Conscious and Unconscious Reward Selection

In 2011 renowned psychologist and Nobel laureate, Daniel Kahneman, published Thinking, Fast and Slow – a best-selling book based on decades of cognitive psychology, judgement and decision-making, behavioural economics, and hedonic psychology research. In it, Kahneman identified two forms of cognitive thinking – System 1 and System 2.

System 1 is identified as: unconscious; a continuous stream of thoughts below conscious awareness; fast, multi-threaded; automatic, uncontrolled (autopilot); effortless, intuitive; emotion-driven; ‘old-brain’; first responder.

System 2 is identified as: conscious; deliberate mental ‘work’ – planning, analysing, rehearsing; slow, single-threaded; deliberate, controlled; effortful; rational; logic-driven (if-then thinking); new brain; lazy controller.

We tend to think that System 2 is in charge, but more often than not, it’s simply rationalising our System 1 choices.

What does this have to do with rewards and recognition you might ask? Well, in 2016 the Incentive Research Foundation commissioned a first-of-its-kind experiment, Conscious and Unconscious Reward Preference & Choice: A Biometric Experiment, to test two hypotheses:

‘Hypothesis 1) Participants will exhibit a stronger response (attraction) to highly salient non-cash rewards than to cash at the unconscious level.

Hypothesis 2) After participants are given time to examine and consider their non-cash and cash reward options, most will choose a non-cash, hedonic reward over the equivalent cash.’

In the experiment, 42 subjects were assessed in terms of their unconscious reward preference utilising a variety of biometric and facial coding techniques including pupil dilation – considered by Kahneman to be one of the most effective ways of gauging ‘arousal’ when faced with challenges or opportunities; and the BAS/BIS scale – the Behavioural Activation System and Behavioural Inhibition System showing a person’s propensity to be either drawn towards positive reinforcement (awards) or away from negative reinforcements (punishment).

Subjects were shown a variety of 16 non-cash rewards split into four categories: experience, merchandise, gift card, and travel. They were repeatedly shown photographs representing the 16 non-cash rewards plus one cash reward and were constantly reminded that all non-cash and cash rewards were of the same value. After each option, they were asked to rate its appeal on a 5-point scale ranging from ‘very unappealing’ to ‘very appealing’ – biometric data was measured throughout to establish emotional engagement.

Four results emerged:

1. Conscious reward choice does not often match unconscious reward preference.

2. At an unconscious, system 1 level, people are overwhelmingly drawn to non-cash rewards over cash.

3. Cash was not intrinsically more motivating than other types of chosen rewards.

4. When rewards are made salient and multiple non-cash reward options are made available, a significant majority of people will choose a non-cash reward over an equivalent cash reward.

In conclusion, it would seem that cash is not always king and that salience should be a key factor in planning and executing a successful incentives strategy. For more on how to optimise your rewards programme, contact The Incentive Company – experts in sales channel incentive programmes, internal staff reward and recognition programmes, performance improvement programmes, and reward fulfilment.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *