REWARD NETWORK – The science of human behaviour


reward network

The Science of Human Behaviour is a subject that has been studied at great length for a number of years by management gurus to improve productivity in the workplace. The field of neuroscience is providing useful insights into how human’s brains react. Having a better understanding of how our brains work may enable us to make positive changes to the way we work together.

“Neuroscience has taught us surprisingly little about how the mind works, but it’s taught us a few things extremely well.” Harvard Business Review July 2013

Utilising neuroscience findings, the UK government’s “Nudge Unit” or its official title, The Behavioural Insights Team, have been successfully changing behaviour since 2010. Through simple experiments and studies, the ‘Nudge Unit’ has demonstrated how insights from behavioural science can be applied to produce positive behaviour changes. 

Their successes include: doubling the number of army applicants, persuading 20% more people to considering switching energy provider, signing up 10,000 more organ donors a year.   

GibMag_August2016 small_Page_029_Image_0002 In one case, 60% of applicants from a white British background were passing the situational judgment capability stage of Avon and Somerset constabulary’s recruitment process, only 40% of black and minority ethnic (BME) applicants passed it. The team reworded the email sent to all candidates that congratulated them on passing the previous stage to include a request for them to “take some time to think about why you want to be a police constable” before moving on to the next test. This change had no impact on white applicants’ performance in the next stage, but 50% more BME candidates passed after the email was adjusted. Some BME candidates could previously have been trying to respond to the test in a way they thought a white applicant would, but the new email encouraged them to trust their gut instincts.

Another project cut the high dropout rate on government-subsidised adult literacy classes by 36% simply by sending students a personalised text message every Sunday night that read: “I hope you had a good break, we look forward to seeing you next week. Remember to plan how you will get to your class.”

The Nudge Unit was also able to decrease tax arrears by approximately three million by sending a reminder letter including advice that most people in the same area as them had paid their tax. 

Neuroscientists have discovered a number of neural networks. The reward network described below is one of four core networks and is probably the best understood. Its effective application in the workplace may well increase productivity and happiness. 

The Reward Network


In response to stimuli that induce enjoyment – such as food and water, money, and praise.

What it controls:

Perceptions of pleasure and displeasure.

Crucial for understanding:

Motivation and incentives.


Unlike animals, whose reward network responds to being given food, water and other survival items, a human’s reward network responds to money. From neuroscience, we also know that humans respond to non-monetary reward such as status and social approval. However, it may be surprising that equity and transparency are important too.

GibMag_August2016 small_Page_029_Image_0003Researchers Jamil Zaki of Stanford and Jason Mitchell of Harvard have shown that when people are allowed to divide up small amounts of money between themselves and others, the reward network responds much more when they make generous, equitable choices. People are demotivated by environments that promote inequity. Even people who are part of the privileged few are demotivated by inequitable systems. A fair environment is a reward to people regardless of their standing. This finding suggests that companies that maintain a reasonable level of internal pay equity would do well to distribute that information among employees. Alternatively, widespread knowledge of skyrocketing executive pay turns off the reward network. 

GibMag_August2016 small_Page_029_Image_0001When people feel left out of meetings and discussions, despite being qualified to participate, they become demotivated. The withholding of information also creates an inequitable environment between those in the know and those not in the know – which is why transparency is also important.

Curiosity has been shown to be a motivator in a study where participants read trivia questions and rated how curious they were about the answers. The stronger their desire to find out, the greater the activation in the reward network before they received an answer. Therefore, providing challenging, less stringent goals for people to solve will be more effective than setting specific objectives that limit their curiosity and ability to be innovative.GibMag_August2016 small_Page_029_Image_0004

Bearing in mind the reward network and the studies so far, money may be the most expensive and not the most effective motivator. Offering opportunities for people to use their curiosity and possibly increase their social standing could be far more effective.

If you have found this topic stimulating you may be interested in the next CIPD Branch event planned for 15th August, on the Science of Human Behaviour. Details can be found at Gibraltar CIPD branch website.



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