Internalising Motivation: Behave Because We Want To!

Internalising Motivation: Behave Because We Want To!

12 April 2020 0 By JuanParki

What is it? We often discuss either ‘having’ or ‘lacking’ motivation as a core driver of behaviour. However, motivation can also exist in several different forms which dictate not only whether we we initiate action, but also how committed we are1

There are various forms of motivation described in a framework known as the internalisation continuum2. The important ones for us are: 

  1. Extrinsic – doing something to receive an external reward or avoid punishment. Essentially doing something for someone else.
  2. Identified – doing something because it is personally important. We see the value in doing it, so we take ownership.
  3. Intrinsic – doing something because it is inherently fun. 

These differ in the quality of motivation harnessed. Extrinsic motivation is dependent on the continued delivery of reward, punishment, guilt and stress. 3 and as such, is not a sustainable strategy of motivating behaviour. 

Intrinsic motivation is high quality and sustainable, and is associated with stronger mental wellbeing, persistence and performance4,5. However, it is not possible to cultivate intrinsic motivation for activities which will never be ‘fun’.

Alternatively, helping people recognise the personal importance of committing to a goal or course of action, (identified motivation) can sustainably and successfully change the attractiveness of originally unappealing activities, which can then become rewarding and satisfying in their own right6,7

Therefore, fostering identified motivation for behaviours relevant to Covid-19 can have a powerful impact on motivated adherence to guidelines.

How to use it:  

  1. Autonomy Support – having a sense of choice over whether and how behaviour is carried out is an essential precursor of internalisation1. People who feel forced into doing something will react against the activity before getting to the stage of considering how it may be personally important8. During Covid-19, activities which must be carried out, such as social distancing, should be presented in an autonomy-supportive way, for example providing a rationale for the behaviour, and using non-controlling language (and see previous post on Psychological Needs). 
  2. Reflection – The chance to reflect on why a behaviour is personally important enables someone to commit and enjoy initially unattractive activities7. This process can be supported by interventions such as daily journaling or Socratic questioning: presenting individuals with ‘why’ questions that help them identify their own reasons for acting. These will be far more effective in motivating behaviour, than those which are imposed by other people. [For an example see this article and it’s attached resource].
  3. Meaning – Perceiving an activity to have significance beyond the immediate self can also help individuals internalise its importance9. Messages which convey this wider relevance, such as the Queen’s Covid-19 address, help reinforce a narrative that beating Coronavirus is about a global effort in which we must all play our part. Specifically, it is important to use  language which unites and includes everyone, as well as emphasises common human values,  rather than identify differences that may prejudice some individuals against others.


1.        Vansteenkiste, M., Niemiec, C. P. & Soenens, B. The Development Of The Five Mini-Theories Of Self-Determination Theory : An Historical Overview , Emerging Trends , And Future Directions. (2008). doi:10.1108/S0749-7423(2010)000016A007

2.        Ryan, R. M. & Connell, J. P. Perceived locus of causality and internalization: Examining reasons for acting in two domains. J. Pers. Soc. Psychol. 57, 749–761 (1989).

3.        Teixeira, P. J., Carraça, E. V, Markland, D., Silva, M. N. & Ryan, R. M. Exercise, physical activity, and self-determination theory: A systematic review. Int. J. Behav. Nutr. Phys. Act. 9, 78 (2012).

4.        Niemiec, C. P. & Ryan, R. M. Autonomy, competence, and relatedness in the classroom. Theory Res. Educ. 7, 133–144 (2009).

5.        Ng, J. Y. Y. et al. Self-Determination Theory Applied to Health Contexts. Perspect. Psychol. Sci. 7, 325–340 (2012).

6.        Resnicow, K. et al. Motivational Interviewing: moving from why to how with autonomy support. Int. J. Behav. Nutr. Phys. Act. 9, 19 (2012).

7.        Haerens, L., Aelterman, N., Vansteenkiste, M., Soenens, B. & Van Petegem, S. Do perceived autonomy-supportive and controlling teaching relate to physical education students’ motivational experiences through unique pathways? Distinguishing between the bright and dark side of motivation. Psychol. Sport Exerc. 16, 26–36 (2015).

8.        Chen, B. et al. Basic psychological need satisfaction, need frustration, and need strength across four cultures. Motiv. Emot. 39, 216–236 (2015).

9.        Hooker, S. A., Masters, K. S. & Park, C. L. A Meaningful Life Is a Healthy Life: A Conceptual Model Linking Meaning and Meaning Salience to Health A Meaningful Life Is a Healthy Life: A Conceptual Model Linking Meaning and Meaning Salience to Health. Rev. Gen. Psychol. (2017). doi:10.1037/gpr0000115