Cognitive, Affective, & Behavioral Neuroscience

, Volume 18, Issue 5, pp 925–931 | Cite as

The effects of expected reward on creative problem solving

  • Irene Cristofori
  • Carola Salvi
  • Mark Beeman
  • Jordan GrafmanEmail author


Creative problem solving involves search processes, and it is known to be hard to motivate. Reward cues have been found to enhance performance across a range of tasks, even when cues are presented subliminally, without being consciously detected. It is uncertain whether motivational processes, such as reward, can influence problem solving. We tested the effect of supraliminal and subliminal reward on participant performance on problem solving that can be solved by deliberate analysis or by insight. Forty-one participants attempted to solve 100 compound remote associate problems. At the beginning of each problem, a potential reward cue (1 or 25 cents) was displayed, either subliminally (17 ms) or supraliminally (100 ms). Participants earned the displayed reward if they solved the problem correctly. Results showed that the higher subliminal reward increased the percentage of problems solved correctly overall. Second, we explored if subliminal rewards preferentially influenced solutions that were achieved via a sudden insight (mostly processed below awareness) or via a deliberate analysis. Participants solved more problems via insight following high subliminal reward when compared with low subliminal reward, and compared with high supraliminal reward, with no corresponding effect on analytic solving. Striatal dopamine (DA) is thought to influence motivation, reinforce behavior, and facilitate cognition. We speculate that subliminal rewards activate the striatal DA system, enhancing the kinds of automatic integrative processes that lead to more creative strategies for problem solving, without increasing the selectivity of attention, which could impede insight.


Subliminal Monetary rewards Insight Problem solving 



This work was supported by NIH under Grant No. T32 NS047987 to C.S., by the United States Air Force Research Laboratory FA8650-15-2-5518, and by the Therapeutic Cognitive Neuroscience Fund to J.G.

Author contributions

All authors have contributed significantly to the manuscript. I.C., C.S., M.B., and J.G. designed and performed research; I.C. and C.S. analyzed the data; I.C., C.S., M.B., and J.G. interpreted the data and wrote the paper.


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Copyright information

© Psychonomic Society, Inc. 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  • Irene Cristofori
    • 1
    • 2
  • Carola Salvi
    • 2
    • 3
  • Mark Beeman
    • 3
  • Jordan Grafman
    • 1
    • 2
    • 4
    Email author
  1. 1.Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, Feinberg School of MedicineNorthwestern UniversityChicagoUSA
  2. 2.Cognitive Neuroscience LaboratoryShirley Ryan AbilityLabChicagoUSA
  3. 3.Department of PsychologyNorthwestern UniversityChicagoUSA
  4. 4.Department of Neurology, Feinberg School of MedicineNorthwestern UniversityChicagoUSA

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