top of page
  • Writer's pictureMac Ling

Rewards & Beliefs

How does the prospect of a reward influence how we interpret sensory input, or "facts"?

“If what one believed turns out to be false, it does not follow that one ought not to have believed it. What does follow is that if one recognises the falsehood, one does not carry on having the belief.”

- Bernard Williams, Truth and Truthfulness: An Essay in Genealogy (2002)


Beans or candy?

In this clip from a zoo in Barcelona, a primate can be seen doubled over, rolling on the floor, unhinged by an uncontrollable, deep belly laugh. You might wonder, what is it that prompted this creature's outburst? Well, this jovial primate has just witnessed a magic trick: It watched a human place an object in a cup, close it, and then reopen it to reveal that the object has magically disappeared. This sends the primate into a fit of hilarity. The visual input that does not align with the primate's expectation, so it laughs, because this new reality seems, by all sensory accounts, to be true.

Last month, we discussed how past experience can shape our perceptions in ways that do not accurately reflect “reality.” This week, I'd like to focus on how the prospect of a future reward (mediated by the neurotransmitter dopamine in the brain) can affect our interpretation of what our senses tell us.

As we proceed, we should remember an important nuance of the brain’s reward system: Dopamine signaling is governed by the expectation of the reward, not the reward itself. The intensity of this expectation is how the brain decides what behavior to motivate in the future. (If the reward was greater than expected, dopamine signaling for this behavior increases; if the reward was less than expected, dopamine signaling for this behavior decreases.)

People have given much thought to reward systems and how they shape our behavior in areas of health, rewards-based learning in the classroom, and substance abuse and addiction. Here, I would like to focus on how reward pathways shape our beliefs. Science reporter Brian Resnick writes in “’Reality’ is constructed by your brain. Here’s what that means, and why it matters,”

“Neuroscience, then, can help explain stubborn polarization in our culture and politics, and why we’re so prone to motivated reasoning. Sometimes, especially when the information we’re receiving is unclear, we see what we want to see. In the past, researchers have found that even slight rewards can change the way people perceive objects."

In an experiment conducted by psychologists Emily Balcetis and David Dunningin 2006, participants were asked to identify a series of animal images. These participants were told that they would gain points for every farm animal that appeared and lose points for every sea creature that appeared. At the end of the game, those with high scores were promised candy (a pleasurable outcome) and those with low scores were told they would have to eat canned beans (less pleasurable). The result? Given the promise of candy, participants tended to see the higher-point-value horse rather than the lower-point-value seal in this ambiguous final image (Figure 2). This, among a slew of other tests within the experiment, led the researchers to conclude that the prospect of a reward provided enough motivation to influence perception.

To simplify, this discovery suggests that--to some extent--we tend to "see" what is most rewarding to see, not necessarily what is fully there.

The same way many of us control our choices of foods and substances in adulthood, not blindly following our body's every whim, we can practice a similar control over our perceptions. Before engaging in a behavior--whether it is listening to an employee's idea, having a friendly debate, or reading an article--we can ask ourselves the following: Is there a greater reward for me if Interpretation A is true, rather than Interpretation B? We might then proceed with caution (hopefully, with a more open mind), aware of this reward-driven bias.


YOUR TASK FOR THIS MONTH (...should you choose to accept it)

In an earlier newsletter on Patterns & Habits, I discussed some methods of re-patterning derived from Charles Duhigg's book The Power of Habit. You may recall that Charles Duhigg references the 3 components of forming a new habit: A cue, a routine and a reward.

Now, for this schema to be useful, a person must be able to identify how all three of these components operate in their daily lives. In my experience, clients have an easy enough time identifying the habits they would like to change; what I find, however, is that many struggle to think of what would constitute a "reward" for them. In some ways, we are not very attuned to knowing what rewards ACTUALLY motivate us.

Interestingly, some people will go to material rewards (buying themselves breakfast if they wake up early and work out, for instance), and some know themselves more deeply and are able to identify a reward that's non-material in nature.

To get to the bottom of your own relationship to rewards, try the following exercise:

STEP 1: Make a list of five material and five non-material reward objects/experiences that are likely to motivate you.

STEP 2: Now, for each of these rewards, I challenge you to dig a little bit deeper. Can you whittle away at each item in STEP 1 to get to the heart of why that particular item is rewarding to you? (i.e. "I get chocolate when I get an A: is it that I like the sweetness, the taste of the chocolate, the fact that I get 'something special', etc.?"). Once you complete this step, you will have a list of 10 "deeper" things that are rewarding to you.

STEP 3: Now, you have a list of 10 "deeper rewards" that you know you can use as motivation. With this new self-awareness, you are in a good place to brainstorm new reward objects/experiences (like those in STEP 1)--rewards that perhaps, before this exercise, you may not have thought of. Using this knowledge, make a list of five additional material and non-material rewards. You may find that, when you are at the root of it, you can transform some rewards that are not particularly healthy or helpful into more ultimately fulfilling rewards (to use the example of chocolate above, if it is that you like the idea of getting "something special," you might be able to think of another, healthier item that provides this same boost; if you like the sweetness, you might consider replacing it with a fruit).

