Creative Ireland

In 1970s, in a now famous experiment, psychologists observed children aged 3-5 as they played spontaneously and identified those who most liked drawing. A few weeks later, the psychologists returned and asked those children to draw a picture. They divided the children into three groups. The first group were promised an award when they had finished the drawing. The second group were not promised anything, but when they had drawn the picture they were told they had done such a good job that they were getting an award. The third group were neither promised, nor given, anything.

Of the three groups, the children who were promised the award produced the lowest quality drawings. More troublingly, when they were subsequently observed playing, those who were promised the award now showed much less interest in drawing, and spent significantly less time doing it than they had before.  It was not the reward itself but the promise of a reward had turned high-quality play into poor quality work.

The findings of this and similar experiments challenged the widespread belief that people are primarily driven by carrots-and-stick type motivation. Instead, the research demonstrated that we have another drive – what is now known as intrinsic motivation - the innate desire to seek out novelty, to do something just for its own sake, for the interest, enjoyment and challenge it provides, for the sheer pleasure of stretching yourself. It also established that any attempt to try to control that drive by the promise of rewards or the fear of sanctions kills off intrinsic motivation.  

Over forty years of research has repeatedly confirmed those findings. There is almost no link between using carrots-and-sticks and the quality of performance. To the extent that incentives work at all, it is only in very particular situations, and used in very particular ways.  Reward people for high quality creativity – but only after the fact, when it will not interfere with the intrinsic motivation that drives creativity.

The adverse effects of using carrots-and sticks to motivate people have been found in children and adults, in school and at work, and most of all, in any creative enterprise. That is why artists fiercely resist any attempts at control, even benign control.  Dostoevsky once complained bitterly to a friend ‘I believe you have never written to order, by the yard, and have never experienced that hellish torture’. In one study, experts were asked to judge the quality of artistic works, without knowing which works were commissioned.  Although the non-commissioned works were judged to be technically skilled, were consistently rated as less creative. The artists themselves reported less enjoyment when working to a commission, and felt more constrained.  

Yet, much of the way we organise education and work is still based on the deeply ingrained assumption that carrots-and-sticks are the most effective way to ensure best outcomes. Incentives do work for what are called algorithmic tasks – things that need to be done by following existing formulas leading to one ‘right’ outcome. The problem is that we no longer live in an algorithmic world. There are no existing formulas to address the challenges now faced by organisations and communities, the so-called ‘wicked problems’.  Finding solutions to such challenges need heuristic thinking – open, exploratory, flexible, more deeply conceptual, more ease about risk  – all of which flow from intrinsic motivation.

The essence of trying to control such an organic process with carrots and sticks is that the focus is strictly on the outcome.  When we are strongly focused on achieving an outcome, predictable things happen in the human brain. We automatically adopt a narrow goal focus: get it finished, pick up the reward, or avoid the sanction. As a consequence, we pay less attention to the non-obvious aspects of the task. We become more inhibited, less likely to take risks, and to play around with new ideas.  

In contrast, when we are intrinsically motivated, we become more absorbed in the process of trying to find a solution, more likely to enter a state of ‘flow’, needing no encouragement to persist longer, or to master the challenge. We attend to the more subtle aspects of the task, explore more options, and come up with more original ways of addressing the specific challenge, and also of using the materials we are using in a completely new way.  We are less locked into the established way of doing something,  more ready to ‘break-set’, a critical component of creativity and innovation.  Virtually every identified aspect of creativity – the free flow of ideas, cognitive flexibility, originality, and insight - are associated with intrinsic motivation.

As soon as any kind of carrots-and-sticks control is imposed, this vital, subtle, but fragile process disintegrates. The freewheeling, exploratory  ‘This is interesting. Let's see how it goes’ process gives way to a more transactional process. No longer self-driven, the enterprise becomes a contract of sorts, an ‘if-then’ type arrangement.  ‘If you do this, then you will get this, or lose that’.

