About a year ago I wrote about the fact that people have two evaluation frameworks – a market framework and a social framework – and how rewards are not a good idea when looking for community feedback on products.
Authors Ori Brafman and Rom Brafman, in their latest book Sway: the irresistible pull of irrational behavior, describe a research project at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), that confirms the same paradox through neurophysiology.
The NIH researchers placed participants in an MRI machine fitted with a monitor and a joystick to allow the subjects to play a game. At the beginning of each game a circle, a square, or a triangle would appear on the screen. A circle meant that if you succeeded in completing the upcoming task – zapping a figure as it appeared on the screen – you’d earn a monetary reward. Different circles meant different size rewards. A square meant that if you failed to zap the figure you had a penalty of either 20 cents, $1, or $5. A triangle meant that no money was on the line.
When the researchers monitored which part of the brain was active in the various stages of the game they found that every time a circle or square appeared, that is every time there was money to be gained or lost, the pleasure center of their brain lit up – the same center that is associated with the high that results from drugs, sex, and gambling, and which can result in addiction. When triggered, that part of the brain releases dopamine that creates the feeling of contentment and ecstasy – and as addicts will tell you, you need increasing doses of dopamine to achieve the same result over time.
In a separate study, subjects were asked to play the same game, but instead of making or losing money, the participants were told that the better their score, the more money would be donated to charity. Now the MRI revealed that the pleasure center was completely quiet, but instead the “altruism center” of the brain lit up. That is the part of the brain responsible for social interactions – how we perceive others, how we relate, how we form bonds.
The book also describes other case studies of people evaluating things in either their social framework or their market framework. A fascinating one is when the Swiss government was looking for places to dump nuclear waste after World War Two. When they selected two towns and tried to convince the town members to take one for the team by accepting to live near a nuclear dump, 50.8 percent of the voters agreed with it. Thinking that this was still too much opposition, the government instead offered a monetary reward to live next to the dump – the equivalent of $2,175/year. What happened is that after the monetary reward was offered, only 24.6 percent of the population agreed with it. And when the government upped the reward to $4,350 and then $6,525 per year, only one voter changed his mind.
This all proves that using rewards is really bad for marketing. People get addicted to it and they expect it in increasing quantities. This also explains why the SAP developer community had some bullying in the community when they offered individual rewards, and how that all went away when they changed the program so that the overall number of points within the community triggered a donation to a charity.