How do Rewards & Costs Butt Heads With Altruism and Who Wins?

This post is not just for Social Entreprises but also for people who value relationships and those who want to put a value for relationships.

In the book Sway, authors talk about two parts of our brain that respond to altruism & material rewards and how both these parts can never work in sync and the part of the brain that gets excited about material rewards (Nucleus Accumbens)will trump the altruistic part (Posterior Superior Temporal Sulcus) IF these two forces ever butt each other.

English: Reward system Français : Structures c...

English: Reward system Français : Structures cérébrales constituant le système de récompense. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This is a very important concept to grapple with for most of the social entrepreneurs and social entreprises. In fact every social entreprise should clearly understand these forces before they instrument their product features, incentives & rewards.

Here is the most interesting thing – these conclusions are also consistent with non social entreprises and other conventional “do gooder” type; I have conducted my own experiments to validate that many of the following –

For example,

  • Sometimes, no reward is better than some reward – In general not putting a price or reward for someone’s good actions and intensions is better than putting some price/reward in place. This has impacted my own ability to contribute at the best of my abilities in some of the personal projects I was involved in the past few years. This becomes a big issue when the reward you are given is much lesser than what your time and attention is worth. Of course, we tend to rationalize (that darn Nucleus Accumbens) as soon as someone puts a price on your deeds. It is very important for individuals to clearly understand the inherent motivations behind “do gooders”. Those inherent motivations dictate their reactions to the rewards.
  • When you reward, don’t expect – In general, when you reward someone for their good deeds especially when they are doing that without any contingencies or expectations, you should not have any expectations from them especially after you reward them. Most of the time, as soon as someone rewards for your actions, they also start to set expectations on your ability to do future good deeds. This becomes a viscous cycle.
  • Rewards and incentives are a tricky beast - Most people focus on “how much” they can reward for someone’s good deeds and to a lesser extent on “what”; I feel “how” the reward is defined, delivered, acknowledged and so forth is as important as how much and what the reward is. Inherently each of us are motivated by many aspects in life when we help others. You cannot define all of us with a few broad strokes. More about this in the next bullet.
  • Good deeds/intensions come in all kinds of instruments- Some take “time” and other’s write a check and others donate what they don’t need. Some do physical labor, and some help on strategy and others be there for you in need. Some make the very important introduction, while others “like” or “retweet” your message. While not all of these are same, one cannot ignore the value of each of these actions. So, when your social entreprise is only accounting for a “check” then you are leaving lot of opportunity untapped.
  • People who give in all kinds of instruments are as myriad as what motivates them to do – Just the way people contribute for “social good” in various instruments, people’s individual expectations (if they have any) also vary. So, taking into account all those aspects in your models is very critical. For example, someone who is motivated by being the “charitable” leader board responds to “gamification” compared to someone else who want to be anonymous.   
  • First give before you expect – I spend umpteen hours with many early stage startups to coach, share, learn and collaborate – without anything on paper. I strongly believe we give before we expect or take. That is how we create “value” for people around us. The more value we create for people around us, the more valuable we become. I see many Social Entreprises experimenting with interesting “charity” models – where you give something for charity for getting something back in return. Some times what you get in return for your charitable contribution is its just bragging rights and some times its lot more tangible. Different people respond to these models differently. So, it is critical social entreprises take into account all those nuances into account before they structure their charitable models.

This blog post is motivated by – the book Sway by Brafman brothers, Robyn Scott from OneLeap, Ali Ansari Professor & ex-Chairman of Engineers Without Borders, interactions with various angel investors from The Unreasonable Institute, and my own experimentations with various early stage startups and entrepreneurs.

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