The Science of Reward: Why We Want To Win

If there’s one thing that truly makes our day here at Medals UK, it’s getting to hear the wonderful stories of sporting, military and educational achievement. It’s getting to see the broad smiles that accompany those achievements and knowing that our lovingly crafted work will act as a life-long attachment to the memory of that day.

We’re fortunate to be in an industry where achievement and reward go hand in hand, and there’s no shortage of great people doing great things. Recently though, we’ve been pondering an age-old question – Just what is it that drives these talented people to push themselves to achieve such feats? What motivates individuals to offer blood, sweat and tears in pursuit of a goal, rather than choosing to settle down on the sofa and binge-watch countless re-runs of ‘Friends’ like, ahem, me?

I went in search of answers, and quickly found myself spiralling head-first (pardon the pun) into the murky and incredibly complex world of Neuroscience. The internet, my friends, is a wonderful thing. A Google search and six respected scholarly research papers later, here’s what I discovered about our insatiable need for a firm pat on the back!

Brace for Neuroscience 101. The human brain, it turns out, contains a group of structures which are believed to be responsible for us “wanting”, “craving”, or “desiring” something in life. Those clever brain boffins refer to it, somewhat predictably, as the ‘Reward System’. Its activated whenever we experience something rewarding, like winning, satisfying a craving, or sex.

When we’re faced with an incentive (a reward), the brain responds by releasing a neurotransmitter (a chemical messenger) called Dopamine. It’s the chemical in the body that’s closely associated with the feelings of pleasure, euphoria, and elation. Put simply, scientists believe that dopamine is responsible for influencing our desires and motivating us to take the actions that will eventually lead to feelings of pleasure. Think of it as a chemical ‘kick-up-the-ass’ that attaches utmost importance to crossing the finishing line of a race!

Our human desire to stretch towards a goal in search of a reward doesn’t stop at the physiological level. The acclaimed self-development guru Brian Tracy suggests that psychology plays a big role. He believes that man’s need for meaning and purpose, and the commitment to worthy goals and ideals, is the single greatest drive in human nature.

According to psychologists, whatever we “expect” with confidence becomes our own self-fulfilling prophecy. This means the expectations we have of ourselves, whether they be high or low, positive or negative – are exceptionally powerful drivers of our behaviour.

These magicians of the mind believe that our human behaviour is determined by a set of psychological laws:

  • The ‘law of belief’ says that whatever we “believe” becomes our reality. And so its possible to shape our realities by changing the beliefs we hold about ourselves. Deep stuff!
  • The ‘law of attraction’ says that we attract into our lives the people and circumstances that occupy our dominant thoughts. Winning lottery numbers anyone?
  • The ‘law of concentration’ suggests that if you want something to grow in your life, you must concentrate on that thought until it becomes reality. Cancelling gym membership as we speak.
  • The ‘law of substitution’ says that to have positive experiences in our lives, we need to keep our conscious mind focused on positive things. These ARE the winning numbers!
  • The ‘law of repetition’ says we must practice positive habit patterns all the time. But I’m too tired.
  • The ‘law of relaxation’ suggests the more we relax and confidently believe something will happen, the more rapidly it will manifest in our lives. Ah finally, a law I can get on board with.

It’s comforting to know that what drives our desire to achieve something, is what’s between our ears. Winning the mental battle is what really matters, for that is the ultimate reward.

But what of physical rewards. Can a ‘pot of gold at the end of the rainbow’ help to grease the neural pathways? Science once again has the answer. When we’re training a dog or family pet, we use food rewards to influence the dog’s behaviour. It turns out the same is true of us complex human beings. It’s called reinforcement, and psychologists suggest its what pushes us harder to ‘deliberately’ achieve a goal, rather than relying on mere habits or our own fragile motivation. We know that when we’re offered a reward, special neurological pathways are activated. Cue the release of dopamine and its feel-good vibes – helping motivate us towards our goal.

So, there we have it. The latest and greatest science tells us that if we are to achieve any goal in life, we must first learn to control our conscious and unconscious minds.

I hear you – Easier said than done. What’s clear though is, as humans, we all have the capacity to be one of these “talented” people. It’s just that those who strive to achieve their goals have developed the skill of thinking, talking, and acting in a manner consistent with who they want to be.

The human body really is a wonderful thing. Maybe it’s time I put the Ross & Rachel ‘will-they, won’t they’ saga to one side (spoiler-alert – they do) and start setting myself some goals!

Or maybe I’ll just WILL those winning lottery numbers into existence.

Either way, I’m off to comply with the law of relaxation.