How to make good decisions feel like rewards

by | Jan 15, 2018 | Blog | 1 comment

During his daily walks, my 2-year-old dog Marcel constantly scans the sidewalks, streets, parks, and playgrounds looking for treasures, either to eat or take home as trophies.

When he finds meaningful keepsakes, such as squeaky balls and leather gloves, he snatches them in his mouth and then begins to pull me toward home — even if we’ve just started our walk.

After I unlock the door, Marcel runs to his “man cave” (underneath the dining room table) with his new found toy.

This behavior, which Marcel has repeated multiple times, illustrates rewarding decision-making in action, which has implications for us humans, both for the decisions and the follow-up actions.

Here’s why. When Marcel discovers a potential treasure, he makes two decisions. First, he determines whether the item is worth adding to his collection of treasures. If so, he then chooses to engage in instant gratification rather than spend more time outdoors, even though he loves his walks.

These two decisions provide him a reward — in addition to his new prized possession.

Making a good decision should feel like you’re receiving a reward, according to neuroeconomists who study decision-making.

Furthermore, the good choices you and others make provide an ongoing opportunity to receive more rewards and make positive changes.

Here’s how this works. When you make a decision that you’re pleased with — even if you may not know the eventual outcome of that decision for hours, days, months or even years — your brain rewards you with a hit of dopamine. That’s the “feel good” neurotransmitter that sends signals to other nerve cells.

(By contrast, if you’re getting a bad feeling in your gut as you make a decision, listen to the message that your insula is sending. The insula is a small region of the brain that contributes to our humanness. Thanks to the insula, we feel disgust, pride, lust, humiliation, guilt, and many other emotions.)

For many years, economists believed that humans used only rational thinking when making decisions. (My college economic textbooks and lectures referred to humans as “rational men.”)

Neuroeconomists, neuroscientists and psychologists have now come to a different conclusion, thanks to advancements in technology measure brain activity and additional studies.

Humans use emotions and feelings along with rational thought to make decisions. In fact, decision-making starts with unconscious brain activity. By the time you or any other individual becomes conscious of thinking about the decision you need to make, your brain has already done most of the work to formulate that decision.

The Introduction to Neuroeconomics: How the Brain Makes Decisions course I took this past fall devoted several lectures to the role of the nucleus accumbens in the brain and its connection to the brain’s reward network for decision making.

One guest lecturer, Dr. Sam McClure, an assistant professor of psychology at Stanford University, who studies human decision making, challenged us students to consider decision-making as an effective path to change behavior.

For example, rewards arouse human beings as well as dogs. (In fact, the brain’s reward networks in Homo Sapiens and canines are very similar, which is why dogs are popular research subjects for neuroeconomists.)

When you feel the rewards of dopamine by making what your brain perceives as good decisions, you’ll want to continue to make those types of decisions.

From a practical perspective, think about the rewards of making good decisions about your well-being. If you choose to exercise more and then start to feel better, you’ll want to continue making healthy choices. You’ll be even more motivated if you start seeing other positive indicators, such as weight loss and lower blood pressure.

Now, consider other types of decisions at work involving others. What can you do to ensure a ripple effect that will result in others receiving more rewards related to their decisions and the ensuing experiences, which in turn can help them optimize their performance?

For instance:

  • How can you make the onboarding experience rewarding for individuals who have agreed to serve on your project team so they want to contribute fully?
  • How can you recognize the department that has agreed to fund your special project so the department members will want to continue doing so?
  • How can you set up a new supplier for success so they will enjoy working for you and give you their best?

By asking these questions and then designing for the actions you want, you’re expanding your thinking and becoming more strategic.

In other words, you view a decision as more than a choice someone makes. It’s also an ongoing opportunity for more rewards and improvements.

And because you and those you work with are humans rather than dogs, the improvements will be more valuable than adding found objects to a collection of misfit toys.

How ready are you to make good decisions feel like rewards?


1 Comment

  1. Garold Breit

    I like these observations (and, can relate to real-world experiences) very much! Cheers, G

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