What Constitutes a Reward?

karenIf you’re interested in how the experience of pleasure influences behavior, you don’t need a fancy lab…you have yourself. It’s interesting to observe your own reactions in a variety of situations and, with as much detachment as you can muster, consider how you respond to different stimuli. Yes, I know that this is the ultimate example of observer bias, but it’s still interesting and perhaps valuable.

I’ve been wearing a FitBit for the last few weeks. Despite some previous bad experiences with a pedometer several years ago (connectivity issues and my own OCD tendencies), I agreed to give monitored fitness another try after our college’s Wellness Committee extolled the ease of use and potential rewards to be had from using the FitBit. Indeed, the technology has improved dramatically since my last pedometer experience, and my FitBit and I are now in a serious relationship.fitbit

Part of FitBit’s charm is its delightful habit of surprising me with presents. After I had been wearing it for a several days, I logged on and learned I’d earned a Penguin Badge:

penguinCool!  Since the famed march of the penguins is seventy miles, I could now claim membership in the flock, even though my miles were logged in Kentucky rather than Antarctica.

Shortly thereafter, I logged in and was greeted by this darling little helicopter:

helicopterWhy? Because I’d climbed 500 flights of stairs, or, as the site proclaimed, “the height of a helicopter.” Seriously?

Now let’s be real. What are those rewards? They’re little colored pixels on a screen arranged in an eye-catching pattern. Yet I’ll cop to feeling a bit smug, and I’ll admit that I felt motivated to keep walking and climbing. What does this have to do with learning? Only everything. We do what feels good. Our pleasure center is a powerful motivator for our behaviors. And it doesn’t take much to activate those tiny yet mighty neurons. We’ve posted about the power of stickers, candy, sound effects, and other seemingly trivial rewards to provide motivating pleasure to our students. In next Tuesday’s Classhack post, I’ll share another one that has surprised me when I introduced it in my classes.

Until then, keep walking and climbing those stairs.




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