Via Daniel Pink’s very interesting book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us.
Teresa Amabile, the Harvard Business School professor and one of the world’s leading researchers on creativity, has frequently tested the effects of contingent rewards on the creative process. In one study, she and two colleagues recruited twenty-three professional artists from the United States who had produced both commissioned and noncommissioned artwork. They asked the artists to randomly select ten commissioned works and ten noncommissioned works. Then Amabile and her team gave the works to a panel of accomplished artists and curators, who knew nothing about the study, and asked the experts to rate the pieces on creativity and technical skill. “Our results were quite startling,” the researchers wrote. “The commissioned works were rated as significantly less creative than the non-commissioned works, yet they were not rated as different in technical quality. Moreover, the artists reported feeling significantly more constrained when doing commissioned works than when doing non-commissioned works.”
Another study of artists over a longer period shows that a concern for outside rewards might actually hinder eventual success. In the early 1960s, researchers surveyed sophomores and juniors at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago about their attitudes toward work and whether they were more intrinsically or extrinsically motivated. Using these data as a benchmark, another researcher followed up with these students in the early 1980s to see how their careers were progressing. Among the starkest findings, especially for men: “The less evidence of extrinsic motivation during art school, the more success in professional art both several years after graduation and nearly twenty years later.” Painters and sculptors who were intrinsically motivated, those for whom the joy of discovery and the challenge of creation were their own rewards, were able to weather the tough times—and the lack of remuneration and recognition—that inevitably accompany artistic careers. And that led to yet another paradox in the Alice in Wonderland world of the third drive. “Those artists who pursued their painting and sculpture more for the pleasure of the activity itself than for extrinsic rewards have produced art that has been socially recognized as superior,” the study said. “It is those who are least motivated to pursue extrinsic rewards who eventually receive them.”
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