Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


Motivation for Creation

Understanding the intersection of intrinsic drive and creativity.

Source: agsandrew/Shutterstock

Ominous forecasts speculate that technological innovations will replace many occupational opportunities. To combat this looming calamity, creativity is being hailed as the skill of the future. Humans who conceptualize various alternatives to solve problems in original ways will likely excel and flourish.

What is Creativity?

Understanding the rapidly evolving field of creativity is complex, but a basic understanding can provide a framework to scaffold creative processes within ourselves and our children.

Generally defined as the ability to develop novel and useful ideas, creativity dazzles and delights us. From Leonardo Da Vinci's prolific constructions to Albert Einstein's theoretical propositions, we marvel at humans who develop unusual ideas that move the world.

But how do we go beyond what we already know to generate ideas that are both innovative and beneficial?

Mechanisms of Creativity

Several components have been identified as essential for the development of creativity:

  • Expertise: A large and highly developed general knowledge base.
  • Imaginative Thinking: The ability to view ideas and situations in a new way.
  • Venturesome Personality: The desire to seek new experiences, take chances, and tolerate uncertainty.
  • Creative Environment: A supportive atmosphere that sparks and encourages creative thought.
  • Intrinsic Motivation: Being internally driven by challenge and inherent interest.

The last component listed, intrinsic motivation, is often misunderstood. Employers, parents, teachers, and coaches inadvertently undermine natural drive by utilizing behavioral strategies that work in the short-term to obtain behavioral change. These ostensibly effective techniques weaken creativity in the long run.

Behavioral Foundations

Operant conditioning principles—namely reinforcement and punishment—uncovered by Edward Thorndike and expanded upon by B.F. Skinner in the first half of the twentieth century—had profound effects on the way we conceptualize human and animal behavior.

Reinforcement increases the likelihood of a behavior reoccurring and includes both administering positive stimuli (e.g., money) or taking away negative stimuli (e.g., chores).

Punishment is any stimulus applied to decrease a behavior. A stimulus may be added (e.g., verbal reprimand) or taken away (e.g., iPad).

Operant conditioning motivates behavior through external means. These techniques are highly effective and succeed at behavioral modification in a multitude of environments across species. Psychologists, educators, and employers hailed the successes of behavioral techniques for decades, but questions arose regarding their effects on long-term motivation and creativity.

Why Didn't We Learn From the Monkeys?

In 1949, primate psychologist Harry Harlow and his colleagues were studying the behavior of rhesus monkeys. One day, in preparation for an upcoming experiment on learning, the researchers put puzzles into the cages with the monkeys. The puzzles required three steps to solve:

  1. Pulling out the pin.
  2. Undoing the hook.
  3. Lifting the hinged cover.

To the surprise of the primate researchers, without reinforcements or punishments, the monkeys started playing with and (apparently) enjoying the puzzles. Then, the monkeys became adept at solving the puzzles without operant conditioning.

The monkeys' behavior perplexed Harlow and his colleagues. Most psychologists at the time believed there were only two drivers of behavior:

  • Biological Drives: Food, Water, and Sex
  • Reinforcements and Punishments

Neither of these drives caused the monkeys' unprompted puzzle solving. So, what was happening?

The researchers concluded the monkeys found the puzzle-solving inherently satisfying. According to Harlow, the monkeys were driven by something internal, which he labeled intrinsic reward—later intrinsic motivation.

What happened next was even more surprising. Harlow decided to provide an external reward (raisins) for puzzle solving. He assumed the tangible reward would improve task performance. However, the extrinsic reinforcers did not improve puzzle performance. In fact, the raisin-receiving monkeys made more mistakes and solved the puzzles less frequently.

Harlow grappled with his results. They were contrary to the prevailing behavioral zeitgeist at that time. Rather than battling the behavioral establishment, Harlow shifted to studying maternal contact comfort in monkeys.

Self-Determination Theory

Twenty years later, Edward Deci picked up where Harlow left off. He replicated Harlow's ideas within college students by showing that tangible financial incentives decreased long term motivation to complete a project.

Deci went on to produce a voluminous body of work in the field of motivation. He and Richard Ryan later extended the work and developed Self-Determination Theory as a way to understand the three main universal intrinsic needs:

  1. Competence: The motive for mastery
  2. Autonomy: The motive to experience free-will and volition.
  3. Psychological Relatedness: The motive to feel connected with others.

These conditions foster high-quality motivation and increased engagement.

Intrinsic Motivation and Creativity

Prominent experimental psychologist, Beth Hennessey began her career as an elementary school teacher. She became interested in why she was seeing declines in motivation and creativity within her students as they moved from kindergarten to second grade.

She left her job as a teacher to attend graduate school. After decades of research, she stated the following about the relationship between motivation and creativity.

"Over the years, my colleagues and I have discovered that intrinsic motivation, the motivation to engage in an activity out of sheer interest in and excitement about a task, is essential for creativity; and extrinsic motivation, motivation driven by someone or something outside the task itself, is almost always detrimental."

These are powerful words. According to hundreds of studies conducted by Hennessey and other researchers in this field of study—across all ages and walks of life—Hennessey and her colleagues found six specific intrinsic motivation killers that by extension kill creativity:

  • Expected Reward
  • Expected Evaluation
  • Restricted Choice
  • Restricted Time
  • Surveillance
  • Competition

This list should make many of us pause as the motivational killers are commonly used strategies within schools and places of employment.

Final Thoughts

"Clean up your toys or you will lose your tech hour!"

These utterings are often heard in our house. Using operant behavioral strategies is effective when we need swift compliance.

However, for domains of learning that necessitate the utilization of creative processes, we should be wary of purely operant methods. Instead, cultivate intrinsic drive by using what we know from experimental research—design environments that facilitate the development of competence, autonomy, and relatedness to nurture creativity.

Twentieth-century radio personality, Earl Nightingale famously said:

"Creativity is a natural extension of our enthusiasm."

He was right. Natural curiosity about the world inspires our imaginations and sparks creative thought. We must protect this intrinsic drive to enable creativity to thrive.

More from Jessica Koehler Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today