I am now reading Drive, by Daniel H. Pink, which is all about this. The sub-title is The surprising truth about what motivates us. Until recently, we have assumed that people worked because of extrinsic motivations, mainly money. But in the kind of work now important in the information economy, creative work, these kinds of awards not only don’t work – they are counter-productive. They make people less productive – and also make them miserable.
This is an easy read – after all, it is written for business people – and plenty of examples are given. I will only quote one of them (on page 44):
Teresa Amable, the Harvard Business School professor and one of the world’s leading researchers on creativity, has frequently tested the effects of contingent rewards on the creative process. In one study, she and two colleagues recruited twenty-three professional artists from the United States who had produced both commissioned and noncommissioned artwork. They asked the artists to randomly produce ten commissioned and ten noncommissioned works. Then Amabile and her team gave the works to a panel of acomplished artists and curators, who knew nothing about the study, and asked the experts to rate the pieces on creativity and technical skill.
“Our results were quite startling,” the researchers wrote. “The commissioned works were rated as significantly less creative than the noncommissioned works, yet they were not rated as different in technical quality. Moreover, the artists reported feeling significantly more constrained when doing commissioned works that when doing non-commissioned works.” One artist whom they interviewed describes what they call the Sawyer effect (after the Tom Sawyer character produced by Mark Twain):
Not always, but a lot of the time, when you are doing a piece for someone else it becomes more “work” than joy. When I work for myself there is the pure joy of creating and I can work though the night and not even know it. On a commissioned piece you have to check yourself – and to be careful to do what the client wants.
The implications of this research are profound – especially for schooling – which most kids hate, for just this reason.