Setting limits on children's behavior: The differential effects of controlling vs. informational styles on intrinsic motivation and creativity


  • This research was supported by National Science Foundation Grant BSN–8018628. The authors are grateful to the following people who helped in the preparation of this project—Ed Deci, John Simonson, Paul Tero, Shirley Tracey, and the children and teachers of the Barker Road School, Pittsford, NY. Thanks also to Miriam Gale.

Requests for reprints should be sent to Richard M. Ryan, Department of Psychology, River Station, University of Rochester, Rochester, NY 14627.


The imposition of external constraints on an activity has frequently been shown to undermine intrinsic motivation. Given that limits must often be set upon peoples' activities, especially in parenting and education, the present study addressed the question of whether limits can be set without undermining intrinsic motivation for the activity being limited. Using cognitive evaluation theory, contrasting limit setting styles of either a controlling or informational nature, or no limits, were placed upon forty-four first- and second-grade children engaged in a painting activity. The intrinsic motivation, enjoyment, creativity, and quality of artistic production were expected to be decreased by controlling limits relative to informational and no-limits, which were not expected to differ from each other. The results provided substantial support for these predictions, suggesting that limits can be set without undermining intrinsic motivation if they are informational in nature. Support was also found for the consensual assessment of creativity method recently developed by Amabile (1982a). Results of the study are discussed along with the general relation between creativity and intrinsic motivation.