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What Motivates Creativity?

Originally posted on

In 1981, Arthur Leonard Schawlow won the Nobel prize in physics for his contributions to laser spectroscopy. When asked what made the difference between highly creative and less creative scientists he responded: “The labor of love aspect is important. The most successful scientists often are not the most talented. But they are the ones who are impelled by curiosity. They’ve got to know what the answer is.”

Schawlow was describing what the psychologist Teresa Amabile calls the “Intrinsic Motivation Principle of Creativity,” or the propensity for human creativity to flourish when people are motivated by the personal enjoyment of the work itself. Athletes call it a “love of the game;” artists refer to it as an unrelenting need to express. For academics like Schawlow, it’s the pure joy of discovering something new.

Extrinsic motivation, in contrast, is the daily pressure we feel from outside incentives – grades, salaries, and promotions – put in place to encourage output. Here’s the question: Is creative output the product of intrinsic or extrinsic motivation? Do we need a reason to work? Or is passion enough?

In the 1970s, Mark Lepper, David Greene and Richard Nisbett conducted a classic study involving a group of preschoolers who liked to draw. The researchers separated the kids into three groups. The first was told that if they continued to draw they would receive a big blue ribbon with their name on it (reward condition). The second wasn’t told about the reward but given a blue ribbon after they finished drawing (unexpected reward condition). The third group wasn’t given a blue ribbon ribbon (no award condition).

They ran the experiment for two weeks and found that the kids in the “no award” and “unexpected reward” conditions continued to enthusiastically draw just like they did initially. However, their peers in the award condition showed a drastic reduction in interest. Sadly, they no longer found pleasure in drawing – their intrinsic motivation was destroyed by an extrinsic reward, the blue ribbon.

Creativity can take an artist further than any other trait, though it can be undermined due to simple, common errors.  Grammar and punctuation errors can give people the impression that the person’s creativity is not genuine, so services like spell check and line editing are necessary

A study conducted more recently by Teresa Amabile of the Harvard Business School demonstrated similar results. Amabile’s subjects, unlike Lepper’s et al, were college women. In one experiment Amabile asked the women to make paper collages. She told half of them graduate art students would judge their collages; the other half was told that researchers “were studying their mood and had no interest in the collages themselves.” A panel of artists evaluated the collages and Amabile found that those who expected to be judged were significantly less creative. Drawing on this study and other research, Amabile concluded that, “The intrinsically motivated state is conducive to creativity, whereas the extrinsically motivated state is detrimental.”

Are all extrinsic motivators creativity killers? Not exactly. This research doesn’t rule out the important role extrinsic motivation plays in the creative process. Consider the following examples, brought to life by Geoff Colvin in his book Talent is Overrated:

Intrinsic motivation may dominate the big picture, but everyone, even the greatest achievers, has responded to extrinsic forces at critical moments. When Waton and Crick were struggling to find the structure of DNA, they worked almost nonstop because they knew they were in a race with other research teams. Alexander Graham Bell worked similarly on the telephone, knowing he was in competition with Elisha Gray, whom he beat to the patent office by just hours. Such people are driven by much more than fascination or joy.

Colvin concludes that extrinsic motivators are good as long as they are directed at delivering constructive feedback. Here’s what he means:

While the mere expectation of being judged [tends] to reduce creativity, personal feedback could actually enhance creativity if it was the right kind… That is, feedback that [helps] a person do what he or she [feels] compelled to do [is] effective. Even the prospect of direct rewards, normally suffocating to creativity, could be helpful if they were the right kinds of rewards… [As such] intrinsic motivation is still best, and extrinsic motivation that’s controlling is still detrimental to creativity, but extrinsic motivators that reinforce intrinsic drives can be highly effective.

Given the connection between motivation and achievement and creativity, it’s worth asking if the United States education system is doing a good job of balancing intrinsic and extrinsic motivators. The short answer is not really. A new report from the Center on Education Policy outlines new strategies schools are creating to boost student motivation, suggests that many schools still do a poor job of understanding student motivation and describes the inherent problem of motivating a student who seems steadfast in his or her unwillingness to engage the material. Here’s a recent Atlantic article on the study:

Schools nationwide are experimenting with initiatives aimed at boosting student motivation, incorporating new programs aimed at piquing their interest or helping them feel more connected to the material they are being taught. In some instances, and not without controversy, schools have resorted to outright bribery, offering students cash and other rewards in exchange for greater effort and achievement….

