Reward System Shift

Pattern number within this pattern set: 
Burl Humana
Douglas Schuler
Public Sphere Project (CPSR)

People consciously and subconsciously change their behaviors with the objective of maximizing returns based on the reward systems they exist within. Some students "work for the grade"; not for knowledge or competence. The stock market promotes immediate gains. This causes pressure on CEO's of publicly traded companies to take pejorative actions because they are profitable, forgetting other considerations like whether these actions are healthy for the environment. Reward systems become vastly powerful when adopted broadly in society. Too frequently people or systems "reward" the wrong behaviors when ideally society's reward systems should encourage socially responsible actions.


Sometimes just the idea of a reward can modify behavior. Advertisers promise a variety of rewards; wealth, happiness, beauty, health, success, etc.; that they can't provide. Thus, even if the reward is not forthcoming, and even if the "reward" is not necessarily desirable or satisfying, its allure continues to modify behavior.

People can get caught up in a reward system without even realizing it; like the military. There is a complicated system of rewards that come from the vast "war machine" -- an interrelated system of activities, people, institutions, objectives, etc. that participate in the development and waging of war.


People seemingly do what they do because of what they think they'll receive from it. The very idea of acting in "one's best interest" is blithely assumed to be trivially ascertainable -- and incontestably "economic". Although people don't always work for their "rewards," the work they do and the lives they lead and the context within which people work and live are intimately connected with what they get out of what they do -- i.e. their rewards. In many cases, the rewards might be mere survival -- there is literally no choice.

"Reward systems" are society's feedback loops for encouraging certain behavior, consciously or unconsciously. In traditional reward systems people are generally expected to do "the right thing" when faced with two outcomes. This means that as decisions makers, we expect people will always be averse to a risky choice, both when a possible gain or a possible loss is predicted. When a negative outcome is selected instead of "the right thing", owners of the traditional reward system cannot understand what went wrong. As an example, with education we expect students to study for the purpose of gaining knowledge and understanding, or for the sheer joy of learning. When students study just for the grades they make the risky choice of not gaining the instrinsic value of education. Society wonders what is wrong with the education system or what is wrong with our students.

Research on the basal ganglia reward system of the brain is challenging this classically held view of decision making. A new idea called "prospect theory" has emerged from this research that postulates, when there is a potential reward people are averse to risk but when there is a chance of loss people actually become risk seeking. This reseach is based on the body's release of dopemine neurons and suggests this more "modern" view of how decisions are made is hard wired into our mid brain. Prospect theory holds that this attitude toward risk is determined according to a "reference point", which is the basis for determining possible outcomes of the decision; when future rewards are perceived as profits compared to a reference point a risk aversion behavior is observed. When future rewards are perceived as losses compared to a reference point a risk seeking behavior emerges.

Using this hypothesis with the education reward system; the future reward of a good job, making money, and survival, in relation to a reference point of gained knowledge is calculated as a gain; knowledge is associated with the skills to gain a good job, make money, and survive. Students become averse to risk and they choose to study to gain knowledge. On the contrary; the future reward of a good job, making money, and survival, in relation to the reference point of grades is calculated as a loss; grades alone will not give you the knowledge to perform a good job, make money, and survive. Students become more risk seeking; they take a risk of the greater loss of knowledge for the short term gain of a good grade.

The dopamerigenic system codes the error between the prediction about the reward and the actual reward. If the reward is stronger or sooner than expected the dopamine neurons activity rises. If the reward is weaker than expected the dopamine neurons activity declines. Finally the continuous background dopaminergic activity signals that the activity is as good as predicted. The dopaminergic system hardly responds to predictions about aversive activity. A simple heuristic that connects physiological signals with decision making would therefore be: A person should take actions correlated with increased reward-signal activity and avoid actions correlated with decrease in the neuronal reward- signal.

The future reward of a system can not be seperate from the reference point if the system is to be successful. Schools like The Evergreen State College that do not have grades set up a reward system that helps students become averse to the risk of not gaining knowledge. Students want to learn; they love to learn; promoting more socially responsible behavior. Occam's razor is that the reference point occuring in a reward system must be the simplest one consistent with its conditions. Leaving grades out of the education reward system creates fitness between the prediction for future reward and the actual event. Christopher Alexander has identified this characteristic as "not-seperateness" in living systems and says it "corresponds to the fact that there is no perfect isolation of any system, and that each part of every system is always part of the larger systems in the world around it and is connected to them deeply in its behavior."

When a reward system is designed in terms of this type of living system more success can be achieved by activists and those who want to facilitate positive change in our world. Changing the reward structures of the US and the world has the possibility of radically changing the world system(s) in which we live. A shift in reward systems can be directed at-- government, regions, individuals, etc. and can be initiated at different levels besides. Although there are many examples of how people are working to promote this shift, the realization and use of this pattern is wide open for improvisation and imagination.
For example Microsoft's "accidental billionaire" Paul Allen has a seemingly infinite capacity for self-indulgence. Though Allen may desperately want, even need -- independent of any external "reward" system -- a yacht the size of a small country, society often provides its expressions of admiration, respect, awe and envy for certain behviors like this. This shows societies risk seeking characteristics and proof of the failure of our economic reward systems. Although it is difficult to imagine a major shift occurring in this media saturated environment where the drumbeat is buy salivate buy salivate buy salivate buy, a reward system that encourages an enlightened public to stop lionizing people whose main claim to fame is their purchasing power, could do much to change the tenor of society in a positive way.

Changing to living reward systems can cure failures throughout our political and social systems that range from low to high levels Creative examples of living reward systems throughout society could include the opportunity to network with individuals and groups that help others or promote cooperation; publicity for good acts & social innovation; rewards for people and organizations through tax codes for fair product certification ("green", no-slave labor, etc.). At the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) employees who collaborated with employees in other divisions were rewarded with additional salary. A few years ago, somebody suggested significant tax breaks for people who lived next door to a person or family of a different race, ethnicity or religion. It is a thought and creativity is what we are looking for. Maybe you could come up with your own living reward system to fit a local need.


People do what they are rewarded for so it's imperative to change to reward systems that are in alinement with the bodys natural reward system. It's not obvious how to realistically change all the reward systems on the globe at once but it is obvious that reward systems cannot be shallow reactions to the negative aspects of our world. Activists and the social change community need to think about creative solutions for reward systems that keep people directed to positive reference points that satisfy and feel like a gain to both individuals and society, to some degree. This promotes socially responsible actions through working together on reward systems that are "bound together by shared values, common discourse, and dense exchanges of information and services."

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