Intrinsic Motivation and Flow

In 1989, psychologists Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and Jeanne Nakamura assessed how intrinsic motivation might be related to flow in three groups of teenagers. After Larson and Csikszentmihalyi pioneered the ESM method in the early 1980s (see Chapters 2 and 3 here), researchers interested in flow could evaluate flow across broader categories of people in society like working professionals, adolescents, and mothers, for example. A lot of ESM flow researchers honed in on school, because school is a structured system for supporting students to develop academic skills in the face of scholarly challenges. 

Csikszentmihalyi and Nakamura wanted to know how different groups of students experienced flow during their academic work. They analyzed three main datasets of students: one set from a high performing school in Milan, another from a high performing school in a Chicago suburb, and a third set from an inner city Chicago school. The last set of students were also very talented in math. 

This study isn’t perfect. The data from the students was collected over 12 years, accumulated for this analysis from existing data sets generated from other inquiries (See Csikszentmihalyi and Larson 1984, Csikszentmihalyi and Nakamura 1986, Csikszentmihalyi et al. 1977, Graef et al. 1983, and Mayers 1978). So, the data for different students from different places may have come from different historical times. Also, the wide cultural differences between students from northern Italy and students from the upper midwest United States could have had huge impacts on the results, but that also makes them so interesting. There were really three different cultures of students here – Italian, suburban American, and urban American talented in math. These different cultures of students demonstrated some pretty interesting variations in their academic experiences and feelings of flow. 


In the late 1980s, Csikszentmihalyi and Nakamura were curious about flow as a source of intrinsic motivation for students during school. Flow theory states that intrinsic motivation comes from someone’s internal drive rather than an external pressure to do something or a reward for doing it. This is because the flow experience is so enjoyable that people continue the activity for its own sake. 

The Italian students spent the most time in flow – significantly more time than the average U.S. students, and twice as much time as the talented math students. Despite being from very different cultures, the Italian students and average U.S. students reported very similar frequencies across the 8 flow channels. The math students who were flagged with a special talent experienced flow and apathy much less and boredom and anxiety more. In general, intrinsic motivation was highest when students were in flow. Flow occurred most frequently during school-work and was most correlated with intrinsic motivation for the Italian students and talented math students. However, the U.S. students did not report high intrinsic motivation even when they were in flow while learning in school. 

The students also experienced boredom, anxiety, and apathy. The talented math students reported boredom 34% of the time, while the average U.S. students were only bored 19% of the time, and the Italians only 17%. Anxiety occurred most frequently for talented U.S. math students. The Italian students and the average U.S. students reported apathy twice as much as the talented math students. 


Culture matters. It was beyond the scope of this study to quantify the effects of different cultural upbringings on flow, but its results highlight key differences among the student groups. The authors point to socialization as a possible source for the differences. Italian culture and schooling deeply emphasizes the value of a rigorous classical education to success in work, but also in play. The Italian students were probably most likely to experience flow and motivation during school activities. In the United States, culture tends to separate school and/or work from enjoyable activities. The emphasis in American school systems on grades rather than the learning process also adds stress for students – so a challenge that they are well-matched for in skill may seem overwhelming. This might explain why the average U.S. students did not report high intrinsic motivation while they were in flow during school. The cultural norm of school not being fun could be overpowering even their powerful flow experience during academic learning.

The environment matters. The talented math students experienced flow the least and boredom the most, but were most intrinsically motivated while in the flow channel. The authors suggest that these teenagers showed the most adaptive capacity to a challenging academic environment, but did not have often have access to an environment that challenged them. As a result, they were more frequently bored or anxious. 

The individual matters. Flow is natural for humans and can be thought of as the peak of our adaptive capacity for learning. Each person’s potential flow state depends on what gives them fulfillment and that is different for everyone. Structures in society like school systems, cultural norms, and workplace environments can either help or hinder an individual’s access to activities where they find flow. 


Csikszentmihalyi and Nakamura recognized flow through intrinsic motivation as a mechanism for growth. Once someone hones the skills to master a certain challenge, they will become bored and lose flow unless they seek a higher-level challenge. By maintaining flow, a person can constantly learn and grow. 

Because school is theoretically a structured system for learning and growth, Csikszentmihalyi and Nakamura wanted to know how the flow model applied to student experiences during school. So, they gathered data to compare the rates of flow states across three groups of adolescents to understand how each group’s intrinsic motivation was correlated with flow. 

Csikszentmihalyi and Nakamura gathered the three data sets totalling 150 students from pre-existing ESM studies. The groups of students were: 47 Italian students from a public school with one of the best academic reputations in Milan, 75 United States students from a reputable high school outside of Chicago, and 37 United States students who had scored above the 95th percentile on standardized math tests and were from the top three Chicago public schools.

The students had each taken Experience Sampling Method (ESM) tests for one week. The ESM questionnaires in this study were calibrated with questions indicating which of the flow model’s 8 channels students were in at any given time the pager went off. To measure intrinsic motivation, students were asked whether they wished they were doing something else at that moment. They responded on a 10 point scale, which the researchers reversed to represent positive motivation for what the students were doing.

The researchers used the flow model to code 5595 total responses. The authors present a formula for understanding how different ratios of skill level to challenge produce different states of consciousness. They use 8 different channels of consciousness resulting from different ratios: 1) arousal, when skills are average but the challenge is higher than average; 2) flow, when skills and the challenge are both above average and equal; 3) control, when skills are slightly higher than the challenge; 4) boredom, when high skills correspond with a low challenge; 5) relaxation, when average skills correspond with a low challenge; 6) apathy, when both skills and the challenge are low; 7) worry, when low skis are paired with slightly higher challenges; and 8) anxiety, when low skills are paired with high challenges (See Carli 1986 and Massimini et al. 1987).


Carli, M. (1986). Selezione psicologica e qualita dell’esperienza. [Psychological selection and the quality of experience.] In F. Massimini & P. Inghilleri (Eds.), L’esperienza quotidiana. Milan: Franco Angeli. 

Csikszentmihalyi. M., Larson, R.. & Prescott, S, (1977). The ecology of adolescent activity and experience. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 6, 281–294. 

Csikszentmihalyi, M., & Larson, R. (1984). Being adolescent. New York: Basic. 

Csikszentmihalyi, M., & Nakamura, J. (1986, August). Optimal experience and the uses of talent. Paper presented at the 94th Annual Meeting of the American Psychological Association, Washington DC. 

Csikszentmihalyi M., Nakamura J. (1989) The Dynamics of Intrinsic Motivation: A Study of Adolescents. R. Ames and C. Ames (Eds). A Handbook of Motivation Theory and Research, Vol 3, Goals and Cognitions. New York: Academic Press. 

Gracf, R., Csikszentmihalyi, M., & McManama Giannino, S. (1983). Measuring intrinsic motivation in everyday life. Leisure Studies, 2, 155–168. 

Massimini, F., Csikszentmihalyi, M., & Carli. M. (1987). The monitoring of optimal experience: A tool for psychiatric rehabilitation. Journal of Nervous and Mental Diseases, 175, 545–549.

Mayers, P. (1978). Flow in adolescence and its relation to school experience. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, The University of Chicago. 

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