A new study published in the Accounting Review examines whether it is possible to design incentives that make people more creative.
“In the contemporary workforce, just about any job that can be automated is being automated,” study author Steven J. Kachelmeier told us. “Routine tasks are now being performed by robots and computers. What this leaves for humans are more judgment-oriented jobs that require creative and innovative solutions to solve unique problems.”
Kachelmeier and his colleagues conducted an experiment in which student participants completed a creative task, with creativity later evaluated by separate panels of independent raters. Participants were paid in one of three ways: 1) Pay that increased with the number of ideas provided, irrespective of creativity; 2. Pay that increased with the number of ideas that met a certain creativity rating threshold; or 3. Fixed pay, as a control condition.
“In our field of accounting, researchers have traditionally focused on how incentives can make people more productive,” Kachelmeier told us. “We wanted to focus instead on the tougher task of how incentives can help people reach their creative potential. The most important feature of our research is that we brought participants back after this initial task, after ten days in one experiment, and after a break of just 20 minutes in another experiment. We were hoping to find out whether any effects of different incentives emerged after the break even if they were not apparent initially.”
The study, titled, Incentivizing the Creative Process: From Initial Quantity to Eventual Creativity, was authored by Kachelmeier along with Laura W. Wang and Michael G. Williamson. Kachelmeier says they were influenced in designing their research by theoretical work on the creative process that dates back to a book by London School of Economics cofounder, Graham Wallas, in 1926.
“In Wallas’ model, creative insight first requires preparation, followed by incubation (i.e., rest) before eventual illumination (i.e. creative insight) can emerge,” Kachelmeier told us. “While we are not the first to test the beneficial effects of rest on creativity, our contribution comes from different ways to make creative preparation more effective through incentives. That is, if the goal is to come up with creative ideas, we reasoned that incentives to first come up with a large quantity of ideas would stimulate the subconscious mind to make creative incubation more effective and eventual creative illumination more successful.”
In their experimental task, participants designed rebus puzzles, a kind of riddle in which words or diagrams represent a common word or phrase. For example, a common rebus puzzle that nearly everyone has seen, Kachelmeier explains, is a line with the word ‘man’ written above the line and the word ‘board’ below the line, the solution to which is ‘man overboard’.
“Our experiment asked participants to design creative rebus puzzles, not to solve them,” Kachelmeier told us. “We then paid participants based on either the number of puzzles they submitted, the creativity of those puzzles, or a fixed-pay condition that did not depend on quantity or creativity. After either ten days in one iteration of our experiment or just a 20-minute walk in another iteration, we brought participants back to see if their creativity changed after this incubation period.”
In the first stage of their experiment when participants designed rebus puzzles under different incentives, researchers did not find any differences in the number of high-creativity ideas. Participants with quantity incentives submitted more ideas in total, but not more highly creative ideas. After the incubation period of ten days or just 20 minutes, however, participants who initially had quantity incentives became not just more productive than other participants in terms of the sheer number of ideas, but also more creative. That is, the creativity advantage of quantity incentives took time to germinate, with an initial brainstorming of ideas leading to eventual success in creativity.
“Although our general pattern of findings was predicted by our theory, one thing that surprised us came from a post-experimental question on how much participants enjoyed the task,” Kachelmeier told us. “If anything, participants with fixed pay said that they had more fun than participants with quantity incentives, even though those with quantity incentives were significantly more productive and eventually more creative. One conclusion is that creative success first requires some frustration, and frustration is not necessarily fun. But consistent with the adage of ‘no pain, no gain’, creative success first seems to require hard work, followed by a period of rest that lets that hard work incubate in the subconscious.”
Kachelmeier says he and his colleagues find it interesting that companies like Google and Indeed have a strong work ethic and expect a lot from their employees, while also providing opportunities for rest, relaxation, and even meditation.
“Our research helps to explain this workplace trend by documenting the benefits of incentivized hard work followed by rest and so-called incubation,” Kachelmeier told us. “Our findings suggest that creative insight demands both elements.”
Patricia Tomasi is a mom, maternal mental health advocate, journalist, and speaker. She writes regularly for the Huffington Post Canada, focusing primarily on maternal mental health after suffering from severe postpartum anxiety twice. You can find her Huffington Post biography here. Patricia is also a Patient Expert Advisor for the North American-based, Maternal Mental Health Research Collective and is the founder of the online peer support group - Facebook Postpartum Depression & Anxiety Support Group - with over 1500 members worldwide. Blog: www.patriciatomasiblog.wordpress.com