STEP 4: Next time you are in need of some motivation, you can consult this versatile list of "deeper rewards" and derive a specific, healthy reward that is pertinent to the time and place in question!

In some fortunate cases, once identified, the "deeper reward" might eventually get baked into the habit itself (for example, "I won't procrastinate on my report because I find progress and productivity rewarding"; or "I'll only watch one episode of this suspenseful Netflix show at a time because I enjoy basking in the suspense of a cliffhanger").



“The point here is not that we can’t know anything, it’s simply that the world is a complex place, and that the search for simplicity is very often what gets us into trouble.

What is a “reward,” neurologically speaking?

The first distinction we have to make about rewards is that there are intrinsic rewards and extrinsic rewards. Intrinsic rewards, communicated via dopamine in the brain, are the result of human adaptations that have aided our survival as a species—namely, food, avoidance of physical harm, and reproduction. These might translate into modern activities that are pleasurable within themselves; our bodies are adapted to think so. For instance, sugar is inherently pleasurable. No one had to teach us this—it just tastes good. Why? Likely, it is widely believed, sugar provides a quick burst of energy and a great number of calories, which can help a human survive if they don’t know when they will find their next meal.

The other type of reward is the extrinsic reward. These rewards are learned. For instance, is money pleasurable on its own? "Money" consists of numbers on slips of paper; and slips of paper, for the most part, are not inherently exciting to humans. Babies are not terribly impressed by money until they learn that it can get them pleasurable things. At this point, the reward object shifts. The money itself may be the reward—because even if you don’t buy anything with it, the expectation that you might can instigate the coveted dopamine rush.

We have to supplement these reward systems with rationality and to reconcile them, as responsible human beings, with our values and our beliefs and other knowledge we have gained about the world. If you know you will have another meal in a few hours, there is no adaptive survival reason to load up on sugar—in fact, just the opposite, these extra calories might be actively harmful and diminish your survival by encouraging diabetes, etc. Extrinsic rewards—those that have come to be through learning—can also be unlearned, unassociated. Sometimes, for our own well-being, they must be.

Rewards and Time Perception

If you have ever told a child to go to bed in “five more minutes,” you have likely experienced the psychological contracting and dilation of time. To the child who dreads stopping play for bedtime, this five minutes must feel very different than it does to you, who swears that five minutes cannot end fast enough. You may feel the wait is unbearably long, while the child insists that only a minute has passed.

According to one finding, we experience time differently depending on the size of an expected reward. If the expected reward is greater, the waiting time is perceived as longer. On an individual level, this small fact seems to have an easy solution: If you know you get to go to the park on Tuesday, does it really matter that the wait feels long? We don't tend to show up to places merely because we feel like it's time; it's unlikely that you'll actually show up on Monday, assuming that Tuesday has arrived. With calendars and clocks, we as a society have agreed-upon checks on these sorts of psychological miscalculations.

Are there situations where such checks are missing, however? And what are the consequences of potential miscalculations?

Imagine a proposal to combat social issues that materially affect us, like economic inequality or climate change. The reward for saving the planet seems quite immense—we want that to happen—so is there a chance that the time predicted for this might be unwittingly underestimated or overestimated (depending on how you look at it) because of this basic component of human psychology? And might this lead us to plan our actions unwisely? The numbers laid out in such a report might be unreasonable; the plan may be doomed to failure.

Thus, when the reward feels great, we might do well to pause and consider our time frames in an objective light.

The Costs of Perception

Sometimes, we are socially rewarded for noticing certain facts over others. Other times, noticing certain realities might shed a negative light on your company or muddle the results of your latest lab experiment. We all know about misinterpreting statistics and the dangers inherent in that; but we must take this further to an actual sensory level.

In the reverse case, we know that noticing something might bring about punishment or difficulty. We may likely fixate on the part of reality that leads to the reward and overlook the part that brings about punishment; we cannot be faulted for this initial bias, for it is something the brain naturally does. What is important is what we do next.

Much of this disparity in reality can be resolved by truly listening to other people—information that represents a punishment (or neutrality) for you might represent a reward for someone else, and so that person may have been motivated to see something you didn’t. Quite possibly, of course, the other person's reward might be to your detriment—but resolving a disagreement absolutely depends on agreeing on the accuracy of a pool of facts. With all of these facts now collected, one can begin to apply values and beliefs to dictate behavior in this situation.



If you enjoyed this article, please subscribe to my monthly newsletter:

If you're ready to take that first step towards creating a shift in your life, send me a note to learn more about receiving a free 60-minute session!

If you have any comments or questions, drop me a message!

15 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page