Rewards Resurface as Creativity Enhancers

By Bower, Bruce | Science News, June 25, 1994 | Go to article overview

Rewards Resurface as Creativity Enhancers


Bower, Bruce, Science News


Psychologists take opposing views of how external rewards, from warm praise to cold cash, affect motivation and creativity Behaviorists, who study the relation between actions and their consequences, argue that rewards can boost performance at work and school. Cognitive researchers, who study various aspects of mental life, maintain that rewards often undermine creativity by fostering dependence on approval and gifts from others.

The latter view has gained many supporters, especially among educators. But the careful use of small monetary rewards sparks creativity in grade-school children, suggesting that properly presented inducements indeed aid inventiveness, according to a study in the June Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

"If kids know they're working for a reward and can focus on a relatively challenging task, they show the most creativity," asserts Robert Eisenberger of the University of Delaware in Newark. "But it's easy to kill creativity by giving rewards for poor performance or creating too much anticipation for rewards."

A teacher who continually draws attention to rewards or who hands out high grades for mediocre achievement ends up with uninspired students, Eisenberger holds. As an example of the latter point, he notes growing efforts at major universities to tighten grading standards and reinstate failing grades.

In earlier grades, the use of so-called token economies, in which students tackle challenging problems and receive performance-based points toward valued rewards, shows promise in boosting effort and creativity the Delaware psychologist contends.

Eisenberger and Michael Selbst, a graduate student at Temple University in Philadelphia, studied 504 fifth and sixth graders attending public schools in Wilmington, Del. The researchers looked at divergent thinking, a component of creativity that involves generating various answers to a problem that has many alternative solutions.

Children studied five target words, such as "instrument" and "refrigerator," one at a time. Some were asked to construct six new words from letters in each target word; others were asked to come up with one new word from each target word.

For each correct answer, youngsters in the two groups received the affirmation "That's correct" and in some cases either a penny or a dime. …

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