The sliding scale of motivation

By Lucy Campbell

The Sliding Scale of Motivation

We can be motivated by many things: competition, weight loss, self-improvement. It’s worth trying to understand why these motivate you. Most people are aware of internal or external motivation. Thanks GCSE PE! Intrinsically motivated actions are done purely for the enjoyment of the activity itself, think playing as a child. Extrinsically motivated actions are done purely for the attainment of a reward, think bribery. But this is a very simplistic approach. In reality, motivation runs on a spectrum based on our perceived control over an activity, and intrinsic and extrinsic motivation form the bookends.

Here’s the spectrum (1):

Let’s go through each of these and explain them in a little more depth.

Amotivation represents an activity that you do not value, that you have no perceived competence in, or simply don’t care about. To put it simply, you’re not that bothered about it. Hence, it is not considered as a form of motivation, because it is in fact a lack of it.

External regulation represents the engagement in an activity to obtain external rewards, like prizes or money, to avoid punishment, or to comply with social pressures (1).

Introjected regulation represents the engagement in a behaviour to gain approval or praise, or to avoid feelings of guilt, e.g. training because you feel like you ‘should’.

Identified regulation is present when you do an activity because you accept the underlying value for the behaviour, e.g. training because you recognise that it will get you to your goals, which you value; or exercising because it helps to keep you healthy, which is important to you.

Integrated regulation represents a degree of internalisation in which the behaviour is both deemed as important, and incorporated into other aspects of life, such as one’s identity (see previous blog post about athletic identity). For example, taking part in an activity because you see it as being an important part of who you are, and your lifestyle.

Lastly, intrinsically motivated behaviours are undertaken for the inherent pleasure and enjoyment of the activity itself. There is nothing gained from the activity, other than the enjoyment of participation (2).

As we go across the spectrum from left to right, we see a change in motives from controlling to autonomous. In other words, it moves from doing an activity for something or to avoid something, to doing an activity for the enjoyment and personal importance of the activity itself. The interesting thing is, our motivation for doing a certain behaviour can change and move along the spectrum.

Let’s consider exercise, for instance. Take an adult who starts going to the gym because they ‘feel like they should’. How often do you hear this? “I feel like I should go to the gym but I can’t be bothered”, or something along those lines. This is an example of introjected regulation, a form of external regulation. Exercising due to guilt. But then they start to go more and notice some aesthetic benefits, or that they don’t struggle as much going up the stairs anymore. So, they start to go more because they like the outcome of exercise. They still don’t fully enjoy exercising itself, but they like the benefits it brings – identified regulation. Then slowly but surely, they start to enjoy the gym environment, they see themselves as a ‘gym goer’, it becomes part of their identity. It becomes something they value – integrated regulation. Lastly, if they’re lucky, they become one of those few who actively enjoy exercise. They enjoy the burn of those last reps; they enjoy pushing themselves; they enjoy how it makes them feel. They have finally reached intrinsic regulation, the holy grail.

This is ideal. This is the direction we want to go. Sometimes, however, we lose sight of why we’re doing things, and motivation can go the other way. Often as children, we start participation in sport because we love the sport. The more we love the sport, the more effort we put in, the more medals we win, scholarships we get. Eventually, we end up on a national team, or on funding, getting paid for the thing we once loved. But all of a sudden, we don’t want to compete well because we love competing, but because we need to to maintain our funding or to keep our scholarship. These are externally regulated factors. We have moved from the love of the sport, to the pressure of other factors; internal to external regulation. Unfortunately, this is a key reason for drop out in sport - we lose sight of why we started.

I realise that maybe this wasn’t the most exciting blog post, but hopefully it’s shed some light and you’ve learnt something new on the topic. Keep an eye out - it’ll help to contextualise posts to come.

Until then, enjoy what you’re doing, and make sure you’re doing it for the right reasons.



1. Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (Eds.). (1985). Intrinsic motivation and self-determination in human behavior. New York: Plenum Press.

2. Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (2000). The ‘what’ and ‘why’ of goal pursuits: Human needs and the self-determination of behavior. Psychological Inquiry, 11(4), 227–268.