Motivation Leading to Discoveries

Øyvind Lund Martinsen, Adrian Furnham, Thorvald Hærem

Was Archimedes strongly motivated when he discovered Archimedes’ law? What can we learn from the Archimedes story?

KNOWLEDGE @ BI: Motivation

Authors: Professor Øyvind Martinsen, professor Adrian Furnham and Associate professor Thorvald Hærem.

The story says that Archimedes was actually having a bath when he had his famous revelation. As most people seem not to be strongly motivated for solving work issues while having a bath, we believe the same was the case for Archimedes. Can we learn something from this?

Anecdotes flourish where people are having small or great insights when they fall asleep, take the bus, take a shower, watch apples fall to the ground, and so on.

The phenomenon of having insights in relatively relaxed motivational states is seen as so typical that it has been called the bed-bus-and-bath-phenomenon by the scientist Margaret Boden.

Relaxed motivational states

We and many with us have been puzzled by this idea. Can it really be so that low motivational arousal lead to discoveries and insights? What would that imply for work performance systems emphasizing incentives, bonuses or other motivational schemes? Especially when the tasks imply novelty seeking, exploration, curiosity, and research?

To back up the main idea here, it is clear that anecdotal evidence is not satisfactory evidence.

Thus, we have done what scientists typically do in such cases, and rigorously and experimentally tested whether low, medium or high motivation is better for performance on demanding insight tasks. Moreover, we have tested some of the underlying mechanisms in this picture. In this respect, we have emphasized hitherto little known differences between people.

Two sources of motivation

We have based ourselves on a model where the strength of motivation has two main sources (by all means, motivation is influenced by other forces also, but these are not considered here):

  • perceived competence for the task at hand and
  • the strength of the drive to perform well/achieve.

When competence and achievement drive is combined we get what is called total motivation.

So far so good, but here comes the unintuitive paradox: very strong total motivation is not considered optimal for performance on complicated insight tasks. On the contrary, the more complicated the task, the better it is to be in a moderate to low, motivationally aroused state.

Testing the theory

In a controlled experiment that we conducted to test this theory, it turned out that our ideas were fully supported by the results. Total motivation in the lower range was indeed conducive to performance on difficult insight tasks.

However, the underlying mechanisms were quite complex. For people with a certain thinking style we found that a strong achievement drive was detrimental to performance. It also turned out that a strong achievement drive was quite conducive to performance for people with another thinking style. Clearly, effects of achievement drive were dependent on who you are, and thinking styles play a prominent role here. Such styles typically evolve around patterns of underlying personality traits and describe habitual ways of thinking and approaches to problem solving tasks, like insight problems.

Explorers in action

The thinking styles that we based ourselves on were developed by Kaufmann (1979) and called the Assimilator-Explorer styles.

Explorers like novel kinds of tasks and look upon themselves as quite creative. Thus, they have competence for tasks that demand exploration and trial and error approaches, and they are not very good at using well known rules or procedures, even when this is necessary for success. When Explorers face high novelty and demanding insight tasks, they probably feel competent for the task. When such task competence is combined with a strong drive to perform well, total motivation becomes quite strong. According to our theory, however, strong motivational states are not good for performance on insight tasks.

In our experiment, low levels of achievement drive made Explorers perform better. So, perhaps Archimedes was an Explorer and got his great idea because he was able to relax his need to find a solution?

The Assimilator Style

The other thinking style is called the Assimilator style. People with this habitual way of thinking like rules, procedures, and structure, and they are not seen as good at coping with high novelty in the task. They tend to look upon themselves as less creative than Explorers. When facing tasks demanding a novel approach they tend not to feel very competent.

However, when their initially low perceived competence is combined with a strong need to achieve they actually perform as well as Explorers with a low need to achieve. Thus, the need to achieve has opposite effects for Explorers and Assimilators when the task is difficult and needs to be solved in a novel way.

Our ideas were clearly supported so far. Still, we also needed to ask if the same, general mechanism would hold when Assimilators face tasks where they feel more competent and Explorers less competent. Such tasks are considered better solved by following a rule or a procedure. Will the strength of achievement drive still work in opposite ways for Assimilators and Explorers? Yes, our results supported this idea also.

Implications for business?

Because insight is associated with scientific discovery, our findings may have implications far beyond the insight tasks that we employed in our studies. The findings may dictate much more nuanced approaches to the use of incentives or other motivational schemes in the business world. Our perhaps that would be too difficult.

Perhaps it would be an even better idea in such businesses to let people regulate themselves.


  • Martinsen, Ø. & Furnham, A. (2015). Cognitive style and performance on complex, structured tasks. Learning and Individual Differences, 42, 106-109
  • Martinsen, Ø. & Furnham, A. (2016). The Assimilator–Explorer styles and creativity. Personality and Individual Differences, 98, 297–299
  • Martinsen, Ø. Furnham, A. & Hærem, T. (2016). An Integrated Perspective on Insight. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 145, 1319-1332

This article is first published in BI Leadership Magazine 2017/2018.

BI Leadership Magazine is a Science Communication Magazine published by the Department of Leadership and Organzational Behaviour at BI Norwegian Business School.

Published 8. November 2017

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