Behavioral Reinforcement revisited . . .

There has long been a controversy over the relative merits of intrinsic versus extrinsic motivators relating to employee performance. The scholarly articles that reflect the time, effort and emotional investments are legion.

Developments in neuroscience over the past twenty years have turned conventional wisdom on its ear though and very few have noticed. Meanwhile we continue to invest prodigious resources in blindly pursuing the well-worn paths of recognition and reward systems that have little real influence on contribution and performance. It’s time to take a fresh perspective!

To begin, neuroscientists tell us that the concepts of intrinsic and extrinsic reinforcers are based on a fallacy: the brain and, therefore, the mind do not respond to either reinforcer. Thanks to fMRI technology we are able to witness the brain’s functioning as it happens and there’s no activity in the presence of such motivators.

The expected activity, the release of dopamine which induces euphoric sensations, happens under entirely different circumstances – when there’s a ‘prediction error’ - when our experience varies from our expectations.

This explains a great deal of our life experiences. It helps us to understand how and why we learn because learning depends on the extent to which behavioral outcomes are different than predicted, being governed by the discrepancy of ‘error’ between outcome and prediction.

It explains the Christmas Turkey syndrome where the first time we receive a bonus gift we are positively impacted but after three years of repeated bonuses we see it as entitlement, not as an incentive. It explains why we would not want to operate a button manufacturing machine by simply pulling a lever several hundred times each hour but we will happily stand before a slot machine (‘one-armed bandit’) and do exactly the same thing without loss of interest.

This same revelation also helps us to understand why many of us like long shots, challenging the odds with gaming activities, taking risks in the stock market, extreme sports and even traveling to unknown places. We are bored by routine and sameness simply because the outcomes are predictable and there’s little or no excitement – no dopamine rush to reward us.

I always believed that incentive programs had to be fair, transparent and consistent in their structure just so that they would be credible. I didn’t realize that with the introduction of each safeguard and check-in-balance I was reducing the impact of the intended influencer; no wonder the results were elusive!

The roots of all this are deep – our brains are hard-wired for search and forage actions; we could not just sit in a warm cave and survive, we needed to find food. Having found it we needed pattern recognition to affirm which fruits and roots were safe to eat and to discern the safe limits for risk taking. We still have the same caveman mind – it’s just a tad more sophisticated in its expression.

So what does this mean in terms of influencing the behaviors of others?

We have already discovered that we cannot ‘motivate’ others; that it’s up to them to find motivation within themselves. What we can do is construct an environment in which they will want to do this.

We have learned through repeated and bitter experiences that people do not respond consistently to imposed incentives; that they get bored with repetition; that routine and sameness will cause people to become jaded; and that they stop learning and improving, if the circumstances do not change.

We must unlearn many of our resident beliefs about what will initiate behavioral change:

  • We need to preserve opportunities for exploration and curiosity.
  • We should encourage new and fresh perspectives within the thinking of others.
  • We have to recognize that excitement of unexpected discoveries is highly valued.
  • We ought to explore which pleasures and passions register for each person.
  • We have to build on the frontiers of every individual’s experiences.

There’s no profit in flogging dead horses so let’s understand that it is not ‘them’ that need to change, it’s us, and the way we see and respond to the natural world in which we live.