Monday, September 24, 2012

What Is Your Incentive?

Motivation: the process by which activities are started, directed, and continued so that physical or psychological needs or wants are met [See my previous blog post on the difference between a want and a need]. If you're reading this post, then you will hopefully have already read my past couple posts on motivation, so you know just how important this is as a topic to psychologists.

Actually, motivation is incredibly important to just about everything that we do. Unlocking the secrets to motivation would open up a whole world of possibilities. It would allow psychologists to find the elusive mathematical formula needed to "prove" to the other sciences that we too are scientists. We already are scientists, bound by the scientific method and necessities of critical thinking for both research and practice. Yet, we don't get the same respect in the realm of academia as other sciences. Most of that is due to the fact that, unlike other scientific fields, our subjects are much more unpredictable than theirs. Humans are exceedingly complex. Just when one theory seems to grasp the essence of human behavior, some human goes and throws off the whole statistical data set with their originality. [Please don't misunderstand me; I believe originality is fantastic, but it certainly does make it more challenging to find patterns.]

The realms of motivation and personality are two of the most complex topics in the world of psychology. After I run through a few more motivation topics, I may tackle some of the personality theories. My last post mentioned the subset of instinct theories of motivation, specifically the drive-reduction theory. This theory is great for its simplicity. It would seem that it has everything all wrapped up in a nice neat package. When we have a need, say hunger, for example, we are driven to fulfill it through some response, such as eating. That is pretty clear-cut and it makes perfect sense. Well, at least it does until you start getting into the many ways in which we can actually satisfy even a simple need. Why, for instance, do some people prefer to eat out for lunch and others prefer to have a home-made meal? Why do some people select one fast-food restaurant over another even if they both serve essentially the same food for similar prices? This is where the ideas of incentives and incentive values come into play.

Incentive: something that lures an organism (usually a human) into a particular action. Incentives are usually external to an individual, such as a free sample or a coupon. The hope is that the investment is seen as minimal in comparison to the potential pay-out. It does not always work out so well, however. If it were a simple matter of cost-benefit maximization, then everyone who received a coupon for a new product would buy the item. Many people won't take the company up on their offer, though. Why is that? Part of the answer is found in the incentive value a person places on a potential choice.

Incentive value: The value of a goal above and beyond its ability to fill a need. If you remember, a goal is the reduction in a need (or the fulfillment of a desire) as the result of a response. Some people will place a large value on the "savings" offered in a coupon and will thus try the new product. Other people will place a large value on the "savings" they would experience if they avoid the product altogether. The difficulty for psychologists (and marketing gurus) is in attempting to place an actual mathematical or economic value on a person's incentive value. While we have a nice-sounding definition, the concept is all-too abstract. People are constantly placing arbitrary values on choices--do I want chocolate ice cream with sprinkles or vanilla ice cream with fruit topping? If you were to ask the average person what their "incentive value" is for two similar choices, they might not be able to identify a solid, consistent number that you could plug into a formula. Sometimes people just "feel like" one choice is better over another. Sometimes the choice is consistent, other times the decision changes. The incentive value for, say, a drink choice such as coffee versus tea may be consistent for one person who almost always drinks the same thing, but will oscillate wildly for another person who likes to randomize their beverages. [Perhaps a look at my previous post of stimulus motives may help a little here.]

The other thing that is so slippery about discovering an incentive value is that people often come up with arbitrary values for choices without even knowing much about the topic or without having much experience with an option. For example, my grandmother never ate fish, but she knew from an early age that she did not like it. Think about this: how many times have you heard a conversation in which one person swears they either love or loathe a movie when they never actually saw it, or a book and they never actually read it? I bet many of you can think of a book series (I'm not going to name the one that comes to my mind, one that created a huge divide on the Internet this summer between the lovers and the haters of the book; many haters admittedly never read the books because they assumed it was just awful) that seemed to be so popular and yet so many people insisted it was just drivel wrapped in a pretty and vapid package. The same thing happens with political candidates. People will place a value of sorts on each candidate before they vote. Oftentimes, however, the value is based on something superficial, such as "my friends all like this person" or "my boss/parent is voting for them" or "I like their wardrobe." I am not in any way criticizing the choices people make. I make many choices based on arbitrary incentive values, too, and those values tend to change often for me, as well (I have a moderately high need for exploration). This does, however, possibly explain why it is so difficult to generate accurate predictions on consumer choices or human behavior in general.

Expectancy value theory states that we cannot accurately predict, with full certainty, a person's behavior unless we first understand the incentive value that person places on the choices, the person's values and beliefs concerning the choices in general, and the importance those values and beliefs hold for that person at that moment in time. Those are really too many wildly changing variables to juggle in order to come up with a consistently accurate prediction. The best we can hope for at the moment is to introduce arbitrary incentives and hope that individuals place a high enough value on those incentives that we can introduce a modicum of control on their choices.

I did say this was one of the most complex and difficult topics in psychology. And I am only beginning to scratch the surface here. If there were any easy answers about motivation, then the world would be a whole lot less complex and an awful lot of people would have to find something else to do with their time and research efforts.