Do rewards hinder or boost your ability to think creatively?

A reward might hurt your ability to think creatively for a given task or job, but it might boost your creativity. It all depends on what the work entails and whether or not you receive a reward for actually producing creative ideas.

Psychologists have argued over this point for many years, as far back as the 1970s. On one side of the argument are those who say creativity stems from autonomy, the act of freely pursuing a whim or idea for the sake of the pursuit. While the other side of the argument says that creativity isn’t so perfectly understood as to dismiss the benefits of working towards a reward.

In their 2003 research titled Rewards, Intrinsic Motivation, and Creativity, Robert Eisenberger and Linda Shanock explain how the arguments being made around creativity and rewards should not be taken to be so definitive.

In studies, we often see researchers look at creativity only through the lens of romanticism (that is: the ideal idea of what it means to be creative) or through the lens of behaviorism (that we can only achieve creativity through trained behaviors, like acting a certain way at a certain point in our workflow). What Eisenberger and Shanock explain is that these two views have some truth to what they discover, but because they tend to only view their results from behind one lens or the other, they’re missing the bigger picture.

Knowing this: can rewards boost or hinder our ability to think creatively?

Yes, to both ends.

Having a reward in mind can certainly hinder your ability to think creatively, but only if you are utilizing that reward as context for the work. If, on the other hand, the reward stands as a symbol of thinking creatively and you are still free to explore possibilities to achieve that reward, you can expect your creativity to remain in-tact.

Eisenberger and Shanock describe how some of history’s greatest creative minds worked toward rewards in the shape of recognition and acclaim: Einstein, Feynman, and mathematician John von Neumann all openly pursued recognition in their fields. Arguably, those pursuits did not hinder their ability to think creatively.

Rewards can also act as constraints, disabling our ability to think creatively. If, for example, we find ourselves so deeply driven toward the reward that it dampens our confidence in our ability to generate novel ideas, we will find ourselves unable to think creatively on almost any level.

Eisenberger and Shanock conclude that creativity can be strengthened with rewards, as long as the goal makes it clear that creativity will be the thing being rewarded and not necessarily the results of the work itself.

That is: if the reward of our efforts is dependent on our ability to generate idea that are both novel and useful, we are more inclined to focus on generating ideas that are those things. Compared to an ambiguous task such as: “come up with an innovative solution to a problem,” or “solve this problem in a unique way.”

The researchers write:

“We suggest that the motivation for creativity can be readily enhanced by establishing an expectancy that creativity depends on reward. We also suggest that reward for high performance increases intrinsic task interest via heightened perceived self-determination and competence, leading to greater creative performance….reward increases creativity whenever an individual expects that creativity will produce reward.

In your own life this can be empowering because it reminds us to set up rewards for creative behavior. Promising yourself a small gift or other concession as a result of some hours of creative exploration and tinkering is a great way to ensure you do fully explore your creative potential.

In the workplace this is equally, if not more, important: ensuring that those you work with (and those you work under) are providing appropriate task descriptions and rewards for creative-oriented tasks means that the outcome is much more likely to be a creative one. You can’t expect to work creatively if the job is to solve a problem in a proven way, or to do something as it is expected to be done, no matter how large or appealing the reward.

Can rewards hinder your creativity? Yes. But can they help it too? Yes. It depends on what the purpose of your job or task is and whether or not the results are creativity-dependent.

Robert Eisenberger & Linda Shanock (2003) Rewards, Intrinsic Motivation, and Creativity: A Case Study of Conceptual and Methodological Isolation, Creativity Research Journal, 15:2-3, 121-130, DOI: 10.1080/10400419.2003.9651404

Photo by Brad K.