Incentives are based on classical psychological theory
Incentivization is rooted in behaviorism, a theory of learning that gained popularity in the mid-20th century.1 According to behaviorism, all animals (including humans) learn how to act in the world based on the consequences of their past behavior. Simply put, if you act a certain way and it leads to a positive outcome, that behavior will be reinforced, and is more likely to recur in the future. On the other hand, if behavior is punished or leads to a negative outcome, the animal becomes less likely to repeat it. This type of learning is known as operant conditioning. (This contrasts with classical conditioning, which you might be familiar with through the story of Pavlov and his dogs.)
One of the major players in the behaviorist movement, and the one most associated with operant conditioning, was B.F. Skinner. Skinner labeled himself a “radical behaviorist,” because, in his view, the way an individual thinks or feels about a situation is irrelevant; all that matters is whether they have had a given behavior reinforced in the past.5 Even if you don’t agree with such a hardline stance, it’s undeniable that Skinner was able to use the principles of behaviorism to achieve some pretty remarkable things: during World War II, the military even hired Skinner to train pigeons to guide missiles.6 (He also trained pigeons to play ping pong, though that project probably was not funded by the U.S. army.)
The power of operant conditioning showcases the influence that reward and punishment have on our behavior. Once we have learned that doing something will bring us a positive outcome, we’re motivated to do it; and when we learn that doing something will lead to negative consequences, we’re less likely to repeat that mistake again. Incentivization plays on this very basic principle of human behavior.
Dopamine drives us to “want” incentives
Behaviorism had its heyday nearly a century ago, but it continues to be influential in modern-day psychology. In fact, in the decades since B.F. Skinner and his whimsical ping pong-playing pigeons, neuroscience research has fleshed out the biological reasons behind the power of incentives.
Even if you don’t know much about neuroscience, chances are you’re familiar with dopamine. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter, or brain chemical, that is most often associated with reward. You’ve probably seen it mentioned in media coverage of any topic relating to pleasure or compulsion, whether it’s about the addictive power of sugar or why we can’t stop using our smartphones. A lot of popular discussion of dopamine labels the chemical as the thing that creates pleasure.
Dopamine does indeed play a big role in pleasurable experiences. However, things are a bit more nuanced than simply having your brain flooded with dopamine anytime you see a Cheeto. Research has shown that our brains have multiple reward systems, which serve different functions. As it turns out, the mechanisms that make us “like” something are different from the ones that make us “want” it.
The “liking” system is active when we are having an enjoyable experience, such as eating an ice cream cone. This pathway actually does not rely on dopamine, but instead of endogenous opiates (“endogenous” meaning “produced within the body”). In contrast, the “wanting” pathway—the system that motivates us to act if there’s an incentive on the line—is dominated by dopamine.2
“Wanting” is also associated with a specific area of the brain, known as the mesolimbic pathway. This pathway begins with a part of the midbrain known as the ventral tegmental area (VTA) which is rich in dopamine-producing neurons. When we want something, these neurons release dopamine into an area called the nucleus accumbens. This process gives rise to incentive salience, or the expectation of pleasure.3
The distinction between these two systems is important, because it means we can want something without necessarily liking it. This is especially relevant to drug addiction. People who have a substance use disorder compulsively seek out opportunities to use the substance they’re addicted to, but this is less because they enjoy the experience of using and more because they are driven to crave the substance by the neurochemical processes of the “wanting” pathway.4
Even outside the context of drug addiction, many (if not all) of us have experienced the feeling of being compelled to do something, even after our enjoyment of that thing decreases—for example, going in for more dessert even after you’re already stuffed. Once we have learned to associate something with pleasure, dopamine often kicks in to motivate us to seek out more of it.
Incentives offer extrinsic motivation
Although dopamine does drive us to pursue rewards, the full picture of motivation is more complex than just that. Needless to say, there are many things that could potentially motivate us to do something, and many levels in which they can motivate. There are some tasks we are actively excited to do, that give us a sense of satisfaction—and then there are others that we only do because we have to, in order to achieve some other end.
Psychologists often categorize these motivators according to whether they are “intrinsic” or “extrinsic.” Things that are intrinsically motivating are inherently enjoyable; we do them because they bring pleasure or a sense of fulfilment. Meanwhile, extrinsically motivated tasks are things we do because they lead us to some separate outcome that we find appealing.7
In cases where we lack any intrinsic motivation to do something, having an incentive to act as an extrinsic motivator can push us to follow through. In one study, for example, participants were offered financial rewards for going to the gym. Initially, they were offered $25 to go to the gym once in the following week; after that, some of the students were additionally offered $100 to exercise eight more times over the following four week. (An unlucky final group, the control group, received no incentives.) The researchers found that the group that was offered $100 for eight gym visits had significantly higher gym attendance both during and after the experiment, compared to the other groups.
The results of research like this suggests that incentives can work as a kind of “self-commitment device”: they can motivate us to persevere with a new habit for long enough for it to stick, so that even after the incentive disappears, we’ll keep up the new behavior.8