Like so many others, Prof. Teresa M. Amabile, a Baker Foundation Professor and Director of Research at Harvard Business School, once had the dream of being an artist and innovator. 

      Last Thursday, members of the Brandeis community gathered in the Shapiro Campus Center to hear the “Psychology Department Colloquium: Labor of Love: A Brief History of a Creativity Research Program,” hosted by Prof. Robert Sekuler (PSYC). Amabile shared her research on the social psychology of creativity and how extrinsic motivations have the power to kill creativity. At a very young age, she, too, had her creativity killed.

     Amabile reflected on her childhood: “Although I formally started this research when I was a doctoral student at Stanford, I actually became interested in creativity when I was a kindergarten student. So this is a very long-standing interest.”  During a parent-teacher meeting, a teacher told Amabile’s mother about her daughter’s creative potential.  After that, she was hooked. Amabile knew she wanted to become an artist. 

    Later, Amabile transferred to a parochial school, where she was taught to copy the masters on Friday afternoon using only one medium alone―— the Crayola crayon. She soon learned her creative peak would remain in kindergarten. However, her curiosity of the psychology of creativity was just developing.

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By YASHASPRIYA RATHI/the Justice

INTERESTED AUDIENCE: Amabile spoke to members of the Brandeis community in the Shapiro Campus Center.

     When she began a doctorate program in psychology at Stanford, Amabile was confronted with a series of questions: What can stifle creativity? More specifically, how do extrinsic constraints affect the individual’s ability to create a product? 

     To Amabile, “It seemed … when someone is extrinsically motivated, they’re not going to engage so deeply in the activity itself; they’re going to be maybe thinking instead about the extrinsic reward ― getting it done as simply and quickly and easily as possible ― so they can get that reward rather than engaging deeply in the activity … maybe playing around with it a bit which I thought would influence creativity.” So began Amabile’s research into the psychology of creativity.

     To begin with, her research ― as a proposed dissertation was halted by academics in her field who felt insulted by her unfamiliar approaches to the study of creativity. 

    She wanted to measure creativity through less conventional methods moving away from the pencil and paper method ― and toward more interactive techniques. As an academic with uncontainable curiosity, she chose to pursue the new research anyway. 

   First, she defined the meaning of creativity. Amabile said that creativity is determined when “appropriate observers independently believe that it is creative,” and “appropriate observers are those familiar with the domain.” In other words, a poet may determine the creative ability of any given poet in a study. 

     Then, she hypothesized: “People will be the most creative when they’re motivated by the interest, enjoyment, satisfaction and challenge in the work itself, and not by extrinsic motivators or extrinsic constraints.”    

     Amabile put it to the test through her study with collages and college students. Those who were told their work would be judged based on aesthetics performed significantly worse than those who were told the mood of the creator would be determined through the collage and nothing more. This further solidified Amabile’s hypothesis.

    In a future study, she attempted to manipulate individual creativity by manipulating intrinsic and extrinsic qualities. Amabile gathered creative individuals who spent thirty or more hours a week writing to participate in the study. 

     They were separated into three groups: one with extrinsic conditions, one with intrinsic conditions and a control group. A poem was written both before and after the motivations from both groups were presented. 

     Those  faced with extrinsic motivations,  such as a bestselling book or a prize, were determined to have written much less creative poems after the motivations were presented. 

     Those faced with intrinsic motivations,  like the feeling of joy after a job well done, performed much better. Amabile gave those in the control group a test about favorite foods in the intermediate. Prior to the that, the individuals in the control group wrote a poem, and after the test, they also wrote a poem.

   Appropriate observers determined the individuals in the study were creative. After the study, Amabile concluded: “So think about it,:these people were creative writers. They devoted a lot of their own time each week to write, and yet even they that have a very high level of intrinsic motivation, at least temporarily, had ... [lost their intrinsic motivation]. … It [the extrinsic motivation] had affected their creativity.” This study further solidified Amabile’s hypothesis.

   Later on, Amabile would determine that, “Under certain conditions, certain kinds of extrinsic motivators could enhance motivation and creativity without undermining it. If the extrinsic motivator confirms competence or enables them to do something that they were already going to do, it does not impinge on creativity.” If used properly, extrinsic conditions can actually encourage creativity.

    At the beginning of her lecture, Amabile quoted Stanford physicist and Nobel laureate Arthur Schawlow. He said of creative scientists: “The labor of love aspect is important. The most successful scientists often are not the most talented, but they are the ones who are impelled by curiosity. They’ve got to know what the answer is.”