Our brains aren’t economists

Some of us may be economists, but our brains aren’t.

For several centuries, we’ve lived with the concept of homo economicus, the idea that humans act as self-interested agents — in short, that we’re selfish.

And if you look around you, there’s no shortage of anecdotes that seem to support this.

There’s only one problem. There’s a wealth of scientific data to refute it. 

Although we may match the economicus model in cases of impersonal exchange — when we’re playing the stock market, for example — when it comes to transactions involving actual people, research has found time and time again that we value altruism and cooperation over selfishness and competition.

Don’t worry. You’re still going to get paid, and you have every right to expect to be. But at the same time it’s important to recognize that even in the workplace some things loom larger than money.

Here are some of the things that neuroscientists have learned:

1. Rewards are more powerful when they’re unexpected. The pair of tickets to the theater or a championship game that you surprise your employee with may be worth less at face value than her annual bonus, but the air of good feeling it delivers will usually last much longer than an expected check.

2. Bonuses don’t operate in isolation. If you give an individual team member a monetary reward,  the rest of the group will celebrate it if they feel that reward is well deserved. But if they sense they’ve been left out in recognition for what they feel was a group effort, the resulting bitterness may sour their incentive for cooperation in the future.