by Leo Jakobson | December 05, 2017
It's well accepted that people's body language, pulse, and faces unconsciously betray their true feelings about what they have and what they want. One common example of this are the "tells" professional card players use to judge if an opponent is bluffing -- eye movement, pupil dilation, sweat, body positioning -- whether consciously observing them or not. 

These techniques, and the growing body of neuroscience research behind them, have been applied to the basic incentive industry question -- whether people are more motivated by cash or non-cash rewards -- in a study released last week by the Incentive Research Foundation (IRF) in partnership with Maritz as the sponsor. 

The results of the report, "Conscious and Unconscious Reward Preference & Choice: A Biometric Experiment," were striking. Not only did 62 percent of the subjects end up choosing a non-cash award over the same amount of money, but their initial, unconscious reactions "overwhelmingly" favored non-cash, says Allan Schweyer, the whitepaper's author and chief academic adviser of the IRF. 

Aside from biometrics, the study relied upon the science of preference -- how people make decisions. This breaks down into two methods: The first is unconscious thinking, which the report calls "fast, reflexive, automatic." The second is conscious thinking, which is described as "slow, careful, cognitive" thinking.

Asking the Right Questions

To apply this to the cash-versus-non-cash debate, the IRF worked with neuromarketing pioneer Steve Genco, author of Neuroscience for Dummies. The research involved interviewing 46 people who were asked whether they would prefer a non-cash award like travel, merchandise, a gift card, or an experiential reward such as a spa day or ticket to a sporting event. With that information in hand, they were asked to choose between a non-cash award or its price in cash. In all cases, visuals of the awards or cash were prominently displayed to help with biometric measurements and build excitement in the subject. 

What the study shows is that "our involuntary, instinctual reaction to non-cash rewards is more emotional than our reaction to cash," Schweyer says.

He adds that planners of incentive, recognition, and reward programs know that "rewards which trigger emotions cause higher performance after and in anticipation of the reward. So, this research offers scientific evidence in support of a body of academic behavioral research that suggests non-cash rewards are usually a better choice than cash rewards." 

Even among subjects that ended up preferring cash rewards, biometrics show that people's initial award preferences did not match what their "tells" said they really liked.

When choosing between cash and non-cash awards, subjects' responses were measured with a number of biometric techniques, including pupil dilation and eye-tracking techniques that scientists call "time to first fixation." This showed that subjects were "overwhelmingly drawn to non-cash rewards over cash," Schweyer says.

When choosing between cash and non-cash awards, it took far longer for subjects to become fixed on the cash reward. Which is to say, they had to override their unconscious desires for more carefully considered ones. Only 16 of the 42 subjects ultimately chose cash.

That means that when time is taken to ensure you're offering each person the non-cash award they are most drawn to, a substantial majority will consciously choose non-cash awards -- 62 percent in this study.

Schweyer adds that in earlier academic research, participants were offered "little or no choice of non-cash rewards and little or no description of the reward. And so most subjects -- quite logically -- chose the equivalent cash. This suggests that program designers should offer broad choice and then make sure everyone knows about each the choices in some detail."