Motivation to Design: Extrinsic and Intrinsic Motivation & 8 Motivators for Creation

Motivation is an invisible force in our heads.  It’s the reason that drives us to do something or act in a certain way, and it can be categorized as intrinsic or extrinsic.

Intrinsic Motivation

In this type of motivation, the person gets pleasure from the process of doing something.  It’s an internal and personal motivation.  A perfect example of this is when someone plays a song on any instrument.  They do it for the pleasure of playing the song.  They are not motivated by the result, but by the process, and the behavior is an end in itself.  This is also called “functional autonomy”, a term coined by American psychologist Gordon Allport that states that the idea that drives can become independent of the original motives for a given behavior. Designers are motivated to create by certain specific intrinsic motivators (discussed later) which are: a desire for mastery, immortality, self-esteem, desire to create beauty, desire to discover underlying order and desire to prove oneself.

Extrinsic Motivation

In extrinsic motivation, the person gets pleasure from the result of the process, rather than by doing the process.  It’s an external motivation and it’s originated by external factors that are intended to control the individual’s performance on a given task.  The constraint is extraneous to the work itself and it’s introduced by the social environment.  Some clear examples of extrinsic motivation are money, recognition and the desire to prove oneself to others.  Extrinsic constraints in the workplace have a tendency to undermine creative performance, which is an alarming fact since this means that creativity in highly motivated individuals can be thwarted by the extrinsic constraints that exist in the traditional work environment of 9 to 5.

Motivational orientation, whether it’s intrinsic or extrinsic, has an impact on creativity, as proven by Teresa M. Amabile – a Harvard psychologist that studies the connection between motivation and creation – in one of her studies, which was designed to create intrinsic and extrinsic motivational states in her subjects.  For this study, the creative task chosen was writing, so writers were recruited.  Later, the writers were sorted into three groups.  One of them was a control group, and the other two would be primed either to be intrinsically or extrinsically motivated.  This was done by using a simple questionnaire that asked the writers about their attitude towards writing.  The control group did not answer a questionnaire, while one group was primed with an intrinsic questionnaire and the other one with an extrinsic questionnaire.  After, the three groups were asked to write a brief poem, which would then be judged on creativity by several professional poets.  The results were dramatic.

The control group was rated high on the creativity scale, which was expected since the study used creative writers as subjects.  The group that was primed to be intrinsically motivated was rated higher still than the control group, but not enough to be of significance.  But the extrinsic group rated much lower in creativity than the two previous groups. 

People will feel and be more creative when they are internally (intrinsically) motivated by things like interest, enjoyment, and curiosity, rather than by external (extrinsic) pressures such as time frames and evaluations, or even money.

“I want to feel my work good and well taken, which ironically freezes me at my work, corrupts my nunnish labor of work-for-itself-as-its-own-reward.”

-Sylvia Plath (Poet)

Reading a book called “Before the Gates of Excellence” by South African psychologist Richard Ochse, I identified 8 reasons that motivate creators to create.  Some of these reasons overlap with Henry Murray’s 27 psychogenic needs, which according to him, are the basic needs of personality.  Here is an analysis of those reasons:

1. Desire for Mastery

The desire for mastery is a force that motivates us all since it’s ingrained in each and every one of us since we are children.  It’s a universal human drive to want to master things ranging from careers, instruments, and sports, to even each other.  People are naturally driven to master, and it’s this drive that motivates us to set ourselves higher goals and aim for constant improvement.

2. Immortality

Immortality is a term that can only be taken philosophically, since we know for a fact that every living thing dies at some point.  So if creators, designers or artists look for immortality, it can only be taken in this way.  What better way (or any other way) is there for a creator to live forever than to leave their work as a legacy and testament of their time alive?  This is a motivator that is closely tied to recognition, a motivator that comes later on the list, and like recognition, it’s an extrinsic motivator, not because immortality is the objective that causes our pleasure, but because immortality does not exist without others to attest to it.

Click Here to get your FREE PDF of Henry Murray’s 27 Psychogenic Needs Now!

3. Money

We might think that money is one of the major extrinsic motivators, but maybe it’s just its ubiquity or the fact that it’s such an inherent part of society since so long ago.  The fact is that money is a very weak motivator, as Tim Judge and his colleagues found out in one of their studies, which revealed – after analyzing 120 years of compiled research – that there is an overlap of less than 2% between pay and job satisfaction levels.