[But] even the best school, program, and teacher can’t make a dent in improving academic achievement when a student isn’t motivated to learn. There are several elements to motivating students successfully, and as more of these triggers are activated, an initiative becomes more likely to work… if students see a direct connection between what they are learning and their own interests and goals, they are likely to be more motivated. Additionally, how schools are organized, and how teachers teach, are all factors in student motivation.

The article and CEP study suggests that schools in the United States should make pedagogical adjustments that consider what we know and don’t know about motivation. I think there’s no doubt that this is true.

For one, too much weight is put on extrinsic motivators – grades, tests, final examples, etc. They’re important – no need to throw the baby out with the bathwater – but the ultimate goal of any education system should be to give people the opportunity to find and bring to life that which motivates them intrinsically. Ideally, all students will find, at some point in their educational careers, a domain where their labor is love, just as Schawlow did.

Misguided Incentives in Schools

A few years ago Uri Gneezy and Aldo Rustichini ran an insightful study to test the effectiveness of incentives. They approached an Israeli daycare center that was suffering from a not too unusual problem: late parents. To counter their tardiness, Gneezy and Rustichini imposed a fine – every time the parents were more than ten minutes late, they had to pay up. Before I finished reading about this study my intuition told me that the fine would be an effective deterrent. I was wrong. Not only did it not work, the fine actually caused an increase in late parents compared to control groups. The graph below says it all.

So what happened? Before they imposed the fine, the mothers were bound by a social contract, where social norms about being late influenced parents to show up on time and avoid the guilt that comes with being late. However, when Gneezy and Rustichini imposed the fine, parents became bound by a market contract; they suddenly started paying for their tardiness with money instead of guilt. Once this happened, the parents could decide for themselves if they wanted to be late or not.

The worst part, at least for the day care center (they actually ran this experiment on several centers), was that when they removed the fine the parents continued to act according to the market contract. And, as Dan Ariely explains,”social relationships are not easy to reestablish. Once the bloom is off the rose — once a social norm is trumped by a market norm — it will rarely return.”

Misguided incentives with unintentional negative consequences are nothing new (not to this blog or academia). For example, in a study done back in the 1970s, researchers put in place a reward program at an elementary school to increase students’ interest in math; for every three hours the students’ did math they earned credits they could use to get prizes. In one aspect this worked – kids spent more time on math. But after the teachers removed the prizes (they told the students’ they had to be fair to the rest of the students in the school), the students’ interest in math “plummeted to a level below where it had been during the pre-reward baseline period. In other words, it didn’t just go back to where it had been before the reward program was instituted, as an economist might have predicted – the kids were now less interested in the games than they were when the program started.” Clearly, in this aspect, it did not work. The fundamental problem with incentives like this one is that they undermine the very interest, motivation and passion that they try to garner.

This is why I am concerned when I hear about schools incentivizing their students with money. Here are three cases, which I pulled from an US Today article:

  • In suburban Atlanta, a pair of schools last week kicked off a program that will pay 8th- and 11th-grade students $8 an hour for a 15-week “Learn & Earn” after-school study program (the federal minimum wage is currently $5.85).
  • Baltimore schools chief Andres Alonso last week promised to spend more than $935,000 to give high school students as much as $110 each to improve their scores on state graduation exams.
  • In New York City, about 9,000 fourth- and seventh-graders in 60 schools are eligible to win as much as $500 for improving their scores on the city’s English and math tests, given throughout the school year.

It’s a bit too early to tell if such programs are working (if anyone has data or a news story on the subject please let me know). On the other side of the coin, there is plenty of talk about “merit pay”, programs that reward teachers for high performance. In one form or another, they’ve been implemented in Denver, Chicago, Nashville and most notably in Washington D.C. by former D.C. chancellor Michelle Rhee. Have they worked? According to the Freakonomics Blog:

In the last year… research showing that merit pay, in a variety of shapes and sizes, fails to raise student performance. In the worst of cases, such as the scandal in Atlanta, it’s contributed to flat-out cheating on the part of teachers and administrators.

Personally, I believe that education reform needs to be a top-down effort; working from the bottom-up with incentive plans like these can only do so much. But I’m really not that concerned about education reform. What keeps me up is how humans misunderstand incentives. We think that bonuses are a good idea in business, we think that cash rewards are good in schools, and we ignore the fact that many people don’t need an incentive because they truly enjoy what they do. Sometimes incentives in businesses and schools work, but sometimes they don’t. What’s important is that we keep theory and reality in line. To do this we must run experiments, collect data and empirically demonstrate what the best course is – be good scientists in other words. Psychologists have been doing this for years, now it is time for those outside of academia to do the same.

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