The Tom Sawyer Effect-Why Art Intrinsically Motivates

“Don’t judge each day by the harvest you reap but by the seeds that you plant.”

― Robert Louis Stevenson.

 In “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer”, Mark Twain writes that after Tom played hooky from school on Friday and dirtying his clothes in a fight, Tom is ordered to whitewash Aunt Polly’s long white fence on Saturday, as punishment for his misdeed. At first, Tom is disappointed by having to forfeit his day off. However, he soon cleverly persuades his friends to trade him small treasures for the privilege of doing his work. Tom had turned his punishment into a moneymaker! One after one his friends come along, and Tom, with a look of pure joy and happiness on his face, and having convinced each one that painting was so much fun, each pays Tom for the privilege of doing just that. As Mark Twain’s great story goes:

“Tom gave up the brush with reluctance in his face, but alacrity in his heart. And while the late steamer Big Missouri worked and sweated in the sun, the retired artist sat on a barrel in the shade close by, dangled his legs, munched his apple, and planned the slaughter of more innocents. There was no lack of material; boys happened along every little while; they came to jeer, but remained to whitewash."

Daniel Pink, in his excellent book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, refers to this as the “Tom Sawyer Effect”. Pink defines the Tom Sawyer Effect as “practices that can either turn play into work or work into play,”- this, after Tom Sawyer, who tricked his friends into painting a fence for him by convincing them it was fun. The phenomenon exhibited by Tom’s friends taking up the whitewashing challenge is known as ‘Intrinsic Motivation’.

Intrinsic motivation has been studied since the early 1970s. It is the self-desire to seek out new things and new challenges, to analyze one's capacity, to observe and to gain knowledge. It is driven by an interest or enjoyment in the task itself, and exists within the individual rather than relying on external pressures or a desire for reward. Analogously, if we paint, or practice any of the Arts for enjoyment, self satisfaction, or one of the many intrinsic motivators, we will derive more from the exercise than if we did it with an external reward in mind. And, after all, isn’t that why we engage in our artistic pursuits? Are we not driven by the self satisfaction we gain from the process itself? Art is always a journey, and though we experience many emotions when we complete a work of art, we reflect primarily on the enjoyment we experience along the way. How happy Tom’s friends were to not only ‘whitewash the fence,’ but to give Tom something of value for the privilege! We however offer nothing but an expression of our art, and our application to the effort, in exchange for our intrinsic self-motivation, and consequent enjoyment. How happy are we for the privilege!