“The highest reward for a person’s toil is not what they get for it, but what they become by it.”John Ruskin (1819 – 1900)
Our brain has entire systems dedicated to reward and motivation. If we can understand how it works, then we can “hack” our brains to actually like doing challenging things. Understanding how to reward ourselves in an intentional, informed, and natural way will give us an edge in staying motivated while designing systems for ourselves. Whether it’s business, academics, athletics, or anything else, understanding how to properly reward ourselves is critical and will change how we approach situations.
In my other posts, I talk in-depth about designing our own systems to fit our specific needs, and rewarding ourselves is a huge part of that. If the reward system we create is compatible with the one that we have in our brains, then we can run our systems indefinitely and use them to reach our goals.
So what are rewards and how do they fit into our lives?
A reward is the attractive and motivation quality of something that can induce consummatory behavior.
Rewards are the reason why we do anything we do. This reason can vary depending on who we are and what we want, but everyone wants the reward.
In order to understanding how rewards work, we have take a look at why we love them so much in the first place. Consummatory behavior is extremely motivating. This is what is responsible for making rewards seem so appealing to us in the first place.
Anything that we take in can fall under the category of consummatory, the most common being food or drugs. But we consume much more than just food and drugs.
A consummatory behavior can take the form of buying material items, going on social media, or watching tv. Consummatory behavior can pretty much apply to everything that we love in the short term.
A few different things happen when we participate in consummatory behavior. Consuming a reward shuts off the motivation systems and reinforces the behaviors and neural patterns associated with and leading up to that moment of consumption. In order words, once we get our reward we stop searching and feel like everything we did to get it was good, even if it wasn’t.
This is partly why some people have issues with addiction. It isn’t just the rewarding hit of the drug that’s driving them, it’s also the reinforcement of everything leading up to taking the drug that’s working against them too.
For example, let’s say we’re about to take a hit of some cocaine. When we take that hit, we’ll feel really good and our brain will remember what made it feel so good so it can come back and do it again. It keeps a record of where we were, what made us feel good, what we did to get there, the time it happened, and so many other things. As a result, anything and everything we were doing up until we took the cocaine will be reinforced because it was rewarded. This makes it more likely that we’ll do those actions again and less likely that we won’t. This is how addiction can spiral out of control. Let’s say we lie or cheat or steal to get our consummatory reward, next time we’ll be more motivated to do those things again. Being rewarded for terrible behavior get our lives off track in a serious way.
Paying attention to when we are rewarded is crucial for maintaining natural and genuine motivation.
Additionally, our motivation systems will shut off. Our motivation systems were specifically designed for food and survival, so it makes sense that once we found the consummatory reward we don’t need to keep searching.
If we’re hungry and we haven’t eaten yet, it’s almost impossible to not think about food. But once we’ve eaten and we’re full, food is the last thing on our minds. We simply don’t need it at the moment so our brain isn’t going to spend energy trying to look for it. This is why consummatory behavior shut off the motivation systems.
Now that we undersand why rewards are so attractive, let’s take a look at two different types of rewards.
Intrinsic Reward vs. Extrinsic Reward
Extrinsic rewards refer to a tangible or visible reward given to someone for an accomplishment. These types of rewards can take the form of money, food, awards, bonus, etc.
Intrinsic rewards, on the other hand, refer to psychological or personal reward obtained from an accomplishing meaningful work. These types of rewards can take the form of personal growth, pride in your work, feelings of respect, trust, knowledge, satisfaction, etc.
Time & Place
Extrinsic rewards are a great tool to use, if we use them at the right times. They are great for getting momentum started. Sometimes people need a little incentive to get started and extrinsic rewards will get that done. They can even be used to enforce certain cultures or behaviors. However, it’s important to keep in mind that extrinsic motivators have a limited power and will not work in the long run.
Keep in mind that extrinsic rewards can trigger consummatory behavior, which consequently shuts off our motivation systems.
Intrinsic rewards are the tools we need to maintain sustained changes in behavior. They work well in the long term and motivate people more powerfully because they carry with them inherent meaning. The positive emotion received from intrinsic rewards is much stronger that extrinsic rewards.
I would say the best use of each of these rewards is to use extrinsic rewards to get the ball rolling in the short term, but use intrinsic rewards to keep the ball rolling in the long term.
There are a few ways we can facilitate intrinsic rewards:
- Prioritize autonomy – telling ourselves what to do is the only way the motivation from within. Taking orders from someone else automatically makes a task extrinsic.
- Focus on being self fulfilled and purpose driven – this is what will give us the positive emotion. No purpose, no goals. No goals, no happiness.
- Paying attention and taking opportunities for advancement – We have to keep an eye out for the things that will take us where we want to go. We can use the same systems that we use to seek food and use them to see opportunities.
- Prioritizing our own well being, leaning, and development – this makes everything else in service to our own personal development. Growing ourselves, working on ourselves, is a never ending job and it’s progress brings immense reward. Aiming to make ourselves better, by our own definition, is a game we can always play. There’s never a definitive end and we can always improve, which means we can always be intrinsically rewarded.