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Our Reward Value System

“Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself.”

Leo Tolstoy (1828 – 1910)

My recent days of research and reading have led me to unpack the unexpectedly dense world of rewards and reward systems. I’ve been trying to understand how our brains decide what’s rewarding and what isn’t. This has lead to me ask questions like –

Why do we prefer donuts to spinach?

Why are some things more rewarding than others?

My last post was about the importance of understanding rewards and how rewards can trigger consummatory behaviors within us. This post is going to focus more on why we like some things more than others. Hopefully, with this understanding, we can hack our brains into actually enjoying things that are good for us and reduce the friction to creating a life by design.

A big thanks to Dr. Jud for helping me understand this.

In order to understand how our brain’s reward system works, we have to first look at habits. I’ve written a few posts on habits, I recommend checking them out. They are Types of Habits and Designing Our Lives and Understanding Habits and The 1% Rule. Habits are fundamental to our lives and understanding how they work gives us the ability to design our lives.

Basically, we need habits to get through our everyday life. We use habits as a way of saving energy. Let me put it like this, if we had to learn every single thing we did every day, then we’d be exhausted by noon! It takes a lot of energy to do or learn something we haven’t done before and it takes little energy to do things that we’re familiar with. This is why it isn’t too exhausting for most people to get up and get ready for the day. It’s a habit and habits don’t take much energy to do.

But not everything we do is turned into a habit, only some are.

So how we do know which actions to turn into habits and which ones to not?

It all depends on how ~rewarding~ it is.

Our brains have a way of rank-ordering rewards as more valuable and less valuable. This is known as reward-based learning and it has 3 parts.

Trigger

Behavior

Reward

Let me give a few examples of this: Let’s say our alarm clock goes off and we hit the snooze button to stop it. The trigger was the alarm sound. It’s annoying so we want to do whatever we can to stop it. The behavior is hitting the snooze button to stop the alarm as fast as we can. The reward is the alarm stops. This is known as a negative reward – we got our payoff when something is removed from the situation, in this case, the alarm. Now that we got our reward, we are more likely to use this method again in the future to deal with the same situation. This is why hitting the snooze button is so addictive. Every time we hit it, we get our negative reward which reinforces the behaviors to get it.

Let’s look at this from another angle: Let’s say I study really hard for my exam and I get a higher score than I was expecting. The trigger is the awareness of the exam. The behavior is studying for the exam. The reward is a high grade. This is known as a positive reward – we get the payoff when something is given to us or when something is added to the situation that we wanted. In this case, the high grade is something that we got as a reward for our studying. Now in the future, we are more likely to study when an exam comes up.

I want to emphasize that the reward reinforces the behavior that led up to it regardless of what it was. If we cheated and got the grade we wanted, we are going to be more inclined to cheat again. Rewards will reinforce anything, it doesn’t matter what it is.

These rewards can also be intrinsic or extrinsic. I talked a little about that in Consummatory Behavior and Rewards. Intrinsic rewards are rewards that relate to improving the self or other internal gains. These are extremely motivating and rewarding in the long term, but we have to want the intrinsic reward by our own volition. Extrinsic rewards related to anything that is externally given as a result of an accomplishment. These are great for motivating people who aren’t interested in the intrinsic gains from a given activity.

Bottom line: extrinsic rewards are great for the short game. Intrinsic rewards are great for the long game.

Additionally, the more rewarding the behavior, the stronger the habit. I touch on this slightly in my last post as well.

This plays off a system in our brains that we used for survival as cavemen. Back when food was scarce, our brains would prioritize eating sugars and fats so we can get the highest calories possible. This means that when we’re presented with choosing between donuts and spinach, we’re wired to want the donuts every time.

But it doesn’t just stop there.

We also assign reward values to all the people, places, and things around us. Our brain can combine good feelings of donuts, the fun of celebrations, and the friends around us all into one composite reward value which we also give to the donuts. So to us, donuts are much more than delicious balls of fat and sugar, they are also everything great about eating a donut.

In addition to the caloric bias, most of the associations we make with donuts are more rewarding than spinach. There are subliminal factors that play into our love for donuts, and they come from everything around us. Not to mention, we form positive associations with donuts more frequently than we do with spinach, and reward value increases with repetition.

Over time, these associations can become habits as well. We can mindlessly associate eating donuts with a good time and equate eating donuts as feeling good. This leads to mindless consummatory behavior, which can spiral out of control.

Consummatory behavior on its own is natural, but when it becomes mindless it starts to become dangerous.

So how do we stop automatically consuming things?

Some people say “just use willpower” but that doesn’t work in the long term. I’m sure most of us know this from experience. Every time I try to change a behavior purely off willpower, I end up going back to my old ways in about two weeks.

To change a behavior, we can’t just focus on the behavior itself. We have to pay attention to how it makes us feel, specifically how rewarding it is. If we could just focus on the behavior, then we could just tell ourselves to stop doing any of our bad habits and we could live happily ever after.

Updating our Reward Value System

We can update our system by adding one simple thing to the situation – our awareness and attention. I talk a fair bit about the importance of attention and awareness in my post The Heroes of Hero’s: The Osiris Myth & Attention. Attention is like our superpower! It gives us the ability to cast out will into the future, but more importantly, we can use it to change what we find rewarding.

The only way we can update our brain systems is if our brain determines that what it already knows is outdated and doesn’t work.

This requires giving it new information.

This new information will come in the form of mindful consumption, as opposed to mindless consumption.

According to Dr. Jud, “paying attention to the results of the behavior in the present, we can accurately determine how reward a behavior actually is rather than just run our old automated reward values.”

Let me give the example of smoking a cigarette. I’m using this example because I used these methods to quit my fairly heavy cigarette habit back in the day.

To the habitual smoker, smoking is the behavior that fixes everything. The smoker’s reward value system places cigarettes at the top, smoking is the ultimate reward. But if that smoker were to practice mindful consumption – paying attention to all of the sensations and feelings we get when smoking – the smoker will find that the cigarette isn’t actually very rewarding at all. The smoker will rediscover that smoking makes it difficult to breathe, the chemicals are strong, there’s tightness in our chest, the smell lingers, it costs money, and so many other new things.

Our brains can now take this new information and use it to update its reward value system and place the cigarette in a more accurate position, probably (and hopefully) somewhere near the bottom.

When we practice mindful consumption, we give our brains a chance to rediscover how rewarding (or unrewarding) something is for us now.

No longer do we have to be chained to our past experiences. Through mindfulness we can create new associations.

When I practiced mindful consumption with cigarette smoking, I was able to see that I had so many other associations with smoking. For example, the satisfaction of my oral fixation, the feelings of acceptance I felt from my peers, and the opportunity to be someone who was cool and rebellious. Maybe smoking was rewarding to me when I was younger, maybe even necessary, but today it’s not so much. Once I internalized this realization, I stopped smoking naturally. I remember the moment when I took a drag and immediately felt this disgusted feeling. I thought “what the hell is this doing for me?” I noticed that it really just smelled like stinky cheese and it made it hard to breathe. I was able to put it down cold turkey with a little craving for it later.

Awareness can reset our reward value system.

We can change bad habits by paying attention.

There have been studies that demonstrate that cravings and habitual consumption lowered by as much as 40% just after practicing mindful consumption as little as 10 times. This means we can change our habits without resorting to using serious willpower and it’s all using the already built-in systems that our brain has.

Understanding our built-in systems and how they work gives us an edge in creating our lives by design. We don’t have to work uphill. Our bodies, our brains, our minds are beautiful inventions that have stood the test of time.

Let’s use its miraculous engineering to supercharge our intentions.

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