Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Motivation, Creativity & Fulfillment

By: Molly Holinger
Motivation, creativity, and fulfillment are inextricably interwoven phenomena, especially in our "age of abundance" (Pink, A Whole New Mind) where humans have both increasing freedom and demands to be creative. Much of what we know about the relationship between intrinsic motivation and creativity we owe to brilliant creativity researcher Teresa Amabile. Currently a professor of Business Administration and Director of Research at Harvard, Amabile essentially established (or at the very least invigorated) a social psychology of creativity, beginning with The Social Psychology of Creativity (1983), in which she researches the role of motivation in creativity. 

In The Social Psychology of Creativity, Amabile introduces her “intrinsic motivation principle of creativity”:
“Intrinsic motivation is conducive to creativity; controlling extrinsic motivation is detrimental to creativity, but informational enabling extrinsic motivation can be conducive, particularly if initial levels of intrinsic motivation are high."
To put her theory more simply, intrinsic motivation increases creativity and extrinsic motivation decreases creativity. 

It's hard to over-emphasize the importance of this finding: how we motivate ourselves and how others choose to motivate us (our bosses, our family members, etc.) determine how creative our responses will be. Amabile published this theory for the first time in 1983 and later updated her findings in the 1996 The Social Psychology of Creativity, later renamed Creativity in Context. This begs the question, if this theory has been around for more than thirty years, why haven't these ideas translated into our workforce? Daniel Pink, clearly aware of this gap between existing research and current practices, responded with his book Driverevisiting and rechampioning these themes introduced by Amabile decades ago. Pink theorizes that autonomy, purpose, and mastery lead to high intrinsic motivation and, in turn, highly creative and productive employees. 

Both Amabile and Pink specify contexts in which their overarching theories apply and contexts in which they do not. Foremost, these theories only hold true for heuristic (open-ended or creative) tasks. They assert, if not in the same words, that “Rewards do not undermine people’s intrinsic motivation for dull tasks because there is little or no intrinsic motivation to be undermined.” 

Another caveat for motivation is what Amabile calls, "informational enabling extrinsic motivation." According to Amabile, there are certain exceptions when it comes to extrinsic motivators, which is why she differentiates “controlling extrinsic motivation” and “enabling extrinsic motivation.” Here, Amabile identifies the situations that fall under the “enabling extrinsic motivation” category:
"There are a set of conditions under which reward might be expected to have positive (or at least neutral) effects on creativity… (a) the reward is not salient relative to self-perceived intrinsic motivation because the reward is very small, or cognitive distancing techniques are used, or the salience of intrinsic motivation has been increased; or (b) the degree to which the reward is perceived as more enabling than controlling (where enabling refers to the degree to which the reward of contract enables the individual to do something interesting or personally challenging) ; or (c) the reward is perceived as more informational about competence than controlling; or (d) the reward leads to positive affect in the absence of controlling implications (such as a “bonus” reward situation); or (e) the “reward is perceived as equitable compensation for one’s work in general (such as a person being paid a salary for one’s job) rather than as a reward for a particular task.”
Towards the end of her book, Amabile leaves the reader with an all-encompassing lesson. 
"Perhaps the most important point to be made about the intrinsic motivation principle is that it proposes the functional equivalence of many social factors which seem quite disparate. Expecting to be evaluated on task performance functions in the same way as having a choice of task engagement constrained, being watched while performing the task, receiving positive evaluations on previous work, contracting to receive an attractive reward for task performance, and being led to think about the intrinsic value of doing the task. Clearly, despite the superficial differences between these factors, their psychological impact appears to be the same." 
In other words, there is no single perfect combination of factors leading to maximized intrinsic engagement. Rather, these factors can be adjusted and recombined depending on which of the resources one has at their disposal. Lacking an empathetic boss?... Perhaps strive for greater autonomy. Intrinsic engagement is something we can control if we practice the art of combining the factors that produce it. 

Perhaps the strongest impression one receives from The Social Psychology of Creativity is the delicacy and complexity of motivation; the discussion is not intrinsic versus extrinsic motivation (where one type emerges as definitively superior) but rather which is appropriate and effective for the situation at hand.

While Amabile stands clearly in the realm of research, Pink becomes a bit more philosophical, adding fulfillment to the mix of the discussion on motivation.
“Human beings have an innate inner drive to be autonomous, self-determined, and connected to one another. And when that drive is liberated, people achieve more and live richer lives.” 
While extrinsic motivation may have its purposes, intrinsic motivation and all that comes with it—challenge, purpose, creativity—clearly leads to a more fulfilling life. Pink leaves us with the following,
“While complying can be an effective strategy for physical survival, it's a lousy one for personal fulfillment. Living a satisfying life requires more than simply meeting the demands of those in control. Yet in our offices and our classrooms we have way too much compliance and way too little engagement. The former might get you through the day, but only the latter will get you through the night.” 

Amabile, T. (1996). Creativity in context: Update to the social psychology of creativity. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, Inc.

Pink, D. (2009). Drive: The surprising truth about what motivates us. New York, NY: Penguin Group. 

Bio:  Molly Holinger is a graduate student and Graduate Assistant at the International Center for Studies in Creativity at SUNY Buffalo State. Before coming to Buffalo, she co-taught Creativity, Innovation and Vision at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. With her colleagues at the University of Illinois, she co-authored the textbook Building Your Creative Toolbox.