Token gestures

I made a rare visit to Waitrose this morning having received some discount vouchers in the post. There were a range of vouchers for specific products and a general money-off coupon for spending more than a certain amount. It was sufficient to motivate me to be more extravagant than I normally would be on a weekend shop.

As I selected the products I noticed that some of the similar items available were probably better value, even without a money-off offer. I ended up only choosing two of the products for which I had vouchers.

When I got to the till, I found that I had picked up the incorrect size for one item. I couldn’t be bothered by that stage to hold up the queue to retrieve the correct product, so I told the cashier not to worry about it. I cashed in one voucher for a specific product and my general ‘money off’ voucher, knowing that the prices were already inflated so I would, in fact, probably be paying about the same amount as if I had just gone to a cheaper supermarket in the first place.

By the end of the trip I felt rather dissatisfied. On the face of it, the offers appeared generous, but the experience of achieving these ‘rewards’ was underwhelming. The system ‘worked’ in that I probably would have defaulted to my usual supermarket were it not for the vouchers arriving that morning. I’m sure that Waitrose can demonstrate the effectiveness of their targeted marketing through increased sales and frequency of visits, but they will struggle to capture what it feels like to be played in this way.

Similar problems exist for school reward systems. Whilst it is entirely possible to design systems which promote certain behaviours, the unintended consequences are rarely considered. When someone decides for us which goals are worth attaining they rob us of our agency, leaving us to wonder what satisfaction there might have been were we to have made our own choice. We are frustrated when we narrowly miss achieving the reward, suspicious of what others may be treated to which has been withheld from us, and annoyed when we cannot cash in our prize due to a small mistake we made along the way. The effect of constantly being ‘rewarded’ is a sense that we are subject to manipulation; that someone thinks they know better than us about what actions will bring us happiness.

When I sit down to enjoy the meal I have made I won’t be taking satisfaction from the vouchers I cashed in. True rewards are not tokens.

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