Another study by Yoon Jik Cho and James Perry that analyzed data of over 200,000 government employees, showed that their engagement levels were 3 times stronger with intrinsic motivators than extrinsic ones, like money.  Simply put, people are more likely to like their job by if they focus on the work itself and less likely to enjoy it if they focus on money.

4. Recognition

Basic psychology tells us that people who are affirmed for good behavior are more likely to repeat said behavior, and that, in the long run, will build a stronger, more productive business, filled with motivated individuals.  Ivan Pavlov – a Russian physiologist – called this a conditioned reflex: a response that becomes associated with a previously unrelated stimulus as a result of pairing the stimulus with another stimulus normally yielding the response, and B.F. Skinner – an American Harvard psychology researcher inspired by Pavlov – came up with a similar concept titled operant conditioning, which is when the learning of a behavior happens as the result of the rewards and punishments associated with that behavior.  Divided into four types, the first operant conditioning Skinner proposed was positive reinforcement: when behavior is strengthened and the probability of it recurring increases as a result of a positive condition. 

Recognition is an extrinsic motivator since it doesn’t come from within us.  In order to get recognition, we need people to give it to us.

5. Self-Esteem

As Roy F. Baumeister states in his paper about self-regulation and ego threat, the desire or need that we all have to think favorably about ourselves is one of the most elemental and pervasive motivations in human psychology, however hard it may be at some times.  Sometimes these optimistic views of ourselves are threatened, something that Baumeister calls an “ego threat”.  We as humans want to keep this flattering view of ourselves alive and unharmed, and in order to do this, we need to diffuse or discredit these threatening implications.  This need to eliminate these negative implications are what motivates us, and as designers, we are motivated to create.  Self-esteem can be seen as the strongest intrinsic motivator because of its broadness.  In many ways, it’s the parent of the rest of the intrinsic motivators in this list, since self-esteem is fueled by all of them.

6. Desire to Create Beauty

Even though beauty is what is sought after the process of creation, and this may seem like an extrinsic motivator, it is not.  The beauty we look for is for ourselves, for our own pleasure.  There are no outside forces exerting pressure over what we think is beautiful because beauty is so subjective.  Although we are influenced by our social, cultural and physical environment, beauty is personal, and so is the desire to create it.  As designers, we find pleasure in the process of creating beauty as well as the result of the process, beauty itself, and both beauties motivate us to create.

7. Desire to Prove Oneself

A motivator with a duality, the desire to prove oneself can be very powerful in both of its existing forms, extrinsic or intrinsic.  The desire to prove oneself may be aimed to ourselves or to others.  If we want to prove ourselves to ourselves, the motivation is intrinsic and strong by nature.  If we want to prove ourselves to others, the motivation then becomes extrinsic.  However, unlike a typical extrinsic motivator – which is weak –  this desire to prove ourselves to others can also be a very strong motivator, because, in order to prove ourselves to others, we must first prove ourselves to ourselves.  The need to prove ourselves implies that, in that moment, we do not fully believe in ourselves.  This causes another ego threat, which results as motivation.  A motivated designer or creator will prove him or herself by doing what they are best at: creating.

8. Desire to Discover Underlying Order

The key word here is discover.  When we discover something, we are recognized for it.  And ultimately, that is what most creators look for (although it’s not the only thing).  A creator that is not recognized can feel he or she is of little value or has little to offer.  This demotivates creators, or any person, despite the profession.  The way creators counter this demotivation is by creating, because what is creation if not a constant search for the discovery of the new: new processes, new materials, new shapes and new solutions to new problems.

Click Here to get your FREE PDF of Henry Murray’s 27 Psychogenic Needs Now!


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  1. Excellent blog you have here but I was wondering if you knew of any user discussion forums
    that cover the same topics talked about here?

    I’d really love to be a part of online community where I can get responses from other knowledgeable people that share the same interest.
    If you have any recommendations, please let me know.

    • caradecesar

      Thanks for the kind words! I’m not aware of an online community that covers these topics…but maybe you can try…these articles are also published there and many people comment…maybe you can get feedback there…or Quora maybe…

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