Our Reward System is more complicated than we think


(Image courtesy of Emily Blincoe)

I was reading an article from the Guardian on my bus ride home whilst shoving mini eggs into my mouth. I am not one to just have half a bag of anything when it comes to chocolate so when I read this it felt quite relevant to the action at the time. Aside from my mundane chocolate eating habits, all this stuff is really bloody interesting. I think brands can learn a lot from science in advertising (not everything) as also herd mentality comes into it too I know but it made me think.

This article was saying that rewards are when neurochemicals make us feel good in response to stimulus – we go back for more to obtain more

But it seems rewards are two pronged – wanting and liking.

Studies show that to actively want something we require dopamine in our brain, where as liking something (the pleasure part) is something separate – i.e. even if we think we don’t want something sweet when sweetness is administered we still like it. (This was proved in lots of experiments with rats).

Of course the two are closely entwined – we naturally learn we want foods by having liked them. But they don’t always work in tandem

What is also interesting is that many scientists had assumed that liking and wanting (dopamine) would have equal influence, but it turns out that the the hedonic pleasure hotspots are tiny. Pleasure, has “a much smaller and fragile brain basis” than wanting. This clever guy in the article adds “that’s why the intense pleasures in life are less frequent and less sustained than intense desires in life”. This imbalance has existed throughout most of evolutionary history, and that the domination of wanting ensures we find the things we need.

A key use for this knowledge may make us think about the way brands communicate…if wanting is more powerful than liking – how do we create any kind of desire for brands? I think we probably need to work on being brands which attract audiences rather than chasing the whole time. If we constantly chase why would anyone desire us? Think about the old saying  “we always want the things we can’t have”. Why won’t brands think about this a bit more rather than constantly trying to chat us up on social media or target us to death online and do something a bit more desirable….

Brands which attract are those which understand who they are, have a clear purpose and continuously demonstrate that brand purpose through every single touchpoint. NOT just one off campaigns with a meaningless proposition. From their packaging to their customer service to their internal comms to the tiny small print on that email they send to you.


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