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Posts tagged ‘Geoff Colvin’

What Motivates Creativity?

Originally posted on BigThink.com

In 1981, Arthur Leonard Schawlow won the Nobel prize in physics for his contributions to laser spectroscopy. When asked what made the difference between highly creative and less creative scientists he responded: “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.”

Schawlow was describing what the psychologist Teresa Amabile calls the “Intrinsic Motivation Principle of Creativity,” or the propensity for human creativity to flourish when people are motivated by the personal enjoyment of the work itself. Athletes call it a “love of the game;” artists refer to it as an unrelenting need to express. For academics like Schawlow, it’s the pure joy of discovering something new.

Extrinsic motivation, in contrast, is the daily pressure we feel from outside incentives – grades, salaries, and promotions – put in place to encourage output. Here’s the question: Is creative output the product of intrinsic or extrinsic motivation? Do we need a reason to work? Or is passion enough?

In the 1970s, Mark Lepper, David Greene and Richard Nisbett conducted a classic study involving a group of preschoolers who liked to draw. The researchers separated the kids into three groups. The first was told that if they continued to draw they would receive a big blue ribbon with their name on it (reward condition). The second wasn’t told about the reward but given a blue ribbon after they finished drawing (unexpected reward condition). The third group wasn’t given a blue ribbon ribbon (no award condition).

They ran the experiment for two weeks and found that the kids in the “no award” and “unexpected reward” conditions continued to enthusiastically draw just like they did initially. However, their peers in the award condition showed a drastic reduction in interest. Sadly, they no longer found pleasure in drawing – their intrinsic motivation was destroyed by an extrinsic reward, the blue ribbon.

Creativity can take an artist further than any other trait, though it can be undermined due to simple, common errors.  Grammar and punctuation errors can give people the impression that the person’s creativity is not genuine, so services like spell check and line editing are necessary

A study conducted more recently by Teresa Amabile of the Harvard Business School demonstrated similar results. Amabile’s subjects, unlike Lepper’s et al, were college women. In one experiment Amabile asked the women to make paper collages. She told half of them graduate art students would judge their collages; the other half was told that researchers “were studying their mood and had no interest in the collages themselves.” A panel of artists evaluated the collages and Amabile found that those who expected to be judged were significantly less creative. Drawing on this study and other research, Amabile concluded that, “The intrinsically motivated state is conducive to creativity, whereas the extrinsically motivated state is detrimental.”

Are all extrinsic motivators creativity killers? Not exactly. This research doesn’t rule out the important role extrinsic motivation plays in the creative process. Consider the following examples, brought to life by Geoff Colvin in his book Talent is Overrated:

Intrinsic motivation may dominate the big picture, but everyone, even the greatest achievers, has responded to extrinsic forces at critical moments. When Waton and Crick were struggling to find the structure of DNA, they worked almost nonstop because they knew they were in a race with other research teams. Alexander Graham Bell worked similarly on the telephone, knowing he was in competition with Elisha Gray, whom he beat to the patent office by just hours. Such people are driven by much more than fascination or joy.

Colvin concludes that extrinsic motivators are good as long as they are directed at delivering constructive feedback. Here’s what he means:

While the mere expectation of being judged [tends] to reduce creativity, personal feedback could actually enhance creativity if it was the right kind… That is, feedback that [helps] a person do what he or she [feels] compelled to do [is] effective. Even the prospect of direct rewards, normally suffocating to creativity, could be helpful if they were the right kinds of rewards… [As such] intrinsic motivation is still best, and extrinsic motivation that’s controlling is still detrimental to creativity, but extrinsic motivators that reinforce intrinsic drives can be highly effective.

Given the connection between motivation and achievement and creativity, it’s worth asking if the United States education system is doing a good job of balancing intrinsic and extrinsic motivators. The short answer is not really. A new report from the Center on Education Policy outlines new strategies schools are creating to boost student motivation, suggests that many schools still do a poor job of understanding student motivation and describes the inherent problem of motivating a student who seems steadfast in his or her unwillingness to engage the material. Here’s a recent Atlantic article on the study:

Schools nationwide are experimenting with initiatives aimed at boosting student motivation, incorporating new programs aimed at piquing their interest or helping them feel more connected to the material they are being taught. In some instances, and not without controversy, schools have resorted to outright bribery, offering students cash and other rewards in exchange for greater effort and achievement….

[But] even the best school, program, and teacher can’t make a dent in improving academic achievement when a student isn’t motivated to learn. There are several elements to motivating students successfully, and as more of these triggers are activated, an initiative becomes more likely to work… if students see a direct connection between what they are learning and their own interests and goals, they are likely to be more motivated. Additionally, how schools are organized, and how teachers teach, are all factors in student motivation.

