When was the last time you had an unpleasant surprise?  How did you feel?  What did you learn from it? Neuroscientists are now uncovering some very interesting research about how our expectations influence our behaviour, memory and even our motivation to learn. 

Prediction Machine
Surprise comes from what scientists call a ‘Prediction Error’.  The brain is a prediction machine.  We make sense of our complex world by predicting what will happen next because our brain craves certainty and we are very alert to anything that shows up as different to what we expected.  It doesn’t require conscious effort; we are doing it all the time.  In fact any form of uncertainty will activate our Amygdala, triggering a threat response and giving us a shot of Adrenalin to make us more alert. 

We set up our lives to be consistent with our expectations and while this is more-true for some people than for others it is interesting to reflect on the areas of your life where you like things to be familiar.  This can range from listening to your favourite music or watching your favourite movie (again!), to your daily rituals and habits.  When something unpleasant happens that we didn’t expect and we get a negative Prediction Error it can have a very deep impact on our behaviour, sometimes fundamentally changing it for years to come, especially if it was a big error.   It motivates us to learn new skills and adapt our behaviour in order to avoid the thing that we didn’t expect – it’s a pretty ingrained survival strategy.

This also happens with pleasant surprises.  If we get a positive prediction error and we are rewarded, when we didn’t expect it, we become curious about it and get a boost of the ‘feel good’ neurochemical Dopamine.  This encourages us to explore and develop new skills and change our behaviour in order to get even more rewards.  Curiosity also drives learning.  When we are curious about a gap in our awareness we get a dopamine boost which not only feels good but makes us more interested in learning something new to close the gap in our knowledge.  The more curious we are the more we want to explore and learn.

Expected rewards
It is interesting to note how many companies run some sort of performance based reward system where employees, that regularly hit targets, are given a financial reward.  The trouble with this is that it very quickly becomes expected and this sends a very different message to the brain. 

Recent research by Yukiori Goto at McGill University and Anthony Grace at the University of Pittsburg demonstrates that there are (at least) two brain mechanisms for reward that compete directly against one another.  The first mechanism relates to reward that is expected; it sends the message “Do more of what you were doing and you can depend upon being rewarded again”.  This mechanism is linked to improvements in our working memory: if we get an expected reward, we work harder to remember what we were doing so that we can do it more. It increases activity in the hippocampus – a part of the brain that is used for memory.

But the research has also found that expected reward turns off a mechanism. This mechanism is only activated when you are not getting an expected reward.  When no reward is forthcoming, the best thing to do is to change your behaviour and try something different.  Then there is a chance that you will be rewarded in the future.  So, lack of an expected reward increases the activity in the parts of the brain that look for different /flexible solutions to problems, using the prefrontal cortex where we do our most sophisticated thinking.

The research seems to show us that we can choose to have a great memory for what we did before or to be more flexible about what we are currently doing – but not both at the same time!  However, both of these responses have their place and different situations will call for different responses.

Reducing Creativity
The research mentioned above links to the findings that Dan Pink wrote about in his bestseller ‘Drive – the surprising truth about what motivates us’.  A key theme in the book is that numerous studies have found that when there is a conditional reward for a specific outcome i.e. “if you do ‘x’ then . . .” it reduces creativity and intrinsic motivation.  As soon as there is no reward the motivation disappears.  The book explores some very interesting experiments that showed how naturally creative children who enjoyed and were good at drawing, lost interest in it when they were given an ‘if – then’ reward for doing it while the other control groups of children who were not given a reward continued to enjoy it at every opportunity available.

Pink recommends giving unexpected rewards based on the principle of “now that you have done this . . .”, especially when you want to encourage creative and innovative thinking because it creates a big positive Prediction Error with the Dopamine and learning boost that comes with it.  The research shows it encourages more intrinsic motivation – doing something for the joy of doing it and getting better at it.

However, as with all things to do with the brain it’s never quite that simple.  Research shows that traditional extrinsic ‘if . . . then’ rewards do still work for methodical, process tasks with a given outcome.  This is probably because there is no intrinsic motivation or creative joy in the task – it is just something that just needs to be done.

If you want your people to be more creative and flexible in their approach to achieving business objectives you may want to reconsider how you reward their efforts.

Food for thought
As you reflect on the above it can be useful to consider some of the following questions:
- Do your people expect and get a reward for specific behaviours?
- How agile and flexible does your business need your people to be?
- How much learning and experimenting do you want them to be doing?
- How well are you tapping into the intrinsic and creative motivation of your people?
- How have you set up your current Reward Structure?  Is it serving your business needs?

If you are interested in exploring any of the above and leaning more about how to utilise the latest thinking in your business just contact Amanda at info@InspiredWorking.com.

Remember . . . Stay Curious!

With best regards
David Klaasen 


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