Humans Care Less About Absolute Reward And More About Beating Other People

From a Newsweek article on winning:

An economist at the University of Bonn has shown that test subjects who receive a given reward for a task enjoy it significantly more if other subjects fail or do worse—a finding that upends traditional economic theories that absolute reward is a person’s central motivation.

Alas, they didn’t give the full citation.

From the journal Science, an fMRI study on the effects of absolute and relative rewards:

Despite the importance of distinguishing the roles of absolute and relative income levels for subjective well-being, and thus for human decision-making, the underlying neurobiological basis of social comparison is not well understood…Similarly, context dependency of ventral striatal responses in humans has been demonstrated with fMRI…Our study introduces two critical new aspects of relative reward processing in the ventral striatum. First, it shows that social context is an important factor for reward processing. Second, in contrast to previous studies, the differences in reward activation cannot be explained by a mismatch between expected and received reward.

Another on social signaling:

Students in the award treatment were offered a congratulatory card from the organisation honouring the best performance. The award was purely symbolic in order to ensure that any behavioural effect is driven by non-material benefits. Our results show that students in the award treatment outperform students in the control treatment by about 12 per cent on average.

The unexpected implication of this research, which is growing, is that there is no risk premium. Ignore at your peril.

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