You get the behaviour you reward

Is there a team member not pulling their weight? A supplier who’s always late and always has a different excuse? Continuing to respond the same way is guaranteeing that nothing will change.

Goldfish, kittens, puppies and humans are all very different but:

  1. We learn how to interact with the world in feedback loops.
  2. When we are rewarded for a particular behaviour, we repeat it.
Photo by Tine Ivanič on Unsplash

We learn how to interact with the world in feedback loops

We have needs, and we will employ a variety of strategies to get what we need from the people and things in our environment.

I don’t need to teach a goldfish to swim through a simple maze to reach food (which is a good thing because I don’t speak Goldfish). I just need to make sure the goldfish is aware of the food, and it will try a variety of strategies to reach it.

When the goldfish eventually learns the pattern of turns it must make to reach the food, the resulting increase in blood sugar levels from eating the food stimulates the release of a brain hormone that helps even the simple brain of a goldfish remember how to navigate a maze.

When a strategy works, we get a little dose of dopamine, and we remember the things that get us another little hit of dopamine.

When we are rewarded for a particular behaviour, we repeat it.

Your goldfish, your kitten or puppy, your child and the adults around you do this, and if you know how to look for it, you will recognise this behaviour all around you.

Photo by Dhruv Singh on Unsplash
  1. Cat wants to go outside, but the door is locked;
  2. Your cat can see your attention is on the TV, so it initially tries a range of different ways to get your attention.
  3. Some of those behaviours (like rubbing up against your leg or into your lap) you misinterpret as affection. Some of them aren’t distracting enough to you to make you look away from the TV. Your cat’s bladder remains uncomfortably full. The feedback loop is not completed. No dopamine shot is forthcoming.
  4. Your cat eventually learns that if it makes a lot of noise while scratching the fly screen hard enough to tear holes, it gets your attention. You get up from the TV and open the door. Bladder emptied, dopamine shot hits the bloodstream. The feedback loop is completed. Cat begins to learn: the way to get what it wants around here is to make a god-awful racket and try to claw a hole in the flyscreen.

That’s all fine for cats and goldfish, you might think. And sure, maybe human babies are pretty basic cognitively. But surely that all changes when we’re talking higher-level cognition, right? Not all human behaviour works that way, right?


Our brains are still wired to change according to the dopamine feedback loop, no matter how old you are and no matter whether we want to go pee or whether we want to renegotiate a major sales contract.

If you give someone a little hit of dopamine when they successfully haggle you down on cost for your first project, they will repeat that behaviour and try to haggle you down next time… and the time after that.

People repeat the behaviours we reward.

The carrot and the stick

I sometimes refer to this as “carrot and stick” — a now somewhat debunked metaphor that suggests every behaviour can be controlled simply by either the application of a reward (giving a donkey a carrot) or a punishment (hitting the donkey with a stick). It’s overly reductive — humans don’t just respond to the carrot or the stick — but they certainly can be made to do so, often.

Negative rewards are rewards too

Sometimes, your cat doesn’t want anything more than to tell you it’s pissed off. Sometimes, your child is just tired, hungry, and needs to tell you that. When you raise your voice and stomp your feet about the growing hole in the flyscreen or the toy thrown across the room, although that should act as a punishment (or at least a disincentive) it can often function as a kind of reward — a negative reward.

If the cat, or the baby, or the team member, or the supplier really just wants your attention to a problem you haven’t shown you’re aware of, or would rather receive a negative emotion from you than no emotion at all, that’s a negative feedback you are now both trapped in.

Your anger, your frustration, what you intended as a stick? It’s now behaving like a carrot. That little sphincter tightening when you reacted so strongly releases a bunch of brain chemicals too. While they may not be identical to dopamine, it will do in a pinch.

The longer that negative feedback loop remains in place, the stronger it becomes and the more dependent the cat, individual human, or organisation becomes dependent upon it.

How do you break out of a negative feedback loop when applying the stick just reinforces the repetition of the behaviour you’re trying to change?

Reciprocity and modelling — an alternative to the stick

Instead of trying to cope with the problems that a negative feedback loop throws at you, look for opportunities to reward people, organisations (and cats) for the kind of behaviour that you want to see them repeat.

Perhaps you can give the negative feeback loop less airtime, or extend and delay the loop by keeping the cat, individual or organisation something else more urgent to do which, because you’ve planned ahead, you can ensure will result in an opportunity to begin reinforcing a positive feedback loop.

If you can’t persuade the cat, individual or organisation to initiate the behaviour you need to see to begin a positive feedback loop, begin a similar loop with another similar cat, individual or organisation. Model what happens in a positive feedback relationship by consciously showcasing how wonderful a relationship with you can be, if only they’ll join you in Positive Loop Land.

If you can’t, use reciprocity — show them how excited you are to work with them. When they pitch you for your business, or for a role on your team, show them the great things other suppliers say about you, or ask other team members to call them as part of the interview process. Show them how good it feels to work with you, when you’re both in a positive feedback loop.

I’m Alan Jones, an EiR for startup accelerators, GP at M8 Ventures. Previously investor, founder, and early Yahoo PM. Opinions mine (but should also be yours).

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