yukai chou gamification

How Rewards kill our Creativity

Reward Creativity

How Extrinsic Motivation kills our Creativity

(Below is a snippet of Gamification Book: Actionable Gamification – Beyond Points, Badges, and Leaderboards. If you like this blog post, you will LOVE the book.)

Remember when I mentioned that Core Drive 3: Empowerment of Creativity & Feedback is the golden Core Drive, where people use their creativity and “play”? Often, if you can establish a strong Core Drive 3 element in your experience, it becomes an evergreen mechanic that continuously engages the mind of users without needing to add more content.

Unfortunately, there are many examples where Core Drive 4: Ownership & Possession (in the form of financial rewards) overtake Core Drive 3: Empowerment of Creativity & Feedback.

There are studies that illustrate how our creative problem solving skills diminish when we are offered financial rewards. One of the more famous and effective demonstrations is the “Candle Problem” quoted earlier.

Many of my readers may have seen the Candle Problem in other literature, but if you have not first take a look at the image below:

Candle Problem Rewards

Karl Duncker was the notable psychologist who created the Candle Problem in the 1930s. The goal of the problem was to figure out how to attach a lit candle to a wall using only the tools given, so that the melting wax would not drip on the table.

Later in the 1960s, a psychologist named Sam Glucksberg divided participants into two groups to solve this problem. One group was promised $5 to $20 if they could solve the problem quickly – not bad for a few minutes of work. The other group was simply told that he was simply having them establish the norms for how long it typically took people to solve the problem.

I’ll demonstrate the solution to the problem soon, but the originally findings were quite astonishing. It turns out that the people who were offered money to solve the problem took on average, three and a half minutes longer than those who weren’t offered money.

Getting paid resulted in the Left Brain Core Drive 4: Ownership & Possession overtaking the Right Brain Core Drive 3: Empowerment of Creativity & Feedback, in producing inferior results.

Before I present the solution, here’s another image of the same problem, just in another setting.

Candle Problem Rewards 2

Remember that we talked about how Extrinsic Rewards enhance focus and increase performance towards straightforward tasks that require less creativity? If the problem is described using the Illustration above, the solution becomes more obvious. With this version, the people who were offered rewards did solve the problem slightly faster than those who weren’t.

If you haven’t solved the problem yet, don’t worry – since you are in a “book reading” mode and less likely to be intensively focused on problem-solving. The solution is below:

Candle Problem Rewards 3

As you can see, the way to solve the problem is to think “outside the box” and actually use the unassuming box itself.

When a person is trying to solve the problem for free, the activity resembles play. The mind searches for new, creative ways to do things. This makes the right solution easier to find because the mind is flexible and dynamic.

In contrast, when a person is offered a reward, the situation immediately becomes one devoid of play. Unless clear, simple directions are laid out for the person, performance will actually decrease because the mind is fixated on completing the assignment.

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4 thoughts on “How Rewards kill our Creativity”

  1. I was thinking one could heat up the wax at the bottom of the candle with some of the matches and stick the candle directly to the wall (though there may simply be too much torque for this size candle… but the candle could be shortened 🙂 ). Then simply let the box be underneath the candle on the table to catch the dripping wax. The nice thing about this design is that you would not even need the tacks. The bad part is that the candle would burn quickly in its horizontal orientation, and once it got close to the wall, there would probably be some significant increase in fire hazard.

    1. Zappos transition into ‘Holacracy’ is a clear example of how hard it is to create a system that rewards creativity and intrinsic motivation without considering the main extrinsic nature of a Salary.
      A Job could be a mission but as long as it’s the way you survive into a society can’t exclude extrinsic motivation either and that’s the reason why IMHO Holocracy can’t really win this battle.
      Would it be with badges or colors you will always have to find a way to pay more or less people that actually contribute less or more to the main objectives.

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