The Science of Instant Gratification: Why Immediate Feedback Works

This blog post illustrates the psychological basis of instant gratification through immediate feedback in workplace safety, showcases the significant role of feedback in safety performance, and emphasises how Scratchie leverages these principles to enhance safety culture.
July 4, 2023
Nicole Celestine, Ph.D.
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In the heat of a bustling construction site in downtown Melbourne, Tom, a construction worker, was using heavy machinery to lay the foundation of a skyscraper. As he finishes his task, his supervisor applauds him for correctly following the safety protocol.

A smile spreads across his face, not just from the satisfaction of a job well done but also from the immediate recognition of his adherence to safety measures.

This simple yet powerful moment of acknowledgement encapsulates a revolution in the workplace safety landscape—the power of immediate feedback. It's a small reward for a genuine achievement, turning an otherwise mundane safety protocol into a moment of victory for Tom.

But why does this method of acknowledgement work, and how can it make a lasting difference to the overall culture of safety on a worksite?

Understanding Immediate Feedback

At its core, immediate feedback is the instant response or commentary provided to individuals regarding their actions or behaviour. It involves providing real-time reactions or guidance following the demonstration of a particular action, be it positive or negative.

This instant response mechanism has two primary benefits.

Firstly, it reaffirms correct procedures and reinforces the desired behaviours contributing to a safety-conducive work environment. Secondly, it allows for the swift rectification of any incorrect or unsafe practices, preventing the consolidation of potentially hazardous behaviour.

You might picture rules, regulations, or even restrictions when you think of safety. But immediate feedback adds a new dimension to this picture.

Providing real-time commentary on workers' safety behaviours elevates the role of safety from a mere guideline to an interactive, dynamic process that involves continuous learning and adaptation.

In this post, we explore the psychological basis of instant gratification through immediate feedback in workplace safety, highlighting its significance in safety performance and how Scratchie leverages these principles to enhance safety culture.

Why Feedback Leads to Safety Performance: A Look at the Science

It's easy to fall into the trap of thinking of workplace safety as a necessary evil—a dull but vital box that needs to be ticked. Scratchie is reshaping this narrative, with a vision to make safe work a satisfying and rewarding experience for all.

To learn how, let’s take a look at the psychological science of feedback for strengthening safety-conscious performance and work cultures.

Acknowledgement of the Desired Conduct

Feedback is the cornerstone of any learning process, including safety performance. According to the Job Characteristics Model, one critical feature of work contributing to high effectiveness and motivation is the knowledge of results or feedback.

Feedback is critical for helping workers understand how their efforts translate into performance. In this way, it gives workers the knowledge they need to correct their actions if necessary by adopting more effective behaviours.

In the context of safety performance, feedback can make a significant difference.

For example, when workers receive feedback that their actions, such as safely handling heavy materials or wearing personal protective equipment (PPE), are in line with safety protocols, they are more likely to repeat these desired safety behaviours. 

Without feedback, however, workers might not realise the importance of their safe actions, leading to a lack of motivation to repeat these behaviours.

Indeed, we see clear evidence for these arguments in a study examining the role of weekly feedback and goal setting for safety on construction sites. The study demonstrated significant improvements, with safety index scores increasing from 60% to 89% as a result of the weekly observations.

The Dopamine Effect

The brain's reward system is another powerful force that can be harnessed to promote safe behaviour. At the heart of this reward system is dopamine, a neurotransmitter that signals pleasure.

When we receive positive feedback or reward, our brain releases dopamine, creating feelings of satisfaction and pleasure. This dopamine effect encourages us to repeat the actions that led to the reward.

Imagine a construction worker, John, diligently following safety protocols on his worksite. As John completes his tasks safely and receives immediate positive feedback, he experiences a burst of dopamine in his brain.

The rush of pleasure and satisfaction fuels his motivation to continue prioritising safety. Like a joyful symphony, the dopamine effect orchestrates a harmonious cycle, where safety behaviours are rewarded, reinforced, and ultimately become second nature.

Using a reward system like Scratchie, these dopaminergic effects can be systematically leveraged to support workplace safety through positive feedback. This, in turn, reinforces desired safety behaviours and creates an association between safe actions and positive feelings.

Instant Gratification and Safety Culture

Workplace safety hinges on policies and procedures, and cultivating a proactive safety culture. Feedback plays a pivotal role in building this culture.

When workers receive real-time feedback that their safety practices are correct, they are more likely to embed these practices into their routines. This ongoing reinforcement through immediate feedback feeds into a larger overall culture, where safety becomes second nature rather than a chore or afterthought.

To illustrate, consider the example of Alcoa, which dramatically improved its safety record by prioritising safety and providing consistent feedback. The company’s CEO, Paul O'Neill, firmly believed that safety was a precondition, not a priority, as priorities could change, but preconditions were non-negotiable.

