Recruiting people for services that they don't really need, or even want, but are forced to use, can be a waste of time — and it's especially aggravating when they're trying to collect valuable feedback that their customers have long since moved on from receiving. There's now scientific evidence for this. The news is here, as reported by Popular Science.

Wanted posters for Facebook ads. Image: Shutterstock

In a new study, researchers investigated the feedback loops that the average human experiences after seeking out external benefits. Merely looking for these opportunities is insufficient; we need to expend some effort in search of those avenues of reward, be it frequent flier miles or points on credit cards. Either they open up and reward us, or we regress into isolation and worthless self-gratification.

A total of 254 volunteers were randomly assigned to one of three groups, one that gathered at the beginning of the month (received check-ins, special offers), a control group that was invited to exercise (a fitness goal), and a group that sought social rewards (Facebook invitations). After doing the exercise and social reward quests, each subject was allowed to send a single message to one of his or her contacts. About one-third of the subjects took the chance to post a status update, while the rest simply wrote a single letter or text message to their friends. The message and the accompanying message like or dislike that message, usually dropping all their contact information.

After all the data were analysed, the researchers found that some aspects of feedback were almost always self-regulating. The social circle, more so than the physical demands of exercise, required far less effort. This suggests that social networks and these other external rewards often contain a feedback loop that can be pretty self-reinforcing.

"Because they force us to put more effort in, these rewards are likely to be self-reinforcing," explained co-author Stefanie Powell, an assistant professor at Northwestern University's School of Communication, in an interview with Popular Science. "As long as they are not dominant, people will probably rely more on them than they did before."

In their note, the authors were careful to note that all three groups employed the same procedural control, ie, the subjects were not to post any private messages until the completion of the rewards quest. They also emphasised that all three groups ended up visiting the websites of the Reward Activity Research Network the same amount, suggesting that the nature of the rewards process did not significantly change after the fact.

Even a best-case scenario, in which all of the physical rewards ended up being beneficial — which, in all fairness, would be pretty amazing — might not be a good enough reason to demand them, according to Powell.

"The current economic system is just one of many systems," she said. "Those type of incentives — if they work — might not be the best way to drive change. We'd want to be able to direct those funds to high-social return activities, with clear rationale."

Interestingly, there's quite a bit of resistance to self-interested incentives when they're used well. In their papers, Powell and her co-authors mention that once the prospect of rewards of one kind or another could be explicitly explained to participants, they became far more willing to participate in gratuitous or physical pursuits.

So, hat tip to the scrappy college students who've figured out the best possible way to get their self-serving kicks.

[Popular Science]