The article and CEP study suggests that schools in the United States should make pedagogical adjustments that consider what we know and don’t know about motivation. I think there’s no doubt that this is true.

For one, too much weight is put on extrinsic motivators – grades, tests, final examples, etc. They’re important – no need to throw the baby out with the bathwater – but the ultimate goal of any education system should be to give people the opportunity to find and bring to life that which motivates them intrinsically. Ideally, all students will find, at some point in their educational careers, a domain where their labor is love, just as Schawlow did.

Is Too Much Familiarity Bad For Creativity?

Originally posted on BigThink.com

Several years ago University of California at Davis professor Dean Simonton conducted a study that examined more than three hundred creative geniuses born between 1450 and 1850. The list included thinkers Liebniz and Descartes, scientists Newton and Copernicus and artists Vinci and Rembrandt. He compared the relationship between their education and eminence, a metric he determined by an array of criteria. He plotted the graph and found an inverted U sparking the following conclusion: “The most eminent creators were those who had received a moderate amount of education, equal to about the middle of college.”

Simonton’s research highlights a commonly held notion: too much familiarity can be detrimental to creativity. The problem, Simonton hypothesizes, is that creativity benefits from an outsider’s mindset. “Too much experience…” on the other hand, “may restrict creativity because you know so well how things should be done that you are unable to escape to come up with new ideas.” It seems reasonable, then, to suggest that, “if you want a creative solution to a problem, you’d better find someone who knows a little about the situation but not too much.”

Consider the clever website InnoCentive.com. The premise is simple: ‘Seekers’ go to post problems for ‘Solvers.’ The problems range from “Recovery of Bacillus Spore from Swabs,” to “Blueprints for a Medical Transportation Device for Combat Rescue.” They are usually posted by large corporations, so the rewards can be lucrative – sometimes millions of dollars.

There are two things remarkable about InnoCentive, each brought to light by astudy conducted by researchers at Harvard Business School. The first is that it works; about 33 percent of the problems are solved on time. The second is that solvers tend to solve problems that are at the fringe of their expertise. If a biochemistry problem only attracted biochemists it tended to remain unsolved. But if the same problem was tackled by, say, a molecular biologist or an organic chemist the chances were greater that the problem would be solved. Outside thinking was vital.

Think about the failures of expertise, as the author of Talent is Overrated Geoff Colvin does: “Why didn’t Western Union invent the telephone? Why didn’t U.S. Steel invent the minimill. Why didn’t IBM invent the personal computer? Over and over, the organizations that knew all there was to know about a technology or an industry failed to make the creative breakthrough that would transform the business.”

Is too much expertise killing creativity?

Well, not exactly. Colvin goes on to remind readers that the greatest innovators of any field share a few characteristics in common: years of intensive preparation and technical competence. Great innovations, he says, are roses that bloom after long and careful cultivation.

He considers James Watson’s and Francis Crick’s discovery of the structure of DNA. Colvin cites the research of Robert Weisberg, who showed that several other distinguished scientists were trying to solve the same problem at the same time. Colvin argues that, “if we presume that too much familiarity with a problem is a disadvantage, then we would expect to find that Watson and Crick came at this one unburdened by the excessive data that clouded the thinking of the other researchers. But in reality, the story was just the opposite.”

The larger point is that creative breakthroughs require about 10,000 hours or ten years of deliberate practice within a given field:

The most eminent creators are consistently those who have immersed themselves utterly in their chosen field, have devoted their lives to it, amassed tremendous knowledge of it, and continually pushed themselves to the front of it. Zero evidence supports the conclusion that too much knowledge might be a hindrance in creative achievement.

And what about the success of InnoCentive? What’s important is not to be an outsider, but to have an outsider’s mindset. People at the fringe of their expertise solved problems on InnoCentive, but they were still solving problems within their general field of expertise. Indeed, innovation occurs at the boundary of disciplines, but you’ll never hear about a novelist winning a Nobel Prize in physics.

As for Simonton’s study, it’s important to remember that during the period that his subjects existed – 1450-1850 – many fundamental principles of the scientific method were still unknown. It was still possible – especially in the first half of that 400 year stretch – for someone to be an expert in multiple disciplines. Moreover, a high-level degree in, say, 1650, didn’t confer much.

Today’s landscape is much different – all the low hanging fruit is good. A breakthrough in any field requires exclusive preparation in that field; even experts don’t know everything about their field. So it’s important to maintain a skeptical point of view and think like an outsider. But when it comes to creative breakthroughs, the more familiarity the better.

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