The intrusive and destructive effects of control hold true not just for artistic activities, but for scientists and organizational innovators. The most common type of funding and support for research and development is tied to a model that sets out a clear set of deliverables, has a short-term review cycle, and has low tolerance for risk and early failure. It turns out that this model is less successful in delivering innovation than funding and support that gives people the freedom to choose their own projects, to explore and experiment; a model that tolerates early failure, and focuses instead on long-term success.

These findings have enormous implications for Creative Ireland. Any attempt to turn creativity into ‘work’ will ends in tears. Creativity and control are deeply unhappy bedfellows. And therein lies a big dilemma. Those charged with over-seeing a project like Creative Ireland are responsible for public money.  The official and political mind is drawn to control like a moth to a flame. But, to be fair, this control response is just a more extreme version of a widespread tension about creativity in every society.

It turns out that we are all susceptible to a deeply rooted and often unconscious cognitive bias against creativity. No matter how strongly people and institutions say they value creativity, no matter how genuine their intentions to nurture it,  they routinely reject highly original ideas and inventions. And what activates this negative bias is uncertainty.

When people are exposed to an original idea, artistic work, or project, they automatically judge it not just for its originality, but for its value, with value often defined as ‘being useful’ in a broad sense. We feel on safer ground if we can say it has achieved its goal, and even safer if we specify that purpose in advance. The trouble is we often have great difficulty seeing how originality and ‘value’ can go together. The more novel the idea or invention, the more we focus anxiously on trying to determine what it means, and what it will achieve. The more uncertainty we feel, the stronger the negative creativity bias that is aroused.  And now we have a second dilemma. Uncertainty is designed to deeply agitate the official mind.

The irony of course is that tolerance of uncertainty and ambiguity are at the heart of the creative process.  Yet uncertainty is also what reduces our ability to recognize the quality and value of creativity. Squaring that circle will not be easy, but unless that challenge is fully recognized, Creative Ireland will not achieve its fundamental purpose.

A final caveat. Creative Ireland is enormously ambitious. It is aiming to build and preserve a strong Irish cultural identity, to increase individual wellbeing, social cohesion, and economic success. The sheer diversity of those desired outcomes may overwhelm the nurturing of the creativity that is intended to drive them. Each of those outcomes needs careful thought. Take wellbeing. Creativity does not deliver individual happiness and wellbeing in any straightforward way. Creativity is often grounded in and routed through suffering and vulnerability – core parts of the human experience.

Highly creative people are often, though not always, difficult, high-maintenance, self-absorbed, eccentric, impulsive individuals, resistant to conforming to other people’s expectations. These are much frowned upon personality traits. Writers, thinkers, and artists are more susceptible to developing psychological disorders. But, as long as they keep intrinsically motivated and engaged in what they are doing, the self-same people also generate more original ideas, and have more real-life creative achievements than ‘normal’ people. Being controlled and careful may make you a good accountant. But, it’s not much use if you are an artist or performer. 

When I was growing up, a boy I knew was wrenched away from his family, his friends and his community, and spent his wretched childhood in an industrial school. At sixteen, deeply wounded, he left for England. He returned some summers, with a fresh set of scars on his face. One night I heard him sing in a pub, a song called ‘My Town’, a sentimental ballad that he still managed to suffuse with extraordinary longing. He stood there, and for that few minutes, he reclaimed himself and his place in his own town. It was an act of transcendence, a redemption of sorts, reaching across the human divide, creating something good and enduring from the unendurable.  

Creative Ireland will have to find a viable balance between promoting high-energy, high-engagement, community and business projects, and these more fragile, unpredictable, individual expressions of creativity.  They will need to provide the kind of social scaffording that will support the big and the small expressions of creatvity, the robust and the fragile, the positive and the heartbreaking.

Dr. Maureen Gaffney is the former Chair of the National Economic and Social Forum and the author of Flourishing (Penguin).


Originally published in the Irish Times


Posted: 13 December 2017