Behavioral Design for Incentives and Rewards: An Interview with Nick Naumof

Nick Naumof has studied people from different scientific perspectives ranging from economics to consumer behavior, behavioral economics, and evolutionary psychology. Author of It Makes (No) Sense–Between the Joy of Gaining and the Fear of Losing, Nick translates academic insights of behavioral science into practical applications in business and service design. Nick Naumof gave trainings, workshops and conference talks on four continents. You can learn more about Nick at

Zarak: Thanks again, Nick, for an excellent talk the other day.

Nick: Thank you for having me for the third time in about 18 months at Action Design DC. As usual it was a pleasure.

Zarak: Could you give us the gist of your presentation for our members who couldn’t attend your talk?

Nick: The talk was a preview of my latest workshop. The focus of the talk was on how learnings from behavioral science can be applied in the area of designing incentives and rewards (feedback) systems. There are two major learnings on how understanding human nature can lead to better incentives and rewards systems.

First, when we deal with a one-time-off behavior, such as signing up for a service, monetary incentives work rather well. Behavioral science gives some tips on how the perception of these incentives can be magnified. For example, instead of giving a relatively small amount of money (e.g. $20) to every new user, a company can organize a lottery with a grand prize of $100,000 and with a probability of winning of 1 in 5,000. The objective expected-value of entering (playing) this lottery is $20, but because people overestimate small probabilities, the perceived value of entering this lottery is approx. $5,000 (according to calculations based on Prospect Theory).

Another way in which the perception of monetary incentives can be “supersized” is to give objects instead of cash. Recently I won a prize in the form of a Visa gift-card with some cash on it and I ended up spending the money on groceries. I can’t say that I mind cash or that I’m not aware that I got some “free” groceries out of it, but I would have definitely appreciated more an object that is meaningful to me such as a good book or a new Fitbit. (Not advertising, just a big fan).

Zarak: Nick, these are great insights. What is the second major learning?

Nick: The second learning concerns repetitive behaviors. Most often, companies want people to perform recurring behaviors. This goes from treatment adherence to compulsively using your social media apps. In the end, it is about performing a behavior repeatedly.

In the case of recurring behaviors, quite often behavior and natural feedback are decoupled. During the talk, I gave the example of trying to lose weight by sticking to a diet. Going on a diet and, most importantly, sticking to it is unpleasant and requires a lot of willpower. Unfortunately, results of dieting don’t come very soon. It can be weeks before one notices some weight loss by going on a scale and even months before receiving the natural feedback of feeling and looking better.

One of the reasons people give up dieting is that they keep on denying themselves treats without any noticeable positive feedback. I call this time span between starting the desired behavior (e.g. going on a diet) and the moment when natural feedback occurs (e.g. less knee pain) “the dark, silent period”. During this time, there is no feedback, no reward there’s just an agonizing exercise of willpower.

Good rewards/ feedback systems fill-in this gap between the desired behavior and the natural feedback. 

Zarak: That is absolutely great insight, Nick!

Nick: Thank you!

Zarak: I noticed that during your talk, you were critical about “Framing of Outcomes” and “The Fun Theory”. Could you give us more details on this?

Nick: Ha, ha! Zarak, my middle name should be “Critic” [laughs]. I guess, the main takeaway is that, when you see examples that seem very easy and appealing, they aren’t all that easy to apply in real-life settings.

Among behavioral science enthusiasts, there’s this belief that reframing a situation as avoiding a loss rather than achieving a gain (reframing outcomes) is a panacea for behavioral change. I don’t challenge the power of reframing outcomes. It is, indeed, very powerful. But, it also is rather difficult to apply in practice.

Zarak: And about The Fun Theory?

Nick: Regarding “The Fun Theory”, I guess we have a clear case of mistaking “appealing” for “effective”. The main idea behind “The Fun Theory” is that once you make a certain behavior fun, people will keep on doing it. There’s some truth there, in the sense that we, humans, like to do fun things. However, there’s a big flaw as well: something that is fun now will not be fun the tenth time we do it. After all, you won’t lough at the same joke more than twice. In short, making things fun is good for one-time-off or infrequent behaviors. For supporting repetitive behaviors, you need variable feedback.

Zarak: Thank you, Nick! We look forwards to hosting you again!

Nick: With great pleasure.

Discover Nick Naumof’s workshop on Behavioral Science for Designing Incentives and Rewards.






Digital Behavior: Neuroscience and Online Decision Making

As marketers and designers in the digital space, we often get caught up in driving consumers to take specific actions and lose sight of why these decisions are being made. We understand how specific tactics work through testing and best practices, but rarely understand the psychology behind why.  

Brian Cugelman has been studying the psychology behind digital decision making for almost twenty years. While in town for his recent workshop Brian took the stage at the Morningstar auditorium to address Chicago’s Action Design Network on Digital Behavior Change.

The workshop and presentation gave users an in-depth perspective into the psychological principles used to drive behavior in the digital space, as well as their practical application. This material revolved around his interactive influence model.


The model breaks down nine domains of interactive influence; from initial exposure through desired outcome and finally, feedback. Each one of the following stages is thoroughly explored and broken down throughout the workshop.

  1. Source: This can be a company, brand, or otherwise that is creating content for users to interact with that can be trusted and earn a reputation.

  2. Source message and functionality: The actual message or functionality that the source provides to the audience.

  3. Source message expression & audience interpretation: The way a message or functionality is expressed by the source and then interpreted by the audience.

  4. Audience: The person, group, or organization you are trying to engage and influence.

  5. Audience feedback and behavior: The actual feedback or behavior expressed by the audience that is recorded in the media.

  6. Audience feedback expression & source interpretation: How the audience expresses and transmits their feedback to the source, who interprets it.

  7. Source feedback adaptation: The persuasive and behavior change techniques that depend on user feedback. If the source has not previously captured feedback from the audience in domains 5 & 6, then none of the persuasion techniques can be used.

  8. Media: The various media used to express a message, such as words, images, video and audio

  9. Social and physical context: The social, physical, or virtual environment in which relationship occurs.

Behind each of the domains we took a deep dive into the psychology of digital users and their decisions online. Both the workshop and presentation gave us a fascinating look into loss aversion and incentives with a re-work of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs by Douglas Kendrick. This segued into the different types of neurochemicals, how they are released in the brain, and understanding impact emotion cognition and behavior.

 Applying the above, we are able to create experiences that cause the brain to release cortisol and dopamine to drive action. Cortisol is triggered by creating a threat to the audience. For example, anti-spyware companies letting me know that my computer is at risk of infection. This grabs the user’s attention, and drives them to remove the threat by taking action. On the other hand, Dopamine is triggered during any experience that promotes survival by creating anticipation of reward. This drives users to pursue this reward. For example, companies offering a free gift for signing up for a service.

 Overall, Brian Cugelman gave us great insight into the nine domains of his interactive influence model, an in-depth dive into the neuroscience behind each, and how to practically apply these concepts to digital design. He presented to the action design group on motivators and detractors within the digital space. His workshop and talk gave designers an understanding of why consumers make the decisions they do online.

If you would like to learn more about Brian and his work, visit for more information.

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Hello there! We’re Action Design, a group of people around the world who are working to promote the use of behavioral economics and psychology in policy and product design, in an effort to better the world we live in. Our group has over 10,000 members who meet at Action Design monthly events in cities across the world to share research and practical lessons on how to help people voluntarily change daily routines and behavior to improve their lives. You can find more about us, here.

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