Can certain rewards motivate a person to be more successful when attempting to achieve various goals? I work with people who come to me because they desire to reach many different goals such as financial, weight loss, stop smoking, etc. Also, I work with those who have health or behavioral-related goals such as reducing pain, getting relief from fibromyalgia symptoms, and overcoming anxieties and phobias.
At the risk of over simplification, I would suggest this issue can be view in two steps. First, the intention needs to be established. Second, the body needs to realize a corresponding response that feels right (i.e. a reward system).
In order to understand the first element, you would need to appreciate the fact that the human brain naturally anticipates and simulates. The center of both of these activities is the right orbitofrontal cortex, which is just above the right eye. (When functioning properl;y, this part of the brain handles anticipation and simulation as well as behavioral inhibitions.) This first step generates a response in the brain’s rather ancient limbic system. If it creates an imagined fear, the amygdala, which is another part of the limbic structure, kicks in and creates a fight/flight response. This signals the nearby hypothalamus to communicate with other organs such as the adrenals thereby affecting heart rate and moving energy-bearing blood to the major flight oriented muscle groups. On the other hand, if a person is anticipating a pleasurable reward, the signal to the limbic system generates a totally different response such as euphoria. Therefore, we anticipate and simulate (i.e. imagine our future) and our body responds accordingly. As 99% of the brain and body are reactive in nature, whatever we imagine becomes our worst nightmare or our heaven. As Einstein said, “Imagination is more important than knowledge.” It is not our reality that matters most, it is our anticipation and simulation that shapes our future.
So let’s get back to the reward question. If person anticipates a reward, the right orbitofrontal cortex will begin communicate with the limbic system and start the pleasure cycle that I just mentioned. The anticipation of a positive outcome, such as the benefits of losing weigh, is often powerful enough to overcome resistance. However, that is not always the case.
That is why I like this issue. If the obvious benefits are not effective enough (i.e. sufficiently powerful enough to overcome resistance – which is another topic), then we need a little boost. Therefore, another related would another unrelated reward – such as money given to encourage someone to stop smoking – may be needed to overcome resistance. Why does this work?
Again, the answer is surprisingly simple. If resistance to a problem state is 8 out of 10 due to a strong addiction or the power of a well-established habit, then the level of intensity of the simulation and anticipation function needs to be 8 or better. If the achievement of an obvious related benefit is insufficient, then possibly making the stimulation more intense with another unrelated benefit just may work.