An intrinsic reward is the feeling of positive emotion a person experiences when engaged in a task that emanates from the joy of engaging the task itself.
The sense of pleasure could be due to sense of accomplishment, mastering a hobby or work-related duty, a feeling of connectedness with others, or aspects of an activity simply being enjoyable.
For example, reading a novel, riding a bike through a beautiful landscape, playing a sport, or practicing a hobby are all activities that a person does solely for the sake of personal enjoyment. They are not required, pressured, or forced to do the activity; it is simply done because the individual derives pleasure from it.
Intrinsic Rewards and Intrinsic Motivation
Intrinsic reward and intrinsic motivation go hand-in-hand.
Ryan and Deci of self-determination theory (2000) state that:
“Intrinsic motivation is defined as the doing of an activity for its inherent satisfactions rather than for some separable consequence” (p. 56).
Those “inherent satisfactions” are the intrinsic rewards that occur when a person engages in certain activities thar are inherently pleasurable.
So, intrinsic motivation is the motivation that occurs when we know that we will receive an intrinsic reward for completing a task.
Intrinsic Rewards Examples
- Pride in Doing a Good Job: Most people work for pay because it is necessary. However, it is also possible to derive intrinsic reward through the satisfaction and pride of doing a good job.
- Working in a Soup Kitchen: There is no direct survival benefit from doing volunteer work in a soup kitchen, and there is no pay either. Some people like the feeling they get when helping others who are struggling in life.
- Participating in Professional Development: While it is true that participating in professional development might be good for a person’s career, there is also a sense of accomplishment derived from completing the course requirements.
- In Being Honest: Finding a wallet stuffed with cash on the sidewalk can be very tempting. The external reward could be significant. However, a person may turn the wallet in to the local police department because of the intrinsic reward of being an honest human being.
- Reading Scientific Journals: Some people enjoy reading romance novels and some people enjoy reading scientific articles. Both activities bring pleasure to each individual. One enjoys escaping in a fantasy and the other enjoys accumulating knowledge. Neither are paid for their time however; they do it for the intrinsic reward.
- Overcoming a Challenge: Challenges can come from anywhere and everywhere. For instance, being put in charge of a large, time-sensitive project at work can be daunting. But, the bigger the challenge, the greater the sense of accomplishment when it has been completed successfully. That feeling is reward enough for many.
- Personal Growth: Some people like to pick a goal each year and work towards that end throughout the year. Not because they have to, but because they don’t want to feel stagnant. Some learn how to use a new software program, some find a hobby, while others may choose to read at least five books on history. Feeling like you are a person that is growing and evolving is a purely intrinsic reward.
- Sense of Belonging: Joining a social club involves periodically gathering with others that share a common interest. People of like-minds get together, share opinions and ideas, and generally enjoy each other’s company. The feelings of belonging and connectedness can be very rewarding.
- Cooking for Others: Some people really enjoy cooking for others. They gain great pleasure by seeing other people enjoy a meal they prepared by themselves. It’s a sense of self-satisfaction by bringing happiness to others.
- The Peak Experience: A peak experience involves intense feelings, hyper-alertness of the surroundings, heightened emotions, and sometimes profound and meaningful insights. It is an experience that is exceptionally rewarding.
Full List of 50 Intrinsic Rewards
- Aesthetic appreciation
- Altruism or the feeling of helping others
- Cognitive development
- Cognitive engagement
- Deepening of relationships
- Emotional intelligence development
- Emotional well-being
- Enhanced self-awareness
- Enjoyment of the process
- Enjoyment or pleasure
- Feeling of accomplishment
- Flow state (a state of deep concentration and immersion in an activity)
- Improved problem-solving skills
- Inner growth
- Inner motivation
- Inner peace
- Intellectual challenge
- Intellectual stimulation
- Intellectual stimulation
- Personal fulfillment
- Personal growth
- Personal satisfaction
- Positive self-image
- Resonance with values
- Satisfaction of curiosity
- Sense of accomplishment
- Sense of autonomy
- Sense of belonging
- Sense of competence
- Sense of mastery
- Sense of purpose or meaning
- Sense of wonder
Intrinsic vs Extrinsic Rewards
There is one difference and one similarity between intrinsic and extrinsic rewards.
Whereas intrinsic rewards emanate from within the individual, extrinsic rewards come from an external source. For example, working in a job leads to being paid. The reason for engaging the activity is to receive a salary.
With intrinsic rewards, the motive comes from within, because the individual finds the activity enjoyable. For example, some people may work in a particular job not because of the pay, but because they find some other aspect of the work rewarding.
Teachers and social workers are not highly paid professionals, but individuals in those occupations often say that they find the job fulfilling.
Interestingly, both intrinsic and extrinsic rewards activate the brain’s neural reward system (Blain & Sharot, 2021).
The pleasure involved when cashing a paycheck activates the exact same neural reward system in the brain as does engaging in a pleasurable activity such as riding a bike. In this since, intrinsic and extrinsic rewards are quite similar.
See Also: Intrinsic vs Extrinsic Motivation
Types of Rewards
Scientists categorize rewards based on their survival value and degree of conditioning necessary to activate their pleasurable concomitants.
1. Primary rewards
Primary rewards consist of stimuli and activities that have been shaped by evolution and are directly connected to survival of the individual and species.
For instance, food, water, reproductive behavior, and maternal care are all rewarding and related to survival.
2. Second order rewards
Second order rewards consist of stimuli and activities that have been associated with primary rewards. Secondary rewards have acquired their value because they are associated with the attainment of primary rewards.
