The Science of Rewards

Lollipop by Sister72

Having the right reward can make all the difference.

Anyone who has been around children for an appreciable amount of time knows that the best way to get them to do something they don’t want to is to use a reward. Kid doesn’t want to go to the doctor so you promise them a new toy afterward if they behave, grades are slipping so you offer to pay $10 for every A you see on their report card, etc. Once they’ve been rewarded enough times for doing it, going to the doctor or getting better grades doesn’t become such a battle anymore. They may even start to enjoy it.

Ok, you may call those bribes, not rewards – doesn’t matter. The basic mechanism is the same regardless. The child has a behavior you want to correct, you offer a positive stimulus for engaging in the desired behavior and the child starts associating the behavior with the reward and begins to enjoy it. Easy.

Now, if this sounds a little bit like dog training that’s because, well, it is!

A part of dog training anyway. Don’t get insulted though and think I’m insinuating that your children are dogs (not that there would be anything wrong with that, I’m quite fond of dogs), classic conditioning is used as a part of dog training because it’s effective. Not just in dogs, but in pretty much all animals. Even better, we can use it on ourselves to motivate and condition us to achieve our goals.

Hormones & Neurotransmitters

The reason it’s so effective, in humans at least, is because of how our brains respond to rewards. That good feeling you get when you meet a goal, that high that comes from winning or earning a trophy, the sense of triumph when you beat a game on expert mode or unlock a new achievement on Steam. These feelings aren’t just all in your head.

Er, Ok, they are just in your head, but not in the imaginary way.

They’re a result of your brain chemistry. Of chemicals which are all in your head but more in a physical sense. Your brain likes rewards. It can’t help it, it’s a part of all of us. So when you set a goal knowing that there’s a reward at the end if you accomplish it, your brain starts releasing all sorts of very pleasant chemicals when you think about it. One of the strongest of these is dopamine.

Dopamine is some really strong stuff. It’s the main neurotransmitter linked with desire. When we get what we want, we get a good dose of dopamine and we feel good. When we don’t get what we want, we get starved of dopamine and get an unpleasant cocktail of stress hormones like cortisol. Not fun.

If you want a good example of how it feels to get a good shot of dopamine, think of the feeling of really deep love. Dopamine is one of the main chemicals released as a result of strong, devoted, never-want-to-be-apart love. Being with, or even just thinking about, the person you have those feelings for triggers a dopamine release. The cutoff of the dopamine supply is one reason why losing deep romantic love can feel like you’re dying.

So when you set a reward, thinking about earning that reward gives you little shots of happy, motivating neurotransmitters and thinking about failing to earn that reward gives you little shots of unpleasant, stressful neurotransmitters.

Just having a reward to work toward will naturally make you more motivated to succeed, and more concerned about failing. Additionally, if you make it a repeat process, your brain will start to associate that large dose of dopamine you get from finally earning that reward with whatever productive activity you assigned it to, making you want to do it more often with or without the reward.

The Price of Ownership

There’s a famous experiment that was run by Cornell University, where researches first gave students mugs with the school logo on it and then offered to trade the mugs for chocolate bars and then later gave students chocolate bars and then offered to trade them for school mugs.

Of the first group, almost none were willing to trade the mugs they had been given for the chocolate bars. It didn’t matter how much the students said they liked chocolate, the majority still chose to keep their mugs.

Now, before you attribute this to high school spirit, caffeine addiction or a sample set full of dieters – when the situation was reversed and the students who were given the chocolate bars were offered the mugs as a trade, the majority decided to keep the chocolate.

It turned out that no matter what it was, the students were always more likely to keep what they had rather than trade it away. This is usually referred to as the endowment effect.

The endowment effect basically means that when we assume ownership of something, we automatically make it a part of ourselves. Once we’ve made it a part of ourselves the loss of it triggers all those bad stress hormones and unhappy feelings triggered by losing a valued possession. This doesn’t just have to happen with things, it happens for ideas and people too. The best part is, you don’t even have to actually own something for the endowment effect to take hold, just the anticipation of owning something is enough to trigger it. Having someone tell you they are going to give you $50 and then later deciding not to feels just as bad as having someone just take $50 from your wallet.

That means that when you set rewards, you’re investing a part of yourself into attaining that reward. By having something that you know you will get when you accomplish your goal, you make failing to accomplish that goal just as painful as losing what you promised yourself as a reward. Believe me, that makes for a very strong motivator.

Putting It Into Practice

How do we make use of all this handy new information about rewards? Well, we start setting rewards! Ok, so there are a few little things to watch out for.

First of all, try not to shoot yourself in the foot with your reward. It’s ok if you want to make your reward for losing ten pounds a day long ice cream binge, just as long as you get right back to the habits that lost you those ten pounds after your glutton day.

An even better idea would be to reward yourself with something that itself continues to contribute to your goals. For example, “When I lose 10 pounds I’ll buy myself a new set of free weights”. Not only is a shiny new set of weights going to be a decent motivator (we’ll get to picking things you care about in a second), it’s also going to directly further your goals.

It’s also important to pick rewards that you actually want and to save the higher value rewards for the higher value goals. If you’ve got something you really want to accomplish or are really struggling finding the motivation for, give it one of the biggest, best rewards you can think of.

That should get you started with using rewards to keep yourself motivated and accomplishing things. Are there any other tricks you like to use when setting rewards? We’d love for you to share them with us in the comments.

Adam is a former English teacher turned personal trainer and writer. He’s addicted to learning, parkour and martial arts. In addition to being a voracious bibliophile Adam’s fascinated by anything related to health, fitness and language. When not studying or training he can usually be found curled up with a good piece of fiction. You can e-mail Adam at Adam@RoadtoEpic.com