Accepting Payment Satisfies Primitive Drives

How hidden associations manipulate our motivation

Posted Aug 29, 2017

New work policy:  All Employees Shall Appreciate Art.  In fact, from now on you’ll be paid in black-and-white copies of crayon abstractions drawn by the boss’s three-year-old son.  That will be all.  Thank you for attending our professional development meeting.  You’ve each just earned five crayon drawings for your valuable time. 

Odds are the boss will find herself working all alone for the foreseeable future because, although we fully support art appreciation, something about this arrangement strikes us as decidedly impractical.  Off to the help-wanted ads we go.

Or are we being a bit hasty? 

Unless we’re hunting, gathering, or cultivating our own food, we already accept dyed bits of paper for our workplace efforts, so much so that when you ask most people what it is they are working for, the instantaneous response is, “Why, a paycheck, of course!”

But the paycheck itself isn’t what motivates us.  We love paychecks for what they do for us in terms of satisfying primitive needs.

Paychecks are what psychologists call conditioned, or secondary, reinforcers.  They have acquired their power to motivate based on the reinforcing nature of what we have come to associate them with over time.  Primary reinforcers, on the other hand, take care of our fundamental needs.  But employers can hardly be expected to hand out sides of beef or apartment keys on payday.  

Nearly anything can be conditioned as a secondary reinforcer by pairing it with the immediate delivery of a primary reinforcer.

A trained dolphin, for example, knows to listen for the sound of its trainer’s whistle.  Why?  Because the whistle signals that something tasty – usually a raw fish or squid – is about to fly through the air as payoff for a job well done. 

If you blow a whistle anywhere in the neighborhood of a trained dolphin, it will likely interrupt whatever it’s doing, turn your way, and open its mouth wide as if to say, “Glad you enjoyed that.  Where’s my fish?”

Try the same thing with a wild dolphin, and you’ll get no response at all. 

That’s because meaning isn’t inherent in the whistle itself.  To a dolphin, the whistle acquires meaning over time only through consistent association with whatever follows its sound.  Strike a dolphin with a stick immediately after tooting a training whistle, and it won’t be long before the dolphin learns to flee upon hearing it.

These are exactly the kinds of associative reactions a linguistic species like ours has to words.  It doesn’t matter what the word is.  What matters is what the word is associated with.  Show a toddler an apple enough times while calling it a rain coat, and he’ll ask for foul weather gear whenever it’s snack time.  

Even sugary-sweet terms of endearment like “honey” can go sour over time – depending, of course, on the types of associations that immediately follow.  Repeat “Honey, I love you” often enough, and your mate will be greeting you with open arms and a smile after hearing the very first word.  Repeat and replace with “Honey, why can’t you ever . . .” and the verbal brawling will begin just as quickly.

It takes time and repetition for associations to gain meaning.  Eventually, we come to understand that forty-hour work weeks can become a new car, or that sweat-drenched workouts can turn into a wardrobe several sizes smaller. 

Seem impossible to get your kids to eat their oatmeal?  Try conditioning a secondary reinforcer.  It worked pretty well for several Navy dolphins challenged to a government-sponsored taste test a few years back. 

Navy dolphins, like other armed services personnel, are world travelers.  They regularly catch ships and planes to destinations around the globe to participate in field exercises with their human counterparts.  Of the two species, dolphins in the field generally fare better at chow time.  An assortment of restaurant-quality fish for Flipper versus a vacuum-packed MRE (Meal Ready to Eat) for the dining pleasure of G.I. Jane or Joe.

Of course, fresh fish in bulk create headaches in the field.  Frozen fish have to be thawed, thawed fish have to be kept cool.  And then there’s the really big question: Who has to do the dishes? 

So the Navy experimented a few years back with a dolphin equivalent to the MRE that informally became known as dolphin chow.  It was mostly fishmeal held together by someone’s secret family recipe for easy-to-stack rectangles of a gelatinously slimy consistency.  Oh yeah.  Plus, they came in an appetizing shade of particleboard brown.  Ready to order yet?

Oh, sure, some dolphins sucked them down with a gusto that would do any hungry enlisted man proud.  But then again, there were the vehemently opposed projectile spitters as well as the more discrete underwater regurgitators. 

The solution for the Navy’s chow-spitting dolphins meant immediately following a swallow of experimental chow with a tasty fresh fish or two.  At first, to make the bargain worth the dolphin’s effort, fish rewards far outnumbered swallows of chow.

Over days and weeks, however, the dolphins became eager for the chow because they had come to associate it with fish.  That’s when the time was right for gradually phasing fish rewards out of the picture.  In the end, most dolphins dined on fish or chow with equal willingness.

So, if junior is pulling faces over his bowl of porridge, dress up the oatmeal with a liberal sprinkling of marshmallows, the more the merrier – at least for a time.  It won’t have to last forever, and it doesn’t have to be marshmallows specifically.  It can be anything your child finds rewarding and fun.  Just remember that with the right kind of paycheck, almost anything can become rewarding over time.

Copyright © Seth Slater, 2017