Moving Beyond “Highly Motivated”: Motivational Quality, Not Just Level, Drives Behavior

BeyondA phrase you hear a lot is “highly motivated.” People declare that someone is highly motivated if they appear to be persistently working toward a goal, or if they make public declarations of want. No doubt, the amplitude of motivation matters,  but it’s a little more complicated than wanting something a lot. Motivational quality refers to the idea that there are different sources of motivation, ranging along a continuum from totally extrinsic (external) to totally intrinsic (internal). What many people don’t realize is that there are other types of motivation that fall between those two extremes: introjected, identified, and integrated. The type of motivation a person has matters just as much for driving their behavior as the level of that motivation. I’ll use the example of someone interested in weight loss to describe each type of motivation along the quality spectrum. I bet the types will seem familiar:

  • Extrinsic motivation. This is the externally-provoked type of motivation. Someone who is extrinsically motivated wants to complete a behavior in order to earn a reward or avoid a punishment. Terry wants to lose weight in order to get a reduction in his health plan premium from his employer for the next benefits year.
  • Introjected regulation. I think of introjected regulation as what happens when you internalize the nagging. The hallmark of an introjected motivation is the phrase “I should.” Terry thinks, “I should go to the gym. I should avoid pizza in the cafeteria.” He thinks these things because he has internalized the idea that he needs to lose weight, and now he feels guilty when he doesn’t work toward that goal.
  • Identified regulation. At this point on the spectrum, motivation becomes more personal. An identified motivation is when the person values a goal or an outcome associated with the behavior. Our friend Terry is not a big fan of working out, but he really values the goal of getting fitter and avoiding the health problems his dad had. The identified motivation of the larger goal of being healthier will help drive Terry through some of the more difficult day-to-day behaviors.
  • Integrated regulation. When motivation becomes integrated, behaviors are consistent with a person’s values and identity. Terry thinks about exercising and eating healthy as ways for him to be a better dad (because he will be able to really enjoy his kids) and a better employee (because he can be more focused and energetic at work). He may not always feel like working out in the morning, but he would be unhappy if he didn’t do it.
  • Intrinsic motivation. This is the pinnacle of motivation, the most internalized variety. Someone who is intrinsically motivated participates in an activity for the pure pleasure of doing so. In Terry’s case, he is intrinsically motivated to eat sorbet for dessert instead of a higher fat treat because he just freaking loves the taste of fruit. Maybe one day, Terry will also lace up his sneakers because he’s reached a level of fitness where a jog brings him joy.
One motivation for eating right is to not turn into a human donut in a rabbit costume. As long as you value not being a pastry, that's an identified motivation.
One motivation for eating right is to not turn into a human donut in a rabbit costume. As long as you value not being a pastry, that’s an identified motivation.

One thing to notice about the different qualities of motivation is that you can experience more than one of them at the same time. To use my own example with running, I think I have every type of motivation in the spectrum. I am extrinsically motivated to get cool race swag. My identified regulation is that I know I should be active, and I feel like a hypocrite if I’m not because of what I do for a living. I have lots of goals that running supports (identified), including having energy and vitality and being able to enjoy physical adventures. I really have come to see myself as a runner, hence the integrated regulation. And finally, not all the time, but every once in a while, it really does simply feel good to get on the road (and almost always, I feel better physically and mentally for having done it). It’s important to remember that people may be engaging in a behavior for a variety of reasons. So are some types of motivation better than others? Absolutely yes. The closer a person’s motivation gets along the continuum to extrinsic, the more likely he is to actually keep up a new behavior over time. Here are some interesting research findings related to motivational quality:

  • Sustaining over time. If the extrinsic reward is continued over time–for example, if a person continues to receive payments for successfully losing weight or staying smoke-free–then it can possibly sustain the behavior change over time. Unfortunately, this is not typically realistic or cost-effective.
  • Convert my motivation. The key to really sustaining behavior change over time is to help a person find more internal sources of motivation. Some strategies for doing this with health behaviors include making behavior change fun, social, and actionable. This is also where self-determination theory comes into play in a big way. If you can support people’s autonomy, competence, and relatedness through the behavior change process, they are more likely to arrive at or uncover more intrinsic motivations. In clinical settings, you will find techniques like motivational interviewing that are designed to subtly nudge people toward creating their own justifications for intrinsic motivation.
  • A place for everything. Given that both extrinsic and intrinsic motivation have their place in behavior change, a promising model blends the two. As Gabe Zichermann writes in a piece on gamification, “The introduction of carefully selected extrinsic rewards, built around a design that speaks to intrinsic motivational states (sometimes not the ones most closely aligned with the behavior we seek to change), is the most powerful design model we have today.” Similar arguments have been made with respect to workplace performance and rewards.

There’s no quick motivational fix; every individual person has to find his own motivation to make changes in life. Human beings are complicated and we often want things for multiple reasons, or we want contradictory things for contradictory reasons. What is important from a personal change perspective is that if you really want to make an outcome happen, examine your own heart and mind and find a way to think about that change as a part of your values and identity. Make it a part of you, so that when your new behavior gets hard, you have a deep reserve to draw from. Your strategies for tying a behavior to your identity will be as personal to you as the identity itself. For me, public commitments go a long way, as does collecting my own personal data (I never said I wasn’t a nerd). What works for you?

Tomorrow I’ll post about a compelling example of motivational quality recently in the news, regarding West Point graduates and their military careers.

Find additional resources about motivational quality at

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