WALTHAM, Mass. — Nearly 30 years ago, an inquisitive 5-year-old named Teresa Amabile listened in on a conversation between her mother and her kindergarten teacher.
"I think Teresa shows great potential for artistic creativity," Mrs. Bollier told Mrs. Amabile.
Teresa's ears perked up.
"I didn't know what 'artistic creativity' was, but I knew it was good. I knew I wanted it. I was very excited.
"Unfortunately," Brandeis University psychology professor Amabile deadpanned, "that was the high point of my artistic creativity. I'm still drawing like a 5-year-old."
Amabile has, however, made a career out of studying creativity: where it comes from, how it develops, what fosters and encourages it and--just as important--what dampens and discourages it.
Again, she reverts to her own experience.
Strict Parochial School
The year after her mother's fateful conversation with Mrs. Bollier, little Teresa Amabile was placed in a strict parochial school. Art was not a major element of the curriculum.
"They would give us a small reprint of a painting by one of the Old Masters. The nuns would say 'copy it.' " Amabile laughed. "Imagine, telling someone to copy Da Vinci on loose-leaf paper, with a Crayola. It was very frustrating, trying to get all those horses and angels on the pages.
"Worse yet, we'd get graded. I would get Cs and Ds, when I was used to getting A's."
As if she were still seeking to recapture some of that "great potential" for "artistic creativity," Amabile spread her arms and posed this question: "What happened? What happened to my motivation, and with it, my creativity for art?"
It was a concern that was to plague her as she made her way through master's and Ph.D. programs in psychology at Stanford University. In fact, Amabile devoted her doctoral thesis to what she was by then calling her intrinsic motivation hypothesis of creativity: that is, that intrinsic motivation --the "motivation to do something for its own sake, because of a passionate interest in the work, because it provides its own challenge and satisfaction"--is more conducive to creativity than extrinsic motivation, where "the goal is not the activity itself," but rather "the desire to achieve some goal extrinsic to the task, such as an externally imposed reward or deadline."
In short, Amabile contends, "motivational state makes the difference between what a person can do and what he will do."
While Amabile's ongoing research continues to solidify this conclusion, it was not a verdict she reached with no academic roadblocks at all. Creativity, she discovered, "has a very bad reputation" in psychology. "A lot of the research (into creativity) has been poorly controlled, experimentally poor. I don't know how to describe it other than fuzzy."
Sounding just mildly academically snobbish, she added: "A lot of the work in creativity had been done by the humanistic types, the touchy-feely crowd."
Besides, Amabile said, "what good research there was, was almost exclusively limited to the nature of the creative personality. I wasn't looking at how creative people are different from uncreative people. I was looking at how a social environment increases or decreases a person's creativity."
This path of examination required Amabile to devise a working definition of her subject, creativity. "An idea or a product is creative," she declared, "if it is a novel and appropriate response to an open-ended task." Amabile tacked on one caveat: "But it also can't be bizarre."
As a major part of her research, Amabile began reading "a lot about what creative people had to say about their own creativity." Specifically, "I was looking for how people's social environment influenced their creativity." She soon found a common theme: "These people said their creativity was stifled in social environments that constrained how they did what they did"--in short, "where they felt judged." To a one, Amabile said, "artists, scientists, writers, poets--they all were saying the same thing."
Amabile concluded also that "creative people tend to be, at the very least, nonconformists, and at the other end of the spectrum, completely eccentric."
Although, for example, "Albert Einstein was not a terribly articulate guy," Amabile said the physicist "felt that his creativity was hampered by his education. He said: 'It is a very grave mistake to think that the enjoyment of seeing and searching can be promoted by means of coercion and a sense of duty.' "
For Amabile, that comment has added meaning: "I love it, because that is what our educational system is all about."