Wednesday, January 27, 2010



Everyone likes rewards. Everyone likes receiving things they like. We are programmed to like rewards. It is in our nature to seek them. It is as natural as hunger or thirst. We rarely do anything unless there is some reward for our efforts. Rewards induce human behavior. As such, they drive all economic activity. After all, who would work if he knew he would receive no pay? Who would work harder if he knew he would receive no greater prize for the extra effort?

All this may seem obvious. But I mention it because Citibank® actually poses the question in its latest advertising campaign. On billboards and on computer screens, Citibank® queries: "Do you like rewards? If you do, you should open an account with us." It then lists various perks that new accountholders receive, like a $50 (taxable) bounty, a potential $100 (taxable) payment for new customer referrals and retail "points" that accumulate whenever they use Citibank® debit cards. So if you charge enough Starbucks® coffee on your card, you'll get a $10 "gift" one day.

Those are the "rewards" they are talking about. And who doesn't like rewards?

People love rewards because people are basically selfish. Rewards reflect personal gain; when a person wins a reward, he benefits. He might receive money or gratification. He might receive an emotional payout. No matter what form a reward takes, it appeals to men's base instinct to profit. For that reason, rewards induce behavior. One man offers a reward in order to persuade another man to act as he wishes. He knows that men like rewards, so he knows men will adapt their behavior to get it. This is no different from any other mammal. Dangle a leftover steak in a dog's face and you can it to do every trick in the book.

Yet this basic mammalian urge for rewards forms the basis for all purposeful economic activity in our "civilized" world. The only difference between men and dogs is that you need to dangle paychecks in their faces, not leftover steak. Then they'll do whatever tricks you want.

Put another way, rewards make us human. They might not bring out the best in us, but they are still central to human existence. People live for rewards. Why else would they do anything? Nature intended it that way. After all, why would human beings--or any animals--propagate if there were not some biological reward for propagating? People like sex because it offers an intense physical reward. Without the reward, no one would want to do it. Nature understands how animals think. And man is just another animal: He needs a selfish incentive to do anything. He needs a reward.

When it comes to rewards, man is different from other animals in a crucial respect: He can manipulate rewards to exploit his fellows. Through language and superior resources, a shrewd man can persuade a weaker man to do just about anything for the right reward. And the shrewd man can dictate the conditions under which the weak man obtains a reward. In sum, those conditions reduce the weak man to the shrewd man's control. Rewards, then, become an instrument of tyranny as well as enterprise.

In modern language, exchange influences rewards. Rewards provide a basis for bargaining. In English, for instance, the dictionary says that a "reward" is "something given in return for good, or, sometimes, evil, or for service, or for something lost." Webster's New World College Dictionary (4th Ed.). Rewards, then, are given in return for something else. They must be "earned." As such, superior men can easily manipulate the terms under which they give rewards. They know everyone wants a reward. So they exploit that natural desire to dominate anyone who seeks one.

English is not the only language that implies bargaining in "rewards." German, too, suggests that rewards must be "earned." The closest translation for "reward" is "belohnen," which means: "to compensate a person for his help or effort." Wahrig Deutsches W├Ârterbuch S. 249 (Ausgabe 2008) (my translation). "Belohnen," in turn, builds upon a simpler German word: "der Lohn." "Der Lohn" means "wage," or, more specifically: "payment, consideration or compensation for work performed." Id. at S. 955 (my translation).

As in English, German reveals that "rewards" don't fall from trees. They provide incentives for work and service to others. That means the person who gives rewards has the power to dictate the terms under which others will receive them. Rewards give power. After all, the master has power over the dog because he has the leftover steak; he can demand any behavior before he gives it to the dog. In the same way, the employer has power over the employee because he has the paycheck; he can demand any behavior before he gives it to employee. In both cases, men and dogs want rewards. And they do what they are told to get them.

Just like dogs, all men want rewards. They want to increase their wealth. They want to feel good about themselves. They want to experience positive emotions. They are prepared to do tricks to get them. Rewards provide a reason to live. They induce behavior. Sometimes they induce good behavior. But certainly not always. Every criminal seeks some reward. Personal gratification motivates genius as much as it motivates destructive cruelty. In that sense, rewards cut both ways. Offer a man $10,000 and he might write a beautiful essay in a writing contest. Offer another man $10,000 and he will kill anyone you choose. The principle is the same: Rewards induce behavior.

But it is just dumb to ask: "Do you like rewards?" That is the same as asking: "Do you like eating a meal when you're hungry?" Everyone does. It is perfectly natural. It might not be very grandiose to spend your whole life seeking rewards. But it's not very grandiose to spend your whole life eating meals, either. Yet both are quintessentially human activities.


Anonymous said...

Makes sense, etymology is fun. Now I know that I'm 'earning' a 'reward' while watching porn.

Do you have a link to where you discuss the etymology of employee?

Balthazar Oesterhoudt said...

I sure do:

It's been a while since I wrote it, but it holds as true today as it did in 2008.

Yes! There has to be a reward for just about any activity we pursue, porn included.