Motivation varies not just in amount, but in how it is regulated – whether it is regulated by external factors such as conditional rewards and threats or by an internal sense of volition, interest, and personal values.
To be motivated means being moved to do something. A student can be motivated to study for a test because she will be punished by her parents if she gets a poor grade; or because she takes pride in a good grade; or because she believes that the her learning will support her long-term goals; or because she finds the subject inherently enjoyable. The amount of motivation — how intent she is on doing the task — may be the same in each of these cases, but how her motivation is regulated differs, which in turn impacts performance.
When motivation is regulated by external factors such as rewards, threats, demands, or obligations, it is externally regulated (or controlled). In contrast, when motivation is regulated by an internal sense of volition, choice, interest, enjoyment, or personal values, it is internally regulated (or autonomous or self-regulated or self-determined).
Research suggests that for creative and developmental tasks in particular, internal regulation produces better performance, more positive self-perception, and higher quality engagement compared to external regulation.
Internal and external regulation of motivation is a different concept from the more popular concept of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. Intrinsic motivation refers to tasks that are inherently interesting or enjoyable. Extrinsic motivation refers to tasks done to achieve some separate outcome. While intrinsic motivation is internally regulated (by definition), extrinsic motivation can range from being internally to externally regulated.
Deci and Ryan describes four categories of extrinsic motivation, varying in their degree of internalisation: external, introjected, identified, and integrated.
A student who dislikes anatomy, but studies it because she believes it will help her reach her goal of saving lives has extrinsic, internally regulated (self-regulated) motivation. A student who studies anatomy only to avoid disappointing her parents has extrinsic, externally regulated motivation.
Many important tasks are not inherently interesting or enjoyable, so the ability to internalise regulation of extrinsic motivation in ourselves and others is useful and valuable. Whether regulation is internalised or not depends on both the individual and the environment. Self-determination theory
The short summary of self-determination theory is that autonomous motivation is more likely to develop when the environment satisfies three fundamental human needs: feelings of competence, autonomy, and relatedness (a sense of belonging and caring in a group or culture).
studies that in depth and starts with making the distinction between external and internal regulation outlined here.
Richard M. Ryan and Edward L. Deci, "Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivations: Classic Definitions and New Directions" Contemporary Educational Psychology (Academic Press, )
Richard M. Ryan and Edward L. Deci, "Self-Determination Theory and the Facilitation of Intrinsic Motivation, Social Development, and Well-Being" American Psychologist (American Psychological Association, Inc., )
Edward Deci, Self-Determination Theory, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m6fm1gt5YAM ()