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 www.naumof.com

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.