World Intrinsic Motivation

If intrinsic motivation can be harmed by external rewards, how does one encourage intrinsic motivation? This is where well thought out gamification comes into play.

Games answer users’ needs for relatedness, purpose, autonomy, and competence. Consequently, gamification can be successful at tapping into the intrinsic motivation of users by emphasizing certain actions through a software-interface and workplace structure.

But enough with the abstract psychology. Let’s look at some examples.

#1 Quora

Quora Question Feed

Need: Relatedness

Started by two ex-Facebook employees in 2009, Quora is a question and answer website with a heavy focus on technology. Questions are ranked by popularity in a user’s news feed, as statuses would be on a social media platform. Due to strong community participation, Quora has grown significantly in the past several years. The platform boasted over 500,000 registered users in 2011.

And it’s precisely these users that are the secret to Quora’s success. The community not only features notable experts from a variety of industries, it also has tons of incredibly active, engaged members. The secret to Quora’s success has been tapping into its users need for relatedness. Quora users want to interact with people who have the same interests and share their knowledge with like-minded individuals.

Quora emphasizes this behavior by awarding credits (read: points) to users for participating in the community. Once users accrue enough points they can use them to upvote a question so more people answer it or ask a specific question to an expert.

Rather than try to encourage some type of new behavior with extrinsic rewards, Quora has pinpointed exactly why people come to their site and then emphasized that behavior through gamification.


#2 Foldit

Foldit Protein

Need: Purpose

The University of Washington’s Center for Game Science and Department of Biochemistry recently brought together two ostensibly different activities: folding the structure of selected proteins and game design.

While this likely doesn’t sound too appealing to most people, the two UW departments nonetheless wanted to enlist the help of the public to identify protein structures that could be used to fight disease or advance modern medicine.

What they created was Foldit, an interactive tool for folding the structure of proteins. By displaying a 3D representation of known protein structures, Foldit supplies users with the means to manipulate the structure of these models in hopes of unlocking new protein structures. But instead of just creating an app with the capabilities to fold molecules, the University of Washington gave the tool game elements to make the experience more enjoyable.

By adding scores that judge how well each new protein structure is folded, Foldit managed to attract a following of casual gamers. And while adding gamification certainly made the experience more motivating, it was the intrinsic need for purpose that called so many users to the Foldit project. Not only is it an interesting, interactive puzzle, it also helps expand scientist knowledge.

So was Foldit successful? In just three weeks players created an accurate model of an AIDS-causing virus in monkeys, a feat which had stumped scientists for 15 years.


#3 Google’s 80/20

 A woman at work maybe at Google

Need: Autonomy

It’s human nature to try to control our environment, which is why autonomy is an important part of intrinsic motivation. But as we’ve discovered, having control over even the basic habits of our lives, much less our entire environment, can be incredibly challenging, if not impossible.

However, we still seek autonomy whenever we can, and granting employee more freedom in the workplace has been linked to several positive effects, including greater feelings of personal accomplishment and a reduction in emotional exhaustion.

Google wanted to encourage its employees to pursue their own ideas, and hopefully turn them into something incredible. This mindset led to the implementation of Google’s 80/20 rule, which allowed employees to spend 20 percent of their work time focusing on their own projects.

The results of the 80/20 project include Gmail, Google News, AdSense and other notable innovations. And though Google has now folded the company-wide 80/20 rule in favor of a specific department for innovation, the company correctly identified the intrinsic need of their employees for autonomy over their work.

Google’s 80/20 didn’t include any gamification, but it did correctly target intrinsic motivation.


#4 Duolingo

duolingo skill tree

Need: Competence

Games and learning are inherently tied together. In fact, games can be optimal vehicles for learning. One of the reasons games (even educational ones) are so popular is that they combine the enjoyment of discovery with the natural desire to gain competency.

With this in mind, it’s no surprise that learning programs and applications – such as Quest 2 Learn, Khan Academy, and Codeacademy – are so prevalent. Using games to learn just makes sense.

The free language learning app Duolingo makes for an excellent example. In order to keep users engaged, Duolingo uses progress visualization (known as skill trees) to show users how far they’ve come after each lesson. As users become better, they earn experience points which are used to unlock the next level.

Duolingo users also have four “lives” which they lose each time they make a mistake in a course module. Lose all four and you have to start over.

Duolingo currently boasts some 25 million users and has won Apple’s 2013 iPhone App of the Year and Techcrunch’s Best Education Startup of 2014.

An Aside for Extrinsic Rewards

Understanding intrinsic motivation should be the goal of every business. Finding out what makes your employees tick translates into a better, more fulfilling workplace culture. However, extrinsic rewards aren’t bad per se, they simply serve a different purpose.

As our understanding of what motivates humans improves, so does our understanding of how we should structure rewards, positive feedback, and other employee interactions. Seek out the intrinsic motivations of your employees and you’ll create a better platform for them to succeed. 


photo credit:photo credit: OpenEye via photopin cc 

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