​Benefits for the 'I want it now!" generation

by External15 Aug 2014
Amanda SchaakeHardwired for instant gratification, some people will just never ‘get’ benefits that don’t provide an immediate pay-off . Amanda Schaake outlines why
We are wasting our time promoting long-term employee benefi ts to some people.

According to recent research, a good chunk of our population is wired to think differently, and there is not a darned thing you can do about it.

Benefits should interest everyone, right? Most of the time, yes. But in many cases we find ourselves trying to ‘sell’ the benefits of a future, a better state, to our people, often with limited success. If recent scientific research is correct, the chemistry of the human brain is responsible as it directly impacts on our attitude to planning ahead and preparing for our future.

We are all acutely aware of how, as a society, we are becoming more fixated on instant gratification.
We instant-message our mates, have shopping delivered to our door overnight, and we have a world of internet information available to us using our mobile phones 24/7.

Neuroeconomist Paul Glimcher of New York University recently ran a social experiment to test what it would take for people to willingly delay gratification. He gave volunteers a choice: $20 now or more money later.

At one end of the spectrum were people who agreed to take $21 in one month’s time; to essentially wait a month in order to gain just $1. In economics speak, these people valued tomorrow almost as much as today and therefore they had no problem delaying gratification.

At the other end of the spectrum were those who were willing to wait a month but only if they received up to $68, a premium of $48 from the original offer – meaning the value these people put on the future (and having money at that point) was dramatically less than the value they placed on today; when they wanted something, they wanted it now. One of the $21 people was, tellingly, an MDPhD student. “If you’re willing to go to university for eight years, you’re really willing to delay gratification,” said Glimcher.

It’s not just down to types of personalities; there are some interesting things going on inside people’s brains as a result.

During a second stage of the study, scientists used functional magnetic resonance imaging machines to map brain activity during the subjects’ decision-making. For the ‘spend money now – to hell with the consequences’ people, activity in the area of the brain that processes immediate gratification (the ventral striatum and the medial prefrontal cortex) plunged when they were offered cash a week or a month later.

For the ‘invest in your retirement and save for a rainy day’ type people, activity in those areas of the brain remained constant, regardless of when the cash reward was offered.

People’s brains work differently when it comes to thinking of their future. Sometimes, no amount of explaining the benefits or importance of saving for your retirement, taking a lower salary in favour of a higher bonus, attending a training course, investing in share schemes, doing anything now for a future benefit, will work.

How do we engage with these impulsive people if expensive education campaigns or the usual communications and engagement activities don’t work? They know they should attend the training course or make an effort to understand the new business strategy, but they won’t, because what’s happening right now is far more important.

Trying to convince people to invest more in their super, for example, is like asking them to give their hard-earned money to a stranger.

Here are some ideas to help your employees see the point of future benefits:

Lasting change can be achieved when people are allowed to find their own solutions. Just as I will no doubt purchase the iCandy pram, use it for a few months and then gratefully revert to my husband’s recommended stroller, instant-gratification-seeking colleagues will work through the change curve under their own steam and often only need a little support from their line managers.

They understand the benefits; they just don’t see the value. Help them see the value of the future in the here and now by spelling it out in today’s terms. For example, determine what their weekly superannuation payment is in today’s money. Take the employee through an exercise to get them to work out what it would be like to live off the proceeds of that contribution come retirement. A reality check can help with their brain-training.
Farmers know it and we need to learn it. Oxytocin, the ‘love drug’ chemical that is released when we’re happy, fools our brains into being able to think longterm. An employee whose health and well-being needs are being met is more responsive to planning for their future. Engage with your audience at a time when stress levels are not through the roof and you’ll get a better response.
Providing an immediate incentive for plans, training or meetings completed ahead of schedule can help. Likewise, early-bird incentives can flick the switch needed for our ‘spend now, repent at leisure’ friends.

If we are serious about being responsible businesses and looking after our greatest asset, we need to come up with ways to give people that instant gratification when the actual payoff might not happen until the future. Any education or engagement campaign will need to be well thought out and take time.

Teaching people willpower and patience, and that deferred gratification is just as important as the instant kind, will take longer than many of us dare to imagine.

Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, scientists led by psychobiologist B. J. Casey of Weill Cornell Medical College, August 2011; Desire for Instant Gratification May Be Hard-wired, by Rick Nauert, PhD, senior news editor, Psych Central, September 2011.

Amanda Schaake is an independent communications consultant and award-winning senior communications leader specialising in complex change and employee engagement. Recent clients include Fonterra Cooperative, IAG New Zealand, Allied Irish Bank and Lloyds Banking Group. 
Contact her at amandaschaake@gmail.com

This feature is from HRD Issue 12.07. Download the whole issue to read more.