For instance, money. In and of itself, money has no inherent value. It has attained value because of its ability to acquire primary rewards such as food and water.
When a second order reward loses its function to acquire primary rewards, it loses its rewarding properties and the organism (or person) is no longer interested in pursuing it (Pavlov, 1927, 2010).
3. Intrinsic Rewards
Intrinsic rewards do not attain their pleasurable attributes due to their association with primary or second order rewards.
Although it is certainly possible that intrinsically rewarding activities may be associated with primary or secondary rewards, in most cases, an individual will not cease the activity if that association is terminated (Schultz, 2015).
Moreover, intrinsic rewards do not have clear survival value.
Applications of Intrinsic Rewards
1. In the Workplace
Most people spend most of their adult lives engaged in work. It is a core component of life.
For this reason, many aspects of work have been examined in psychological research, including the role of intrinsic and extrinsic rewards on worker motivation, performance, and satisfaction.
Frey (1997) stated that once extrinsic rewards such as pay reach a certain threshold, then intrinsic rewards become strong motivators. After reaching that threshold, employees then need to obtain a sense of fulfillment and satisfaction to maintain motivation.
More specifically defined in the context of work, intrinsic rewards refer to an employee’s involvement in work-related tasks and activities (Byars & Rue, 2011).
Employees obtain a sense of personal fulfillment when accomplishing work-related tasks (Van Aswegen et al., 2009). Intrinsic rewards are considered psychological in nature and are comprised of meaningful, positive, and emotional experiences (Stumpf, Tymon, Favorito & Smith, 2013).
Similar to other contexts, intrinsic rewards are directly connected to a sense of autonomy, recognition and appreciation, and successfully completing challenging tasks (Ozütku, 2012).
Jacobs et al. (2014) and Masvaure et al. (2014) found similar results regarding intrinsic rewards. Job duties that were intrinsically rewarding led to increased worker engagement.
May et al. (2004) found that psychologically meaningful work, an intrinsic reward, showed the strongest relationship with worker engagement. Rewarding co-worker relations and supportive supervisors were related to psychological safety.
At the same time, extrinsic rewards have also been frequently demonstrated to increase worker engagement (Gujral & Jain, 2013; Ram & Prabhakar, 2011; Waqas & Saleem, 2014).
Kooij et al. (2011) conducted a meta-analysis of studies that investigated age-related preferences for intrinsic and extrinsic rewards. The results showed that older workers were less motivated to attain extrinsic rewards such as advancement/promotion, job recognition, and compensation.
Somewhat surprisingly, they were also less interested in aspects of work that are usually placed in the intrinsic rewards category, including challenging work and forming coworker relationships.
Older workers expressed stronger motives for working due to job characteristics such as a sense of accomplishment, job enjoyment, autonomy, contributing to society, and the opportunity to use existing skills. These are all factors usually placed in the intrinsic rewards category.
Research on intrinsic and extrinsic rewards in the workplace is extensive. It has revealed that both factors contribute to worker satisfaction and performance.
However, as Ram and Prabhakar (2011) pointed out, organizations should ensure that employees’ needs for both intrinsic and extrinsic rewards are met to foster maximum organizational growth.
2. In the Classroom
There has been a tremendous amount of research in education on the impact of intrinsic versus extrinsic rewards (Ryan & Deci, 2000). Most of this research has demonstrated that extrinsic rewards undermine intrinsic motivation (Deci, 1971; Lepper, Greene, & Nisbett, 1973).
Deci et al. (1999) conducted a meta-analysis of 128 studies and found that extrinsic rewards lead to less task persistence once the rewards are removed. These effects are stronger for young children than adults.
According to Cognitive Evaluation Theory (CET), intrinsic rewards attain their value because they create a sense of self-efficacy and satisfy the basic psychological need for competence (Deci & Ryan, 1985). However, this only occurs when the student also feels a sense of autonomy.
Several studies demonstrated that teachers that foster an autonomy-supportive environment encourage intrinsic motivation, curiosity, and a desire for challenge (Deci, Nezlek, & Sheinman, 1981; Ryan & Grolnick, 1986; Amabile, 2018).
In contrast, students in controlling classroom environments lack initiative and don’t learn as well when tasks are especially difficult or require creativity (Benware & Deci, 1984; Grolnick & Ryan, 1987; Ryan & Deci, 2020).
Patall et al. (2008) conducted a meta-analysis of 41 studies involving child and adult samples. The findings revealed that providing choices to engage in a task increased intrinsic motivation, effort, and performance. This was a robust finding across most studies examined.
Intrinsic rewards refer to positive feelings that emanate from inside the individual. This includes feelings of accomplishment, a sense of pride in mastering a task or activity, or obtaining a sense of belongingness with others.
The defining characteristic of an intrinsic reward is that it comes from within. This is in contrast to an extrinsic reward, which refers to the positive feeling associated with something like a monetary reward or job promotion. The feeling is positive, but it stems from an external source.
The role of intrinsic and extrinsic rewards in the workplace and educational contexts has been examined extensively.
Generally speaking, extrinsic rewards in educational contexts can undermine intrinsic motivation. Research has demonstrated that students are more task persistent and find a task more rewarding in the absence of external incentives. This is related to a sense of autonomy and control.
However, in work settings, both intrinsic and extrinsic rewards play important roles in worker engagement and motivation. External incentives are essential to a point, after which intrinsic rewards become key drivers of worker behavior.
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