Reward & Creativity : Psychology: A growing body of research suggests that the old carrot-on-a-stick approach may actually stifle performance. It’s a blow to the behaviorist school of thought.


In the laboratory, rats get Rice Krispies; in the classroom, students get A’s; in the factory or office, workers get paychecks. It’s an article of faith for most people that rewards promote better performance.

But a growing body of research suggests that this rule is not nearly as ironclad as was once thought. Psychologists have been finding that rewards commonly interfere with performance, especially when the performance involves creativity.

A related series of studies shows that intrinsic interest in a task typically declines when people are rewarded for doing it. Intrinsic motivation, on the other hand, involves doing something simply because you like doing it.


If an external reward--be it money, awards, praise, or beating someone else--comes to be seen as the reason one is engaging in an activity, that activity will be seen as less enjoyable in its own right, according to several studies.

With the exception of some disciples of B. F. Skinner and other behaviorists who doubt the very existence of intrinsic motivation, these two conclusions are now widely accepted among psychologists. Taken together, they suggest that society may be unwittingly squelching interest and discouraging innovation on the part of employees, students and artists.

Studies find that:

* Workers who are praised for living up to a manager’s expectations or think of themselves as motivated by bonuses actually suffer a drop in motivation.

* Young children who are rewarded for drawing are less likely to draw on their own.

* Teen-agers offered a reward for playing word games enjoyed these games less and did less well at them than those who played with no reward.

Much of the research on creativity and motivation has been performed by Teresa Amabile, associate professor of psychology at Brandeis University. She reported on a series of experiments involving elementary school and college students. Both groups were asked to make “silly” collages, and the younger children were also invited to invent stories.

The least creative projects, as rated by several teachers, were done by those students who contracted in advance for a reward. “It may be that commissioned work will, in general, be less creative than work that is done out of pure interest,” Amabile comments.


Amabile asked 72 creative writers at Brandeis and Boston University to write poetry. Some of the subjects were presented with a list of extrinsic (external) reasons for writing, such as impressing teachers, making money and getting into graduate school. They were asked to think about their own writing with respect to these reasons. Others were shown a list of intrinsic reasons: the enjoyment of playing with words, satisfaction from self-expression and other factors. A third group was not given any list. All were then asked to do more writing.

The results were clear. Students presented with the extrinsic reasons not only wrote less creatively than the others, as judged by 12 independent poets, but the quality of their work dropped significantly after this brief exposure to the extrinsic reasons.

Rewards, says Amabile, have this destructive effect primarily with creative tasks, including higher-level problem solving: “The more complex the activity, the more it’s hurt by extrinsic reward.” The task, however, need not be too complex.

Fifth- and sixth-grade girls, for example, tutored younger children much less effectively if they were promised free movie tickets for teaching well. The study, by James Garbarino, now president of Chicago’s Erikson Institute for Advanced Studies in Child Development, showed that the tutors who were working for the reward took longer to communicate ideas, got frustrated more easily and did a poorer job in the end than those who were not rewarded.

Arie Kruglanski and his colleagues at Tel Aviv University promised some Israeli teen-agers a reward for participating in an experiment. This group not only did more poorly in a creative task but also failed to memorize as well as students who got no reward.

All of these findings call into question the widespread belief that money is an effective and even necessary way to motivate people. They also challenge the behaviorist school of psychology, which assumes that any activity is more likely to occur if it is rewarded. Amabile says her research “definitely refutes the notion that creativity can be operantly conditioned.”


Researchers in the field point to several explanations for their surprising findings about rewards and performance.

First, rewards encourage people to focus narrowly on a task, to do it as quickly as possible and to take few risks. “If they feel, ‘This is something I have to get through to get the prize,’ they’re going to be less creative,” Amabile said.

Second, people come to see themselves as being controlled by the reward. They feel less autonomous, and this may interfere with performance. “To the extent one’s experience of being self-determined is limited,” says Richard Ryan, associate professor of psychology at the University of Rochester, “one’s creativity will be reduced as well.”

Finally, extrinsic rewards can eat away at intrinsic interest. Those who see themselves as working for money, approval, or competitive success find the task less pleasurable and therefore may not do it as well.

