Intrinsic Motivation is More Creative When You Look Outside Yourself

One of the most commonly reported findings from creativity research is that intrinsic motivation–doing something just because you love doing it, and not for any external reward–is correlated with higher creativity. This is the “flow” state made famous by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s 1990 book titled Flow. But it turns out the research isn’t so clear; not all studies have found a relationship between intrinsic motivation and creativity. A recent study* attempted to figure out what’s really going on.

The researchers reasoned that intrinsic motivation works well to generate new ideas, but ideas aren’t judged as “creative” unless they are both new and usefully appropriate, as defined by some community. The researchers further reasoned that people who are externally focused–those who are good at “perspective taking” and those with a “prosocial motivation,” meaning that they are willing to expend effort to help other people–would be better at generating useful ideas. So they designed an experiment to test whether or not intrinsic motivation and prosocial motivation combine to result in greater creativity, than would be predicted by intrinsic motivation alone.

In three different experiments, with three different populations, the finding was YES, prosocial motivation strengthens the association between intrinsic motivation and creativity. The three populations were quite interesting:

  • Study 1: 90 security force officers at a military base
  • Study 2: 111 employees and supervisors at a water treatment plant
  • Study 3: 100 college undergraduates

And furthermore, they found that prosocial motivation is positively associated with perspective taking, and that perspective taking strengthens the association between intrinsic motivation and creativity.

This is an intriguing finding, because many people believe that when you think too much about what others think, you end up being less creative: because you conform more to what’s normal. Some other researchers have found that the other-focused values associated with “collectivism” result in lower group creativity. The researchers explain the apparent contradiction by arguing that collectivism is different from prosocial motivation and perspective taking. Basically, being nice is not the same thing as trying to conform and avoid rocking the boat.

The practical implications are that if you’re overly focused on the pure joy of your own personal flow state, you might end up being less usefully creative (in the context of the real-world organization you work in). I’m a big supporter of the “flow” research tradition, so this is personally quite fascinating for me!

*Grant, A. M. and Berry, J. W. 2011. The necessity of others is the mother of invention: Intrinsic and prosocial motivations, perspective taking, and creativity. Academy of Management Journal Vol. 54 No. 1 pp. 73-96.