One-hit wonder: How awards, recognition decrease inventors’ creativity

Post-it Notes, Spanx, the iPhone, two-day Prime shipping. From unique gadgets to revolutionary business ideas, the most successful inventions have one thing in common: creativity. But sustaining creativity can be difficult.

New research from Olin Business School at Washington University in St. Louis, published in the Journal of Applied Psychology, has identified one reason why some first-time producers struggle to repeat their initial creative productions while others go on to continually produce creative works.

Markus Baer, professor of organizational behavior at Olin, and Dirk Deichmann, of the Rotterdam School of Management in the Netherlands, discovered that recognizing first-time producers of successful novel ideas with an award or recognition can significantly decrease the likelihood that they will produce future creative work.

“In our study, we found that people who develop novel ideas and receive rewards for them start to see themselves primarily as a ‘creative person,'” Baer said.

“This newfound identity, which is special and rare, is then in need of protection. Essentially, once a person is in the creative limelight, stepping out of it — by producing a novel idea that disappoints or pales in comparison to earlier work — is threatening and to be avoided. One way to do so is to stop producing altogether. You cannot compromise your identity and reputation when you do not produce anything new.”

In other words, fear of failure the second time around can cause producers to avoid taking risks that would threaten their creative identity.

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