The last explanation reflects 15 years of work by Ryan’s mentor at the University of Rochester, Edward Deci. In 1971 Deci showed that “money may work to ‘buy off’ one’s intrinsic motivation for an activity” on a long-term basis.

Ten years later, Deci and his colleagues demonstrated that trying to beat others has the same effect. Students who had to compete to solve a puzzle quickly were less likely than those who were not competing to keep working at it once the experiment was over.


Even monkeys became less interested in assembling mechanical puzzles when they were rewarded with food, according to a 1950 study by primatologist Harry Harlow and his colleagues, although no one has ever bothered to replicate these results.

Even with human research, there is general agreement on one qualification: Not all rewards have the same effect. Offering a flat fee for participating in an experiment--similar to an hourly wage in the workplace--usually does not reduce intrinsic motivation. It is only when the rewards are based on performing a given task or doing a good job at it--analogous to piece-rate payment and bonuses, respectively--that the problem develops.

The issue is not so much whether there are rewards but how they are experienced, according to Amabile, Ryan and others. If we see them as controlling our performance, which is often the case, then we will tend to like a task less and do a poorer job.

But any time we get used to doing something for the reward, we are liable to grow dependent on the reward.

There is an old joke that nicely illustrates the principle. An elderly man, harassed by the taunts of neighborhood children, finally devised a scheme. He offered to pay each child a dollar if they would all return Tuesday and yell their insults again. They did so eagerly and received the money, but he told them he could pay only 25 cents on Wednesday. When they returned, insulted him again, and collected their quarters, he informed them that Thursday’s rate would be just a penny. “Forget it!” they said--and never taunted him again.

In a 1982 study, Stanford University psychologist Mark Lepper showed quite clearly that any task, no matter how enjoyable it once seemed, will be devalued if it is presented as a means rather than an end. He told a group of preschoolers that they could not engage in one activity they liked until they first took part in another. Although they had enjoyed both activities equally, the children came to dislike the one that was a prerequisite for the other.


It should not be surprising that when verbal feedback is experienced as controlling, the effect on intrinsic motivation can be similar to that of payment. In a study of corporate employees, Ryan found that subjects who are told, “Good, you’re doing as you should” were much less motivated than those who were simply given feedback on how well they were doing.

He said there is a difference between saying, “I’m giving you this reward because I recognize the value of your work” and “You’re getting this reward because you’ve lived up to my standards.”

In exploring the practical implications of motivation research, Deci, Ryan and James P. Connell recently completed a study of several hundred workers in a corporation that manufactures business machines. The best way to destroy intrinsic motivation and reduce productivity, they discovered, is to cause employees to feel controlled.

“When you work for controlling managers, there’s a lot less satisfaction with your job and more concern with pay and benefits,” Ryan said. “ ‘If you’re going to control me, I’m going to be alienated and what I’m going to focus on is money.’ You do the least amount necessary to get the goal.”

A different, but related set of problems exists in the case of creativity. Even artists must make a living, of course, but Amabile emphasizes that “the negative impact on creativity of working for rewards can be minimized” by playing down the significance of these rewards and trying not to use them in a controlling way. Creative work, the research suggests, cannot be forced but only allowed to happen.

In a new study, Amabile is trying to enhance intrinsic motivation among pupils rather than just showing how it can be destroyed. The question is of tremendous importance since there is evidence of a steady decrease in children’s intrinsic motivation to learn as they go through elementary school.


Amabile videotaped 11-year-old actors talking about love of learning. One script read: “I like to get good grades . . . but that’s not what’s really important. . . . When I come up with good ideas, I feel good. When you’re working on something you thought of and it’s interesting to you, it’s more fun to do.”

Children who saw this tape and then talked with an adult about its meaning ended up writing more creative stories than their peers, even though they were promised a reward for doing so. Although the differences in creativity were not always consistent or large, Amabile finds the idea of immunizing people against rewards an exciting strategy.

“I’ve spent 10 years looking at how to kill creativity,” she says. “I’m going to spend at least the next 10 years studying how to enhance it.”