Columns, Imagine That

The limitations of rewards

Countless studies have been conducted over the years that have attempted to test, and therefore explain, the role of intrinsic motivation in creative output. Scientists have found that, when a subject is motivated by extrinsic rewards (anything from good grades to a paycheck), their creativity suffers.

One famous study sat a group of kids down with Polaroid cameras and asked them to take pictures. Half the kids were promised a reward for the best pictures; the other half were presented with cameras as something fun to play with. The kids who were promised the reward showed less creativity in their photography than the group who were taking the pictures simply for enjoyment. The extrinsic motivator — the reward — threw a wrench into the creative process.

Laura Mann

The extrinsic motivator — the reward — threw a wrench into the creative process.

This presents a tricky problem. How do we get kids to tap into that intrinsic motivation when presented with traditionally structured tasks like schoolwork? Can kids truly enjoy learning when unavoidable extrinsic motivators, such as due dates and grades, are attached to the task at hand?

Is it about what’s inside?

Researchers Beth Hennessey and Teresa Amabile, whose groundbreaking studies and theories are widely taught in psychology courses, wanted to see if there was some way that kids could flip the intrinsic-motivation switch when faced with schoolwork. They identified one of the things that motivates kids most: other kids. If there’s a toy that other kids want, chances are your kid will want it too, right?

The researchers applied this to schoolwork: They asked a group of kids to view a video of two children talking about how their social studies class was fulfilling to them. The kids on the video talked about how they liked social studies, and how it was interesting to learn how people in other cultures live. “I like to get good grades,” said a boy on the video, “but that’s not what’s really important. I like to learn a lot.” The kids on the video talked about how learning was fun, and how it was important to do things they found fun.

After the group viewed segments of the tape, the researchers talked to the kids, asking them what part of the tape’s message they personally identified with, and what they found fun in school. The kids underwent daily 20-minute sessions over the course of several weeks. The researchers then conducted creativity tests on this group and a control group of children, who had received no training. Both groups were promised a reward if they performed well, an extrinsic motivator that is usually detrimental to performance on such tests. Even with the extrinsic motivator in place, the kids who received the training performed well on the test. The training had prepared them to flip the elusive intrinsic motivator switch.

Parents can have a positive influence in the same way by showing media that involves kids who like learning. If your child just doesn’t want to do schoolwork, take a few moments to read a story or watch a TV program that shows kids who love learning. Sesame Street has been phenomenally successful, in part, because it offers characters intrinsically motivated to learn. The Count doesn’t count things because he gets a reward; he counts because he loves it, which is its own reward.

Talk with your child about the media they are consuming. Tapping into these intrinsic behaviors can give kids the tools they need to find their inner motivator; learning how to do this early on can make them more creative and productive throughout their lives.

Laura Mann is a freelance writer and blogger, and a student in Emerging Media and Communications at the University of Texas. She often co-authors the “Imagine That!” column with her father, storyteller Michael Mann. This column was written by Laura.

© Michael Mann, 2011, all rights retained. Printed by permission of the author.

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