Motivation and Creativity

Why write? Why paint, or draw, or sculpt, or design?

Why be creative at all?


A person is said to be “intrinsically motivated” to perform an activity if there are no apparent rewards for or benefits from performing that activity other than the enjoyment that comes from the activity itself. A person is said to be “extrinsically motivated” to perform an activity if his/her actions are driven by external rewards such as money or praise. In the former case, participation is about the process. In the latter case, participation is a means to an end.

So do we write (or paint, draw, sculpt, or design) because we enjoy it, or do we write because we need to pay the bills?

The majority of writers and artists can probably cite both intrinsic AND extrinsic motivations for doing what they do. But let’s say you started writing solely because you enjoyed it (you were intrinsically motivated to write that poem or short story or novel) and then–what luck!–you started getting paid for it. What would this mean for your love of writing? Would the introduction of  external rewards decrease your intrinsic enjoyment in the activity? And would there be an effect on the quality of your creative product if it was developed as a means to an end, rather than an end in itself?

These questions are relevant  to the career plans of many budding writers and artists. “If I become a potter,” one might wonder, “and my income becomes dependent on my talents, will it take the fun out of pottery for me?” How one answers this question might mean the difference between declaring an Art major and launching a self-run business or declaring an Economics major and attending Pottery Club meetings on the weekends.

Now, I know what some of you are thinking: “I love to write, and I’ll love it even more if I can get a book deal.” This might be true, but let’s take a look at some of the scientific research that has been conducted on the topic…

Psychologists have been interested in intrinsic and extrinsic motivation for decades. Deci’s (1971) classic study suggested that participants’ intrinsic motivation to perform an activity decreased when money was offered as a reward, but, interestingly, intrinsic motivation actually increased when the external reward was verbal praise. So, the nature of the reward may be an important factor to consider.

Lepper, Greene, and Nisbett (1973) conducted a similar study with preschool children who had reported high levels of intrinsic interest in drawing. These participants were asked to engage in a drawing activity, and they were randomly assigned to one of three conditions. In the “expected-award” condition, the children participated in the drawing activity in order to receive a “good player” certificate at the end. In the “unexpected-award” condition, children participated in the drawing activity without the expectation of a reward, but they still received the “good player” certificate at the end of the task. In the “no-award” condition, children participated in the drawing activity without the expectation of a reward, and they did not receive a certificate at the end. One to two weeks later, the drawing activity was reintroduced to the children in a classroom context (with no expected rewards), and measures of intrinsic interest were obtained by the researchers, who observed the children from behind a one-way mirror. As expected, children who had been in the “expected-reward” condition subsequently showed lower levels of intrinsic interest in the drawing task than children in the “unexpected-reward” condition or the “no-award” condition. The important thing to note is that the children in all three conditions had roughly equivalent levels of intrinsic interest in drawing prior to the experimental manipulation. Thus, it appears that the introduction of an external incentive resulted in a drop in intrinsic motivation for the children in the “expected-reward” condition (Lepper et al., 1973).

This finding has important implications for educational settings. Teachers typically endorse “positive reinforcement,” often rewarding children with stickers or some other prize for good behavior or a job well done. In this sense, the Lepper et al. (1973) findings might seem counterintuitive. Aren’t rewards a good thing? Oftentimes, they are–but external rewards might also have unintended effects if the child was intrinsically motivated to engage in activity/behavior in the first place–e.g. drawing quietly during free-play time or helping a classmate find a lost toy. Providing external rewards in these cases may reduce the child’s intrinsic motivation to engage in the activity/behavior in the future; the focus has shifted from the enjoyment of the activity to the reward. As Deci’s (1971) results implied, verbal praise might be more effective, in the long run, than gold stars.


So what does all this mean for creativity?

Well, for one thing, it supports the notion that, in some circumstances, a person’s enjoyment of a creative endeavor might be undermined if there is a shift from a focus on intrinsic motivation to perform the task to a focus on external rewards. In addition, Amabile (1985) actually found evidence to suggest that intrinsic motivation may be conducive to creativity, while extrinsic motivation may impair creativity. Participants wrote poems under conditions of intrinsic or extrinsic motivation, and these poems were later rated by a panel of judges for their level of “creativity.” Interestingly, poems written by participants in the “extrinsic” condition were rated as less creative (on average) than poems written by participants in the “intrinsic” condition (Amabile, 1985). 

In sum, extrinsic motivation may not only result in decreased intrinsic interest in an activity, but it might also have a negative effect on a person’s overall creativity. The studies I have cited here are quite old, and research in recent years has examined the topic in more depth, focusing on relevant factors such as the type of reward and whether the reward is performance-dependent. The issue is complex, however, and there still seems to be no solid consensus as to whether external rewards consistently undermine intrinsic motivation. (See the references below, and run a Google search if you are interested in learning more!)

Regardless, the ideas raised here are certainly thought-provoking, and I think there is something to be learned from these classic studies: even if you get paid for writing or painting or sculpting, it may be important to remember why you were drawn to that creative endeavor in the first place.

Remember why you love it.





Deci, E. L. (1971). Effects of externally mediated rewards on intrinsic motivation. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 18, 105-115.

Lepper, M., Greene, D., & Nisbett, R. (1973). Undermining children’s intrinsic interest with extrinsic rewards: A test of the “overjustification” hypothesis. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 28, 129-137.

Amabile, T. M. (1985). Motivation and Creativity: Effects of Motivational Orientation on Creative Writers. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 48(2), 393-399.

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