Contrary to what we would assume, incentives can often have the reverse effect of demotivating others. According to researchers at the US National Institute of Health (NIH), the reason for this can be found in the part of the brain that they stimulate.
Brain function scans conducted by the NIH have found that traditional rewards like cash payments stimulate a brain region called the Nucleus Accumbens. This primitive part of our brains is often referred to as the pleasure centre and is responsible for the release of the powerful reward hormone dopamine. In effect, being offered a cash incentive gives us a dopamine hit that creates feelings of contentment, exuberance and ecstasy. It’s a process not unlike what occurs when someone takes a dose of cocaine.
In contrast, when asked to help, to contribute or to feel generally responsible to and for others, it is the Posterior Superior Temporal Sulcus that lights up. This is the part of the brain that is responsible for social interactions and powerfully influences the way we form human connections, relationships and perceptions of others. It is highly sensitive to altruism and the social cues of being connected to others.
Here’s the trick. These ‘social’ and ‘reward’ parts of our brain cannot function simultaneously. One or the other takes over control of our thinking and decision-making. The result is that we are either motivated by an incentive, or by our natural sense of social responsibility, relationship and reciprocity.
Exploring the implications of this dynamic, Dan Ariely in his bestselling book Predictably Irrational offers a powerful example of how unhelpful it can be to confuse altruism with self-interest motivators. Ariely points to a daycare centre that was trying to address the issue of parents arriving late to pick up their children. In an effort to motivate punctuality, the daycare center instigated a fine for late pickups only to find that this resulted in more parents turning up late. In fact, the number almost doubled.
The reason for this was that before the fine was implemented, there was an unconscious social pressure for parents to arrive on time. They knew that failing to do so would mean their child’s teacher would have to stay back, and so their natural sense of social responsibility would kick in. While not always preventing inevitable lateness, altruism, reciprocity and empathy meant that parents were motivated to be on time as much as possible.
However, once the fine was imposed, the decision to be in time or not became an economic one. Whether parents arrived on time or not became a cost-benefit analysis. The parents were in effect paying for their lateness and so if the cost of the fine was lower than the benefit of being able to squeeze more into their afternoon, lateness seemed like a reasonable choice – and more people made that choice.
These findings are consistent with another study conducted in Switzerland in which researchers set out to examine the impact of reward-based incentives on people’s willingness to donate blood. A group of women interested in donating blood were separated into groups. The first group was thanked but offered no compensation, the second was offered a cash payment of the equivalent of $7 USD, while the third was informed a payment of that amount would be contributed to a children’s cancer charity if they chose to donate blood.
52% of women in the first group agreed to go ahead and become blood donors. In contrast, only 30% of those in the second group did the same. Significantly, the highest donation rate was amongst those in the third group where 53% agreed to give their blood. As Dan Pink suggests in his book Drive, the financial incentive “tainted an altruistic act” and “crowded out” the intrinsic desire to do something good.”
This very term echoes the words of Ruth Grant in her book Strings Attached: Untangling the Ethics of Incentives. Grant agrees with Pink saying that believes that incentives “crowd out” the inherent desire to do things for altruistic reasons. “The incentive, or extrinsic motivation, diminishes the intrinsic motivation,” she suggests. “Incentives undermine altruism, reciprocity, and other non-self-interested motives in a manner similar to the way in which they undermine intrinsic motivation.”
For leaders in a professional context, or any individual in a position requiring persuasion, the principle is this: we must make a choice as to which motivational engine we are aiming to appeal to in making our case or presenting our request. For example, if asking an employee to stay late at work to help meet a deadline, consider the different responses that would be evoked by expressing how much their help would mean to you and offering them a few extra dollars.
Granted, in many workplaces, people would be far more motivated by financial incentive than by a sense of responsibility, reciprocity and altruism. It may then be worth considering the kind of culture at play in the workplace, and focusing on building a team which facilitates people’s natural inclinations towards altruism. Create a culture where people want to help each other.
Trying to appeal to someone’s sense of both altruism and self-interest at the same time is both confusing and counterproductive. We must beware that when the social and reward parts of our brain go ‘head-to-head’, the self-interest will invariably trump social responsibility. But, before it comes to that, it is most persuasive and most charitable to appeal to our innate sense of altruism.
Michael McQueen is a trends forecaster, business strategist and award-winning conference speaker.
He features regularly as a commentator on TV and radio and is a bestselling author of 9 books. His most recent book The New Now examines the 10 trends that will dominate a post-COVID world and how to prepare for them now.
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 Brafman, O 2009, Sway, Currency Press, Sydney, p. 132-144.
 Pink, D 2011, Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, Penguin Putnam, United Kingdom, 50-51.
 Weinberg, G. and McCann, L. 2019, Super Thinking, Penguin, London, pp. 222-223.
 Pink, D 2011, Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, Penguin Putnam, United Kingdom, 45-47.
 Garvey, J. 2016, The Persuaders, Icon Books, London, p. 239-241.
 Brafman, O 2009, Sway, Currency Press, Sydney, p. 132-144.