Recognition is like Sex and French Fries?

I wrote this blog in an airport, at the end of a six-day trip that included one crazy cabbie, one blizzard and two hotels that cancelled room service since its staff was snowbound. I opened a bottle of wine with a pair of tweezers and an ink pen. If you run a national peer-to-peer fundraising program, you’ve been there. So forgive me when I say, let’s talk about sex, baby. (I imagine myself dancing, and dancing well, with Salt N Pepa in the background. Clearly, I have overdosed on airport french fries.)

In the 1984 film “Places in the Heart,” actress Sally Field portrays a 1930s southern widow trying to keep her farm out of foreclosure, a role that won her the Academy Award for best actress. Her acceptance speech was particularly heartfelt and revealing when she famously exclaimed, “I can’t deny the fact that you like me, right now, you like me.”

Many think that actors are somehow more motivated than other people to seek out recognition. But actors are no different from anyone else—we are all driven by the desire to be liked by others. In fact, feedback from others that tells us that we are liked, admired and valued is central to our well-being.

We have evolved to find recognition highly rewarding; it is baked right into our DNA. Why is this so? Let’s ask Otis Fulton, Turnkey’s resident expert on human behavior:

“A simple analogy is with sex. Sex has evolved to be pleasurable [rewarding] because the people who were more inclined to have sex were the ones who passed on their genes. The same is true with sociability and recognition.

“To our ancestors living on the African Savanna, knowing how you stood in the eyes of your group members was literally a life or death matter. Being recognized by your social group meant that in times of scarcity, the group was more likely to share its resources with you. People who were more socially adept and responsive to recognition were more likely to survive and pass along their DNA. And just as sex became pleasurable through evolutionary pressure, over the generations receiving recognition became something that was pleasurable as well.”

Only in the last decade, since the ability to perform brain scans has become more widely available, have we come to understand the degree to which our brains are hardwired to respond to positive recognition from others.

UCLA’s Dr. Matthew Lieberman is one of the world’s foremost authorities in the field of social neuroscience. He describes how feedback from our social groups—social rewards—activates the reward system of the brain.

“Just as social and physical pain share common neurocognitive processes, so too do physical and social rewards share common neurocognitive processes,” he said in his book, “Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect.”

In a recent study, subjects, while lying in a functional MRI scanner, read messages their friends, families and significant others wrote to them. When the subjects read statements that conveyed positive emotional feelings toward them (e.g., “you seem to care for me as much as you care for yourself”), the brain’s reward system was strongly activated. It turns out that this is the same reward pathway that is activated when one eats a favorite food.

Although there are certainly a lot of differences between receiving a kind note from your friend and eating a favorite meal, this tells us just how central this type of recognition is to our brains.

Sex, recognition and french fries–neurocognitive triplets. Who knew?

For information about how almost-as-pleasurable-as-sex recognition affects fundraising, read the 2016 Turnkey Benchmark Study on Peer-to-Peer Fundraiser Recognition.