Rewards – Creative Thinking’s Nemesis

Intuitively, this doesn’t make any sense. If you want to motivate people to do things, and do them well, offer them great incentives, right? Pay rises, promises of returning favours, food (amirite). This all seems legit, yeah? Wrong! Science has shown over and over that this just isn’t the case when you need to think creatively.

Okay, hear me out. To illustrate this bizarre notion, I’ll tell you about this classic experiment created by Karl Dunker in 1945. It’s called the candle problem.

IMG_0249He’s got 99 problems and they mostly involve fire

Say that you are a participant in this experiment. You are brought into a room with a candle, thumbtacks, and some matches on a table. You are then told to attach the candle to the wall so that the wax doesn’t drip on the table. Have a think about it, what would you do?



Most people realise pretty quickly that thumbtacking the candle to the wall wouldn’t work, nor would melting the side of the candle and sticking it to the wall (however ingenious that seems). After about 5 minutes, most people figure it out.





Thumbtacking the thumbtack box? Genius! This task requires all of the creative thinking sparks you’ve got. Why? Well, because you’re encumbered by functional fixedness. The box is already doing something, so it’s not seen as a tool you have at your disposal.

Just add incentives!

Psychologist Sam Glucksberg adapted this experiment to test whether rewards would improve performance on the candle problem. To one group, he said he would time them just to establish averages, while the other group was offered not insubstantial monetary rewards depending on how well they performed. And yup, the group with the rewards on average took 3.5 minutes longer than the group with no goal. 3.5 minutes longer!! But why?

Rewards blinker us and narrow our focus. All of our focus remains on the reward, and not on the task at hand. Not only do we not properly consider the task at hand, but our thoughts don’t go to the enjoyment of the task we’re doing. This is because rewards get us stuck primarily in system 1 processing.

What is system 1 processing you ask?

System 1 refers to the type of brainular (great word, make it happen guys) processing which is fast and automatic. It’s intuitive, takes very little mental effort and is involuntary. System 1 is that guy in your head saying “Good things have vegetables…. pizza has vegetables… pizza is good for you!” We all wish this little guy was right more often (well… in this case we do), but unfortunately, life is far more complicated than our intuitions would seduce us into believing.

Cue system 2

Excuse the continued anthropomorphising, but System 2 is the more rational older brother of system 1: It does try to look out for it’s younger sibling, but it’s essentially extremely lazy. System 2 processing takes conscious effort. It’s rational and logical and keeps system 1 in check (or at least, it should), but a lot of the time it doesn’t. It’s also a lot slower.


For example, consider this conundrum: If a baseball and a bat cost $1.10 together, and the bat costs $1.00 more than the ball, how much does the ball cost?

Your first instinct is probably to say “10 cents!! The ball is 10 cents!!” This is your system 1 talking, because it’s the easiest, most intuitive answer. But after that first impulse, you probably stopped, realising that if the bat is to be a dollar more than the ball, this can’t be correct. The ball must cost 5 cents, making the bat cost $1.05. This last burst of reason is your system 2 chiming in, setting his little brother right. 

Bringing everything together

Rewards aren’t entirely disastrous. For tasks that require little creative thinking, rewards are perfect for improving performance, but as soon as you need to use any kind of creativity, incentives just keep us down and stuck in system 1, when we need system 2 to kick in and make us look around and really consider what we’re doing right now. To indulge my hippy side, we need to be in the moment, man.

Until we stop living in a reward driven world, and there are more free-thinking organisations like Wikipedia out there, don’t focus on those great grades you want, or that promotion you’re working towards. Get your system 2 out of bed, step back, check out your task and focus on it, feeling your spirit become one with the universe, man.


No but seriously

For more information:

Dan Pink’s TED Talk:

Lessons from Thinking, Fast & Slow – System 1 and System 2

The Bat and A Ball Problem

4 Responses to “Rewards – Creative Thinking’s Nemesis”

  1. Ruth de Jager says:

    Oh man, star trek utopia I wish! But you’re totally right, people still need to be rewarded for their work. I think we’d always need internal advancement, but I suppose it’s about changing the nature in which we work, and how we go about being innovative. I think respect is a huge thing, all people and their ideas need to feel safe and accepted in a company before anything good can happen, but it’s really about harnessing that intrinsic drive we all have and as Dan Pink has said, giving people ridiculous amounts of autonomy. Like, ridiculous.

    There are a few companies that do this, one being Atlassian, an Australian software company. They had “FedEX days” where they have to come up with something overnight, but it has to be completely unrelated to their normal work and they’d present it the next day. This worked so well that they introduced 20% time, where employees work on what ever they want 20% of the time, as long as it’s unrelated. Google famously use this, where employees have complete autonomy over their task, their time, their team, their technique, everything. And many of their innovations come from this time, including gmail!

    This model is pretty scary. There’s a lot of trust involved, but it’s clearly superior to what Dan Pink calls the “carrot and sticks” model. He says it’s all about intrinsic motivators, autonomy, mastery and purpose. If you’re at all interested, I’d highly recommend his TED Talk linked above. It’s very entertaining as well as interesting ^_^

  2. dloudon says:

    People need to be “rewarded” though. We’re not quite in a star trek utopia yet, and everyone needs to eat. Is it possible for people to forget that they’re being paid for their work? In the right job, certainly. But is it possible to have a workplace with no internal advancement, or do you need to make it to the top before you can really get creative? It could be possible if “management” are paid and respected the same as “normal employees”, perhaps. Great science – let’s see if we can put it into practice.

  3. Ruth de Jager says:

    Isn’t it! It’s something very ingrained – especially in businesses. Dan Pink’s TED talk speaks about this a lot more, about how 21st century work requires creative thinking and internal drive, both of which rewards hinder.

    I think you’re right, stress really helps you get cracking, but I’m not sure of the relationship between stress and creative thinking. Stress is a really good motivator, and being a bit stressed can improve our performance! It goes back to the fight or flight reflex, where you need to be sharper in the face of danger. However, too much stress of course decreases performance greatly.

    There’s an extended theory, saying that by wanting to do the best to get the reward, too much stress is experienced, which inhibits the pathways in the pre-frontal cortex which promote reasoning and problem solving, leaving you effectively with only system 1 processing.

    Thanks for reading! ^_^

  4. ebyers says:

    This was super interesting since we always assume that rewards will make us do anything faster! It had never even occured to me that they could get in the way of creative thinking. Since often its the fear of deadlines that helps us get things done I wonder if stress helps creative thinking, or if it only really helps you get cracking. Thanks for your post 🙂