KUSA - Rewards for good behavior work better when we choose those rewards ourselves. This is such a well known phenomenon, psychologists have given it its own name—choice bias.
This might seem like a no-brainer for most people. Of course we are more motivated to behave well when we choose our own rewards. But researchers at Brown University have discovered something fascinating about choice bias—our brains are hardwired to work this way. It is not just that we want to work hard for rewards we value. Our brains and our genes tell us to do it, whether we want to or not.
From a psychological standpoint, a reward is not just a prize for good behavior. It is an incentive that increases the likelihood a person will engage in that behavior over and over again. A common behavioral reward is money—we work hard at our jobs and our employer pays us our salary. Every time that money hits our bank account, we are motivated to continue to work hard for the next paycheck. Rewards can come in just about any form—compliments, food, public recognition, and so on. If it makes us feel good, it is rewarding and it encourages more of the rewarded behavior.
Any reward will increase a person's behavior. But the researchers from Brown discovered why it is that rewards we have chosen ourselves are more powerful than rewards others have chosen for us. The answer is dopamine.
Dopamine is a neurotransmitter in the brain that is largely responsible for our feelings of pleasure and satisfaction. Typically, the more dopamine in the brain, the better we feel.
In addition to helping us feel good, dopamine causes neurons buried deep in an old area of the brain called the Basal Ganglia to fire more easily. Imagine a path through tall grass that has been worn down after hundreds of people have walked through it. When we are rewarded for our behavior, dopamine causes our neurons to fire in a path that makes us feel good and encourages us to engage in that behavior over and over again. Eventually, that pleasurable neural pathway can be triggered very easily, which causes us to want to engage in the behavior even when we aren't rewarded for it.
And when we have chosen the reward ourselves, we value it more highly, which releases more dopamine into our Basal Ganglia. That dopamine then reinforces the neural pathways more than a reward of equal value that someone else has chosen for us. The researchers discovered this neurotransmitter link in a study where they rewarded participants based on their own choices versus equally rewarding choices that were given to them. The research participants valued their own choices much more highly than those that were merely given to them, and those self-made choices caused their brains to release more dopamine.
This study has implications in a number of different areas of daily life. Employers may be able to reinforce hard work by giving employees the freedom to choose some of their rewards. Parents may also be able to more easily teach their children good behavior if they allow their kids to pick the rewards they earn.
The Brown researchers have published their findings in the academic journal Neuron.
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