In this panel debate we dropped in on a few rewards: cash, self-harm (the reward being in the relief and not the trophy scars I suspect) and the abundance of food.

Last Thursday I returned to the Royal Institute, the home of Science in Great Britain, to listen to Claudia Hammond marshal proceedings for a BBC recording of ‘All in the Mind’.  I have seen Claudia hosting a few times.  She is impressive, but on this occasion even she was a bit lost by the super smart panel of three; a Psychologist, a Neuroscientist and a Psychotherapist.  This panel was the team that cleaned up in the Lundeck Brain Research Prize for 2017 taking €1million with them.  Well done chaps, but what does it mean to the common man?

Reward Prediction Error (RPE)

It turns out the way we perceive reward is based on positive or negative Reward Prediction Error (RPE).  If you predict that the reward from an activity will be £100 and you end up getting £80, this is a negative prediction error and a low feeling of reward is experienced.  However, if you predict that the reward from the activity will be £60 and you end up getting £80, this is a positive prediction error and you will be chuffed to bits.  That’s it.  Worthy of €1million?

We are left to find the relevance.  So here goes.

  • Always under sell and over deliver.
  • A leader needs to manage risk to avoid people gambling with the budget. If the stakes are low the gamble can be more rewarding than the reward itself.
  • The research reinforces that we prefer instant gratification to delayed reward, so our leaders must encourage their people to be thorough and to be patient. (Remember the marshmallows in the work of Carol Dweck?)

The challenge for a leader is to keep the anticipation and expectation high, thus increasing excitement and motivation, but also making sure you deliver a positive RPE, and then deliver the reward right away.

And finally, the Reward Centre in the brain is supported by the release of Dopamine; often referred to as the happy hormone.  This is an important agent in reward as well as learning and risk taking.  This is the stuff that encourages us to set huge targets and take massive risks as a confident young graduate (or is that just me?).  And it declines with age, at a rate of 10% per decade.  This explains why our thirst for reward and risk is dialed down with age.  And that is why the bankers should not only be the young bucks from Essex that swarm into the City everyday.


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