Street Thoughts on Rewards!

by Movability Austin

I just read Drivers Who Avoid Traffic Jams. The NY Times article highlighted a pilot that used rewards to encourage people to avoid traffic by using other options or just traveling earlier or later in Palo Alto, CA. The piece prompted a perennial question, “why do people sit in traffic day after day?” Then another, “how can I get that kind of cash to offer people rewards?” Finally the big one settled into my brain, “just how do rewards work anyway?”

And to my surprise there is a whole lot of research on this. There are intrinsic rewards, things your brain creates as an incentive, like little endorphin releases, as a way to continue the routine torture called exercise; but also the perception of independence associated with driving a car. There are external rewards, things others give you for doing something they want, like an ice cream cone for not screaming the entire trip in a car; but also the praise, reputation, or awards you get for doing public service. Then there are all kinds of blending of the two, like in gamification. When people play games, their brains tend to make up many of the rewards. “I’m good at problem-solving.” “I love the adrenaline rush.” But people stay even more engaged in games if there is a social element and external rewards such as trying to outscore and win fame among your friends. There can also be big external payoffs, we call that a jackpot.

So what do rewards have to do with movability? In the past, transportation has been haphazard at best when it comes to rewarding users. The people selling cars consider rewards every minute of every day, but the planners and engineers simply don’t factor rewards into their scope of work. What we get are accidental rewards. For example, you drive a car alone as do thousands of others, then you (collectively) get rewarded with more roads or wider roads and more parking. And thus the cycle went in transportation planning for decades. Until- tah-dah – engineers and planners discovered there wasn’t enough money to keep building and maintain all the roads. Then as brilliant problem solvers, they discovered an elegant solution- negative rewards or pricing. Thus, the concept of monetizing costly behaviors was born. This takes the form of toll roads, congestion pricing, parking meters, etc. Solving two problems at once, the need for cash to build, maintain and operate the now huge road network and charging people as an incentive to change their behaviors. Then came demand management (that’s the technical term for what Movability Austin does) and finally people start focusing on how rewards might really help people.

And what might that help be? Well some people don’t actually want to keep sitting in traffic every day, but their brains have created some reason to justify why they must sit in traffic. Have you ever found yourself saying, “damn this traffic” and then explaining to yourself why you are there, “a car is the only choice,” “I love the convenience of my car,” “I feel safer in my car,” “I can get there faster,” “I have more control/independence.” At one point these stories may have been true, but are they still true? Sometimes they are no longer true. Sometimes they aren’t the right reward anymore. But like all of us, somewhere in the past you made a decision. That decision, when repeated over time, created a habit. Your brain (who is sure you are the most brilliant person alive) then makes sure you have the stories and the rewards to reinforce that habit.

So what can we do to “help,” besides waiting around for you (the abstract you) to get married, have a baby, change jobs, or go on vacation, those big life changing and unique moments where habits get re-evaluated with regularity.

As it turns out, allowing people to create their own positive rewards is usually a stronger, more sustainable and mostly cheaper motivator, therefore demand management began using mostly intrinsic rewards. Congratulating participants on a regular basis for their amazing environmental consciousness, healthy life-style choices, even confirming just how “self-righteous” they could claim to be. And for a small number of people, intrinsic rewards alone work pretty well. For most people, simply knowing what you should (or think you should) do does not translate into behaviors consistent with ones values. We discovered the obvious again in a recent survey “green consumer behaviors,” most people want to believe one thing about themselves, but just have “concern for the environment” or some other belief isn’t really enough to motivate significant changes in behavior.

Adding a little external reward and game playing to the mix works even better. When, for example, utility companies send a bill with your power usage and compare it to your neighbors, you begin to compete with their neighbors.

Hey, maybe that’s why people continue to get into traffic, it is like a video game. It is constantly challenging, sometimes frustrating, and there are real life/death stakes as well. What do you think, is it time to change the game? Can we start looking for challenges and rewards that are more in line with the person you want to be, with the place Austin wants to be?

Wouldn’t it be fun to play this game in Austin?


Comments are closed.