Saturday, August 28, 2010

Unexpected Rewards

A couple of years ago, Dr. Wolfram Schultz, Professor of Neuroscience at Cambridge University conducted a study of reward behaviors in monkeys. The reward process consisted of two events. A light was flashed and then the monkeys got some fruit juice.
Dr. Schultz monitored their response by tracking the dopamine production in their brains.
(Oh by the way, the monkey brain functions much like the human brain when it comes to dopamine and the response to rewards or other pleasurable experiences.)
Initially, the monkeys got happy when they got the juice. Then they got happy when the light was flashed because they knew the juice was coming. (Back in 1927, Pavlov observed similar behavior in dogs as measured by their salivating in response to the dinner bell.)

But, monkeys are not dogs. Monkeys are more like us. They get bored. After many days of light flashes and juice, their “happy response” began to moderate. The researchers went to plan B. They stopped providing the juice after the light flash.
As you might expect, the monkeys were not happy about that at all. In fact they blew right through boredom with the light flash to down right indifference. So the researchers decided to occasionally provide some juice after the light flash. Sometimes the light flash was followed by juice and sometimes it was not. The monkeys started getting happy again about the flash of light, even when there was no juice. And when they did actually get the juice, they got really happy.

The researchers, feeling somewhat god-like at this point, decided to throw in one more twist. They started giving the monkeys juice without warning, no flash of light. This totally unexpected reward triggered the most powerful response. The monkeys really enjoyed the juice surprise. (The researchers did not report it this way, but my guess is that the monkeys were also suspicious the first time the juice showed up without a flash of light. I know I would be.)

This overall reward-response pattern plays a key role in human behavior, both positive and negative. And the unexpected reward aspect is extremely powerful and can be addictive (i.e. gambling). Headhunters live in a world of unexpected rewards (and disappointments). I must say that the placement you thought was never going to happen is always sweeter than the sure thing. And then there’s golf. An unexpected great shot (which are few in my world) is much more satisfying than tapping in a short putt (even if it’s for a birdie which are also few in my world). Why do we like upsets in sport and root for the underdog? What’s so great about an unexpected raise or promotion?

It is said that it is better to give than to receive. Assuming that is true, how should we be using the power of unexpected rewards in our professional and personal lives? Tune in next week for Part II.

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