Cash for Creativity

New research finds a monetary reward inspires innovation far more than the promise of public recognition.
By Tom Jacobs,

So you're trying to inspire a group of people—perhaps your employees, perhaps your students—to think more creatively. Will you get better results offering them public recognition of their brilliance, or a monetary reward?

Newly published research suggests the clear answer is cold, hard cash.

"People who value creativity value the bizarre, the stuff that's 'out there,'" lead author Ravi Mehta, of the University of Illinois, said in announcing the findings. "Therefore, they're less likely to care about the approval of others, or a sense of belonging with their peers."

While a cash reward focuses us on the task at hand, "a social-recognition reward kills creativity," he added. "It appeals to conformity, to not standing out, which drives you to the middle, not the edge."

In the Journal of Consumer Research, Mehta and his colleagues describe five studies that demonstrate this dynamic. In the first, 140 university undergraduates were assigned to creatively solve "the shoeshine problem"—that is, figure out a way to quickly remove the scuffs from their shoes before attending an important company dinner.

One-third were told the participant who came up with the most creative solution would win $50. Another third were told that person would have their "solution, name, and picture featured in the school magazine." The final third were not offered any reward.

The results: Those vying for a cash prize came up with more original solutions (as determined by 15 judges) than their counterparts in the other two groups. People anticipating social recognition and those not expecting any reward produced "comparable levels of creativity," suggesting the thought of being in the magazine was extremely ineffective.

The follow-up studies replicated those results, and one added an important caveat. It found that, if you're part of a social circle where "originality and innovation were accepted norms," public recognition is just as effective an incentive as cash.

Sure, if you're an artist trying to impress other artists, that high-profile prize can indeed be inspirational. But for those not eligible for a Pulitzer or Emmy—such as consumers who are invited to come up with new product ideas—money is the more effective motivator.

"When you ask someone to be creative, you're asking them to be transgressive—to think beyond social norms," Mehta notes. The idea of being judged by our peers can be inhibiting, but our inner innovator can be activated by the pleasant anticipation of cashing a check.

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