Nearly 30 years ago, an inquisitive 5-year-old named Teresa Amabile listened in on a conversation between her mother and her kindergarten teacher.
"I think Teresa shows great potential for artistic creativity," Mrs. Bollier told Mrs. Amabile.
Teresa's ears perked up.
"I didn't know what 'artistic creativity' was, but I knew it was good. I knew I wanted it. I was very excited.
"Unfortunately," Brandeis University psychology professor Amabile deadpanned, "that was the high point of my artistic creativity. I'm still drawing like a 5-year-old."
Amabile has, however, made a career out of studying creativity: where it comes from, how it develops, what fosters and encourages it and--just as important--what dampens and discourages it.
Again, she reverts to her own experience.
Strict Parochial School
The year after her mother's fateful conversation with Mrs. Bollier, little Teresa Amabile was placed in a strict parochial school. Art was not a major element of the curriculum.
"They would give us a small reprint of a painting by one of the Old Masters. The nuns would say 'copy it.' " Amabile laughed. "Imagine, telling someone to copy Da Vinci on loose-leaf paper, with a Crayola. It was very frustrating, trying to get all those horses and angels on the pages.
"Worse yet, we'd get graded. I would get Cs and Ds, when I was used to getting A's."
As if she were still seeking to recapture some of that "great potential" for "artistic creativity," Amabile spread her arms and posed this question: "What happened? What happened to my motivation, and with it, my creativity for art?"
It was a concern that was to plague her as she made her way through master's and Ph.D. programs in psychology at Stanford University. In fact, Amabile devoted her doctoral thesis to what she was by then calling her intrinsic motivation hypothesis of creativity: that is, that intrinsic motivation --the "motivation to do something for its own sake, because of a passionate interest in the work, because it provides its own challenge and satisfaction"--is more conducive to creativity than extrinsic motivation, where "the goal is not the activity itself," but rather "the desire to achieve some goal extrinsic to the task, such as an externally imposed reward or deadline."
In short, Amabile contends, "motivational state makes the difference between what a person can do and what he will do."
While Amabile's ongoing research continues to solidify this conclusion, it was not a verdict she reached with no academic roadblocks at all. Creativity, she discovered, "has a very bad reputation" in psychology. "A lot of the research (into creativity) has been poorly controlled, experimentally poor. I don't know how to describe it other than fuzzy."
Sounding just mildly academically snobbish, she added: "A lot of the work in creativity had been done by the humanistic types, the touchy-feely crowd."
Besides, Amabile said, "what good research there was, was almost exclusively limited to the nature of the creative personality. I wasn't looking at how creative people are different from uncreative people. I was looking at how a social environment increases or decreases a person's creativity."
This path of examination required Amabile to devise a working definition of her subject, creativity. "An idea or a product is creative," she declared, "if it is a novel and appropriate response to an open-ended task." Amabile tacked on one caveat: "But it also can't be bizarre."
As a major part of her research, Amabile began reading "a lot about what creative people had to say about their own creativity." Specifically, "I was looking for how people's social environment influenced their creativity." She soon found a common theme: "These people said their creativity was stifled in social environments that constrained how they did what they did"--in short, "where they felt judged." To a one, Amabile said, "artists, scientists, writers, poets--they all were saying the same thing."
Amabile concluded also that "creative people tend to be, at the very least, nonconformists, and at the other end of the spectrum, completely eccentric."
Although, for example, "Albert Einstein was not a terribly articulate guy," Amabile said the physicist "felt that his creativity was hampered by his education. He said: 'It is a very grave mistake to think that the enjoyment of seeing and searching can be promoted by means of coercion and a sense of duty.' "
For Amabile, that comment has added meaning: "I love it, because that is what our educational system is all about."
Or, Amabile said, there was poet Sylvia Plath, beset by chronic writer's block and a struggle that ended with her suicide. "She was obsessed with seeking the acceptance of editors and publishers and critics," Amabile said. "What Plath wrote was that 'this corrupts my nunnish labor of work-for-itself-as-its-own-reward.' " In the end, "she could not get herself out of that mind-set: 'What will the editors and publishers think?' "
Destroy Her Creativity
On the other hand, Amabile noted that poet Anne Sexton "seemed to realize that she would destroy her creativity if she focused on the reward."
While she was reading about creativity, Amabile began examining the process of motivation. It was then that she began contrasting the notions of intrinsic motivation--"doing something primarily for its own sake, because it is fun"--and extrinsic motivation--"doing something in order to get something back, like money, a gold star from the teacher, meeting a deadline, any kind of tangible or intangible strokes, where the goal is not the activity itself but something apart from the goal."
Any number of studies, Amabile said, had shown that "social constraints can change intrinsic motivation to extrinsic, like offering someone a reward for something he does anyway." In amplifying these inquiries, "my contribution was to say, wait a minute, there is a link: Could it be that intrinsic motivation is the motivational state you need to be highly creative?" And Amabile went one step further still, positing that "intrinsic motivation is conducive to creativity, and extrinsic is detrimental."
Highly creative people, Amabile has also learned from studies she published in her 1983 book, "The Social Psychology of Creativity" (Springer/Verlag), "are not afraid to take risks. They're willing to deviate, to explore." When she likens the creative process to a maze, she finds an intrinsically motivated person is likely to follow unfamiliar paths and pursue hidden exits, whereas the extrinsically motivated person "is someone who is motivated primarily by getting out of the maze.
"If you are intrinsically motivated," Amabile contends, "by definition you enjoy being in the maze. You do want to get out, but you enjoy the process of finding a way out."
Finally, Amabile has come to theorize that there are three essential elements for creativity. She speaks first of "domain-relevant" skills: "everything you know and can do in the domain--formal education, informal education, technical skills, and this also includes talent." The latter, Amabile said, "is a very nebulous thing, but it exists. Certain people come equipped with certain things wired in their brains."
Next, she summons "creativity-relevant skills," or "styles of thinking, styles of approaching work--for example, persevering, taking risks, being independent, storing information in your head."
And then, the "very specific" area of task motivation, or "motivation for the particular task that you happen to be doing, such as the kid who hates to do math in class, and 10 minutes later is sitting there calculating baseball scores."
With her long, dark ponytail, Amabile frequently is mistaken for a campus freshman, rather than the professor who instructs those freshmen. In the real, off-campus world, however, she has engaged in creativity research on such diverse groups as preschool children, elementary-school children, college students, creative writers and business people. What she advises, time and again, is to "take the focus off extrinsic goals," although, Amabile says, laughing, "I am terrified that someone will publish a paper saying we have got to do away with salaries."
As for her own research, Amabile is one who truly does practice what she preaches. No one told her to study creativity, she points out: "In fact, at Stanford they said it would be an uphill fight." But then again, "What I like is that I chose it. I'm still highly intrinsically motivated."