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The force behind human decision-making is less about cool, rational intellect and more about gut-level craving for reward.

And to drill down a little deeper, neuroscience has shown us that extrinsic motivation, that is, actions and behaviours driven by our anticipation of being rewarded, determines many of the choices and decisions we make in life. And in business.

So, it stands to reason that understanding and applying the neuroscience of rewards is useful for designing an effective rewards strategy. And the principles apply in any rewards scenario that seeks to change human behaviour; employee performance, sales incentives or customer loyalty.

Rewards and the brain

The human brain has a built-in reward circuit, which when activated triggers the release of dopamine, a powerful neurotransmitter that stimulates feelings of attraction, desire and reward. It produces an intense rush of pleasure and sets us up for wanting more. (Yep – it has everything to do with all manner of addictions.)

But what’s really interesting about this brain chemistry is that the pleasure circuit activates, not once a reward is received, but in anticipation of it. We seek the pleasure of rewards, essentially, because we want to satisfy our craving for them.

Inside our brains, we make a causal connection between a pleasurable result or reward, and the actions or behaviours associated with getting it. And what drives our actions is the all-powerful, pleasure-seeking trigger of dopamine that makes rewards the billion-dollar industry it is today.

Here’s a short story to illustrate the point:

Sarah works in a software design studio. Six months ago the company introduced a new reward system aimed at improving sprint outputs. Every week, two tickets to a special event – be it a music festival, stage production, sports or business networking event – go up for grabs. In the time since these rewards were introduced, management has noticed an improvement in performance, and morale. Sarah won the latest set of tickets: “What a rush – I can’t believe it! I’m going to Web Summit; it’s the event of the year. All the best brains in the industry attend. I can’t wait!”

Money can’t buy that kind of passion or build that kind of emotional connection to an employer. So, you can see the power rewards have to create positive emotional states, and long-term loyalty to an organisation.

And speaking of money, you needn’t break the budget. There are plenty of ways to give purposeful, meaningful rewards that will create that rush of pleasure.



And as neuroscience advances, we will continue to learn more about how to engage, motivate and reward people effectively. The benefits to business and individuals alike are plentiful.

If you need help putting these insights into action, get in touch. We’ll guide you through designing a rewards portfolio with the right mix of reward cards, digital vouchers, merchandise, travel and experiences to inspire, motivate and reward your people with meaning and purpose.


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