Editor’s Note: Pop quiz, hot shot. Which would motivate you more?
a. “Finish the project, and I’ll give you some money,” or
b. “Finish the project, and I’ll send you and your family to Hawaii”.
Read below to find out why the correct answer is b. (Unless you hate either Hawaii or your family, in which case I’ll refer you to a good therapist.)
I doubt anyone reading this needs to be reminded about how amazing leisure travel can be. Relaxation, trying exotic drinks, learning, having tropical beverages, building relationships, did I mention drinks? It’s wonderful.
But leisure travel isn’t just good fun, it can also be good business. Travel has been proven to be an extremely effective incentive to motivate both customers and employees to reach and exceed their respective goals.
What gets employees fired up to beat their sales quota? What inspires customers to exceed loyalty expectations? Is it money? Is it fear? Is it a sense of responsibility?
It’s not what most people think: It’s not always money.
Contrary to the popular phrase, when it comes to designing rewards for goal achievement, cash is no longer king. One motivating force in particular has taken the crown: Travel.
Rewards and incentives geared towards providing leisure and tourism experiences routinely outperform their cash equivalents. Behavioral science tells us why.
No Cash Is Better Than Cash
When considering pursuing a potential reward, people need to evaluate what that item is worth to them. Money is a fairly straightforward proposition. A dollar amount is a dollar amount, and that’s the valuation. Non-cash rewards, like exotic travel, on the other hand, can spark excitement and anticipation and many other emotions. Imagine if someone has always wanted to go to Hawaii, and finally gets a chance to island hop beneath the rainbows of the Aloha state. That experience is worth more than the cumulative dollar value of the air, travel, sunscreen, and mai tais. When a vacation is also the potential realization of a lifelong dream, it’s worth, well, a lot.
It’s precisely because travel experiences like this can be so emotionally charged, that they are invaluable, in the cognitive bias sense of the word. Construal level theory posits that we over-value these experiences, because we tend to imagine best-case scenarios when anticipating the experience to come. The more emotional a potential reward, the higher the perceived value, and the more motivating force it holds.
Studies have also shown that non-cash rewards are more memorable to people, and that they think about them more frequently than cash rewards while performing an incentivized task. This frequency of thought is purported to moderate the stronger positive effect non-cash rewards have on performance (see this study). Moreover, the feelings of gratitude, excitement and achievement that come with travel rewards extend to all the times we anticipate it, experience it and remember it. The thought of being on that Hawaiian beach can help us push through any cold winter task.
“Well,” you might wonder, “If they don’t respond to cash, why not just buy them a nice watch or something?” That’s a fair question. Ultimately, pursuing rewards is about pursuing greater happiness, and a growing body of research has proven that buying experiences tends to make us happier than buying materials goods. And what’s a better experience than leisure travel? Not much, imho.
Experiences like travel also provide more value – and therefore more of a lure – than cash, because of what psychologists consider the three types of experience utility. We receive value from a travel experience in three distinct phases: anticipating the trip before we embark, imagining how great it’s going to be to sip cocktails with sand in our feet; during the experience, as we soak in the sun and smile with our companions; and retrospectively, when we reminisce, share stories and think back fondly upon it. That trip will be talked about for a long time…and so will the organization that provided it.
A Picture Is Worth A Thousand Bucks
We are social creatures, motivated by social forces in many ways. One such way is social reinforcement, which comes from other people’s knowledge of our success and rewards. fMRI studies show that social recognition and feelings of empathy activate brain structures associated with positive emotions like euphoria, in the same way as receiving cash. We can only get that reinforcement if we let people know about our achievement, and it is much more socially acceptable to discuss a non-cash reward like travel, than a cash one. Imagine being awarded $2,000 for achieving a goal: It’s hard to bring that up in conversation. In fact, one study demonstrated just how awkward that really is. Researchers had pairs of students discuss either large material purchases or recent travel experiences, and found that those in the travel condition found their conversations more enjoyable, and their partners less obnoxious, than those in the material purchase condition. You can bet that when we finally get to take our family to the land of pineapples and luaus, we’ll talk about that to any friend willing to share in the experience.
In today’s social-media-centric world, the social benefit of sharing a non-cash reward is amplified exponentially across our networks – a phenomenon loyalty expert Barry Kirk calls “Selfie Value.” Rewards earned for good performance are treasured all the more when we can share them with our networks. We can Instagram ourselves by Niagara Falls or on top of Mount McKinley or singing karaoke in a Waikiki hotel bar, but we can’t share pictures of our W2 or our paystub. Or, at least, we really shouldn’t.
Selfies aren’t just for the Kardashians anymore: They also enhance the value and motivating influence of experiences like travel.
Better Travel Makes Better People
There’s a common inspirational quote that “Life is not measured by the breaths we take, but by the moments that take our breath away.” This sensation of transcending our present lives, of feeling small in the world’s gorgeous vastness, are moments of awe. The Grand Canyon, the Sistine Chapel, the Egyptian Pyramids… travel invites us to be transformed by these (literally) awesome experiences.
Importantly, these moments of awe have a powerful psychological effect on us. The experience of awe increases ethical decision-making, generosity, pro-social values, and our likelihood to help others and show compassion, while decreasing entitlement (proof). It may be that we evolved the individual capacity for awe, for the greater good of our species.
So, travel doesn’t just make more motivated people, it also makes better people. And that is a win win… win. I’ll gladly sit on a beach and drink to that.