The Brain Game

How credit unions can use biology, psychology, and game theory to modify member behaviors for the better.

Do you perk up at the thought of that first cup of morning coffee? Do your palms get sweaty around a Blackjack table or a video game controller? Do you ever let your credit card run wild and free at your favorite retailer or plant your butt on the couch for an epic Netflix marathon even though you have other things you should be doing instead? If you’re not guilty of one of the above, then surely there are other addictive behaviors you can identify with.

And as diverse as these various activities may seem, in reality, we’re all chasing the same thing: dopamine.

According to The Dana Foundation, a philanthropic organization devoted to supporting brain research, dopamine is just one of several neurotransmitters that help our brain prepare for and interpret different stimulus and manage different activities throughout the body. But in most cases, whenever you’re feeling overcome with fun, satisfaction, love, or any other emotional reward, it’s dopamine pulling the strings to make you feel that way.


One of the primary areas where dopamine comes into play in the business world is through the concept of gamification, i.e., using game principles to trigger additional enjoyment during non-game activities, such as paying a bill or balancing your checkbook.

According to a website created by game designer Marc MAHK LeBlanc,all games and by extension all gamification strategies fall into one of eight different categories.

They Are:

  • Sensation: Game as sense-pleasure
  • Fantasy: Game as make-believe
  • Narrative: Game as drama
  • Challenge: Game as obstacle course
  • Fellowship: Game as social framework
  • Discovery: Game as uncharted territory
  • Expression: Game as self-discovery
  • Submission: Game as pastime

Not all rewards are created equal, nor can the same rewards be used over and over again indefinitely without some kind of adaptation.

Mobile smartphones and PCs are often considered the frontier environment for gamification due to their status as the most common social gaming device consumers own.

Yet for credit unions, these ideas needn’t be constrained to the virtual world alone.

Take for example the concept of prize-linked savings, where credit union members receive raffle tickets for the chance to win a large cash payout just by depositing funds into their savings account or another other savings product rather than spendingthem.

This idea effectively replaces the financially unhealthy behavior of playing the lottery with a financially positive alternative, while still maintaining the gamified concepts that attracted participants in the first place:

  • Fantasy (thanking about what you could do with the money won)
  • Fellowship (being part of a larger narrative with other players)
  • Submission (playing as a sort of ritual you do time and time again).

Another real word example from outside the cooperative industry is Uber. In fact, few businesses have better mastered the Discovery component of gamification than this rideshare and personal transportation company, which frequently surprises its customerswith boons both practical (free roses for some riders on Valentine’s day) and spectacular (celebrity drivers).

You Can’t Catch Mice With Moldy Cheese

If the goal of credit union gamification is to influence members toward more positive financial behaviors, it’s also important to note that not all rewards are created equal, nor can the same rewards be used over and over again indefinitely withoutsome kind of adaptation.

At this year’s CO-OP THINK 15 conference in Colorado Springs, Nir Eyal, author of the book Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products advised attendees that many times, it is not the reward itself, but our the anticipation of it (whathe calls the stress of desire) that is the most powerful component of addictive behaviors.

Eyal added that anticipation for an unknown reward is always greater than a known one, which helps explain why some games or rewards that hook you at first can become less stimulating with repetition. In essence, unpredictability is the only way to keeppeople engaged in a reward-for-behavior arrangement long term.

Like it or not, you’re already playing the game. The real question is are you playing to win?

Take for example the strategy that some financial institutions now offer where card purchases are rounded up to the next dollar and the resulting change is added to your saving account. According to these theories, one option to make this offering evenbetter would be for the financial institution to randomly match these savings on occasion in order to create an additional emotional boost.

Another potential pitfall that can occur is when a reward comes too long after the act that is supposed to trigger it, a phenomenon psychologists attribute to delay discounting. Simply put, delay discounting is the reason why a shopping splurge todayoften feels more gratifying than socking away funds in a 401K, even though the latter is much more beneficial in the long run.

Translated over to the credit union world, this means that a small yet immediate reward would likely be more impactful in shaping behavior than something like a membership dividend, which participants must wait until a certain period to receive.

Regardless of whether you consider gamification a priority for your credit union or not, it is important to understand its underlying principals as well as the fact that these are likely already present in many different areas of your business, masqueradingunder other names such as engagement or retention strategy, guerilla marketing, or surprise and delight campaigns.

Like it or not, you’re already playing the game. The real question is … are you playing to win?

July 13, 2015

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