Chapter 1.4 Rewards

Rewarding Creativity is Tricky

The next problem in motivation psychology theories such as those outlined by Amabile (1996) is, ‘what constitutes a reward?’ She compared research into motivated creativity, and showed that external reward had a debilitating effect on creative expression. But the effect was not constant or predictable; people could even learn to be creatively motivated with external rewards as well as the traditional intrinsic motivation required. Lehrer (2012) sums up research on the brain’s reward system, which reveals activity in its Dopamine reward pathway when the test subject perceived pleasurable or rewarding experience. This reward pathway is known to react equally to sweet taste, beauty and a well constructed metaphor. This suggests a unifying theory about why such diverse and personal experiences and activities in an individual’s life can be described as pleasurable or rewarding. Rewards are chosen not because they are personally stimulating, but because they are socially accepted forms of reward. It also tells the brain that what they are doing is ‘work’ as a payment is involved (Pittman et al. 1982). Not to say that the brain will not perceive this as a reward, but that society has a strong hold on the individual and a social gift brings with it its own contextual framework. Ariely (2009) describes the importance of social gifts, but also the strict principles and expectations around them. It is likely then that these rewards do not fulfill the dopamine high that an intrinsic reward would, but also that it increases the awareness of social interaction in the subject, again switching on their prefrontal cortex and screening out their endocepts in order to engage socially.

Our environment is clearly important to us, and this is one of the reasons curiosity is such a driving force in our experience of it. Csikszentmihalyi’s (1990) theory of optimal experience supports this; we require a level of stimulus and sensation that keeps us engaged with our environment, but not overwhelmed (which produces motivations of its own) or underwhelmed by it. So we are driven to seek information and sensation in order to better understand ourselves and our environment.

Research into the dopamine reward pathway shows that many aspects of creativity are intrinsically rewarding – playfulness, novelty seeking, self expression and appreciating beauty are all highly correlated with dopamine reward (Flaherty 2005, Aharon et al. 2001). It is clear then that while research into the creation of cultural products is important, it is necessary to do so in the context that the process can be just as valuable – it is its own reward.

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