You can train a dog by giving it a treat, you can train a monkey by giving it a banana, and you can train humans by giving them a little incentive. This is something that everyone knows, but few people actually understand. This is evident by watching people attempt to persuade another person without offering an incentive. Reward is the driving force behind behavior in animals, including humans.

Ben Franklin stated it best when he said, “If you would persuade, you must appeal to interest rather than intellect.” This maxim is often only understood on a surface level. You don’t have to be literally trying to persuade someone in a conversation to derive value from this maxim. When you dig deeper and really absorb the meaning of what Franklin said, you will see how this little maxim really captures the essence of human behavior. Understanding this will help you get what you want out of life.

reward bias

Why Should You Care?

Persuasion is everything. Every day you are using your persuasion skills in some manner and being persuaded by other people and businesses.

When you are trying to get someone to go on a date with you, you most definitely are trying to persuade. Have you ever gone up to someone and said, “Hey, you should go on a date with me because I’m a good person, very kind, I’m slightly humorous, and I get along well with others.” You know better than to try to appeal to somebody’s intellect in a situation like that, but in other situations it’s not as obvious.

I’m sure you can think of countless situations where you were trying to persuade but failed because you made an intellectual argument. This even affects you when you are trying to persuade yourself. When you are trying to convince yourself to save money, eat healthier, or start exercising, if you don’t appeal to your interest you won’t even be able to convince yourself.

Intellectually, you know there are healthier things than a greasy meal from a fast food restaurant. Why don’t you choose to eat somewhere healthier 100% of the time? The fast food restaurants have persuaded you emotionally. They’ve shown you how you’ll benefit by eating there, and they didn’t provide you will factual information so you can make a logical decision.

emotional creatures

Emotional Creatures

We make decisions emotionally and then try to justify them logically. This is why arguing about hot button issues never convinces anybody. They have already taken an emotional stance. All the logic and factual information in the world would not change their position.

Let’s use religion for an example. I grew up in a Christian family. My family is part of the human race, but society calls us “black” or “African-American.” Whatevs. Anyway, when I’m talking to my family about religion, I don’t try to get them to logically see things from my point of view. I look to communicate with their emotions.

I ask them, “Where did all of your ancestors go when they died?” You can immediately see their body language soften as they began to think about it. This questions really hits them where it hurts. No one wants to think their ancestors are burning in a fiery pit. That is a punishing thought. Humans move away from punishment and towards reward. This is really effective. Now, I don’t go around trying to convince my family of anything, but when the topic comes up I’d rather be able to communicate my point of view effectively.

reward bias

What You Can Do

Being aware of how incentives and rewards affect your brain allows you to do two things: make more educated decisions and become more influential. Whenever you are making an important decision, be aware of what reward is being offered and how it is affecting your judgment. If someone is advising you on the decision, be aware of what reward is in it for them.

We all know that salespersons will get paid if they sell us something. We are aware of this, but they are good at showing us the reward in a purchase so we still buy things we shouldn’t from time to time. This gets even trickier when it comes to advisors that we trust, but don’t know the incentive that could be clouding their judgment.

Oncologists, for example, get paid every time they administer chemotherapy. The payments vary based on the name brand of the drug as well. This is the perfect storm for the reward bias to go undetected. Most people don’t know this and they just put all of their trust in the physician. Different doctors will be influenced by the reward differently, and some not very much at all. Some oncologists have been convicted of falsely diagnosing patients with cancer just so they can get paid for administering chemotherapy. Situations like this make it all the more important to be aware of the incentives that are motivating people.

Money is a huge incentive in our society, but it’s not the only reward. Your judgment can also be impaired by sex, friendship, companionship, pleasure, or status to name a few. The best thing you can do is research more on how rewards affect human judgment/behavior and be aware of the incentives that are driving the behavior of other people, politicians, governments, media, companies, and yourself.

Further Research