Saturday, 29 November 2014

Rewarding or sinister?

In my psychology student days, I was always rather wary of Behaviourism, that school of thought that says that psychology should be all about observable behaviour rather than unobservable events that take place in people's minds. Perhaps it was due to an uncomfortable feeling that the richness of human experience could simply be compared to rats pressing levers in cages to get a reward or a shock.

The language and principles of behaviourism, such operant conditioning - the modification of voluntary behaviour through reinforcement and punishment - have found their way into many aspects of life today and this is not necessarily a bad thing if those involved are acting with everyone's best interests in mind. We use rewards frequently in parenting and for our own self-improvement ("if I manage to lose 5kg I'll reward myself with a new pair of jeans.")

From Green Shield Stamps to AirMiles, brands have long used the idea of rewarding purchasing behaviour to build loyalty. And technology today means that brands also have the potential to reward other behaviours via wearable devices and smartphones. Trendwatching have identified "Currencies of Change" in their 10 Trends for 2015. The trend is sub-titled "because good behaviour should no longer be its own reward".

Some of the examples cited, such as a brand donating to a food bank when users try low-calorie recipes, are laudable. But as I read on, I began to feel uneasy, as I did with Skinner's caged rats. Not only did I feel that some of these "rewards" were treating adult humans as children (or worse still, lab rodents) but there seems something sinister about people being "rewarded" - sometimes financially - for something that they should be doing anyway. For example, a bank was mentioned that moves money into a higher-interest account for every step taken while jogging, or cyclists and motorists being rewarded for not using their mobile phones while cycling and driving.

Behavioural methods can be useful in the treatment of phobias, addictions and other psychological problems, but it's not the place of a brand to do this.

It's another example of "just because you can do it doesn't mean you should."

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