O’Neill and his team implemented a system where any safety incident had to be reported to the CEO within 24 hours, with a plan for what to do to ensure its future prevention. This intense focus on safety, combined with immediate feedback and response, led to Alcoa becoming one of the safest companies in the world and increasing its market value by 800%.

An Evolutionary Explanation of Dopamine and Reward

Perhaps you have reservations about the claim that a neurochemical reward such as dopamine can have such a direct and profound impact on our behaviour. However, this truth is deeply rooted in our extensive evolutionary history, tracing back to our animal predecessors.

All organisms with multiple cells are guided by exploratory behavioural systems that drive them to seek out resources essential for survival. These systems prompt behaviours like exploration and investigation. When these behaviours lead to the acquisition of vital resources like food, water, or security—often referred to as primary rewards—dopamine is released.

The behaviour immediately preceding the reward becomes associated with positive anticipation and pleasure—a sense that by doing X, more favourable outcomes will follow. Although modern convenience tends to give us reliable access to the primary rewards that motivate animals, our sophisticated minds enable us to recognise the connection between secondary rewards like money and recognition, and these primary rewards.

For instance, money and the knowledge that our efforts have pleased our superiors allow us to safeguard our wellbeing, have nourishing meals, and experience enjoyable things in life. So while we employ abstracted layers of meaning unlike animals, the process of encoding behaviours through dopamine remains unchanged, thus explaining the power of instant gratification and immediate reward for fostering desired behaviours in the workplace.

Timely vs. Delayed Performance Feedback

Feedback is a powerful tool for shaping behaviour and performance. However, the timing of feedback plays a crucial role in its effectiveness. Immediate feedback is significantly more impactful than delayed feedback for reasons that have to do with our memories and associative systems.

The longer the time gap between an action and the feedback received, the harder it becomes for our brains to connect the feedback with the specific action it relates to. This is especially true in busy and strenuous work environments, such as an active construction site, where workers might need to prioritise and perform dozens of daily tasks.

In contrast, immediate feedback is processed almost in real-time, allowing individuals to associate the feedback with their actions clearly. This rapid feedback-action cycle allows for immediate learning and better behaviour modification.

We see the importance of timeliness supported by a 2009 study, looking at the role of immediate feedback on safety behaviour in a neonatal care unit. The study showed that providing feedback immediately after a series of audits resulted in a significant increase in infection control standards, elevating the median compliance rate from 70% to 95% throughout the unit.

To see the benefits of feedback in any safety-critical industry, therefore, it’s important to recognise that human memory is limited and that timeliness is key.

The Power of Instant Gratification

Immediate feedback also taps into the psychological principle of instant gratification—our inherent desire for immediate reward. This principle is built upon the dopamine reward system in our brains.

When we receive immediate positive feedback or rewards, it triggers the release of dopamine, which generates feelings of pleasure and satisfaction. Simply put, instant fulfilment makes safe behaviour more rewarding and encourages repetition. 

Consider a construction worker who has just completed a task involving specialised equipment. If they've followed all the safety protocols correctly, immediate feedback would involve their supervisor recognising their diligence on the spot.

This immediate recognition reinforces the importance of adhering to safety protocols and provides a dopamine-fuelled reward, encouraging the worker to continue adhering to safety measures in the future.

On the other hand, if feedback is delayed until a later date or a formal review, the worker might not remember the specifics of their actions, making the feedback less relevant and its impact on future safe behaviour much weaker.

Quicker Performance Improvement

Think about traditional annual performance reviews. They’re often stressful for employees, and the feedback, while important, is provided so long after the performance in question that it may no longer be relevant or effective.

On the other hand, immediate feedback offers continual learning and improvement opportunities. Instead of waiting until the end of the year to learn about their performance, employees can adjust their behaviour in real-time, making immediate strides in their performance.

Imagine a construction worker, Sarah, who excels in a rigorous safety training program. She diligently studies, performs exceptionally well in written tests, and showcases impeccable skills during practical assessments.

If Sarah receives immediate positive feedback, such as a personalised note from her trainer or a Scratchie award, it has a profound impact. The dopamine effect kicks in, reinforcing her commitment to safety and motivating her to maintain her stellar performance.

Contrast this to an alternate scenario where Sarah's outstanding performance is acknowledged only during her annual performance review, months after the training program. By that time, the memories and emotions associated with the training have faded, and the impact of the positive feedback is significantly diminished.

While Sarah may appreciate the recognition, it lacks the timely reinforcement needed to fuel her motivation and sustain her excellent safety behaviours. Likewise, this feedback delay misses the opportunity for Sarah to begin applying her positive safety behaviour in practice sooner.

Don’t Delay: Give Better Feedback with Scratchie

The pivotal role of immediate feedback in enhancing safety performance is undeniable. Fortunately, thanks to technology, it’s easy and cost-effective to incorporate a quick feedback strategy.

Enter Scratchie, the innovative app designed to foster a safety culture through positive reinforcement.

Scratchie has harnessed the psychological principles of immediate feedback and instant gratification to create a unique, proactive approach to safety. With Scratchie, supervisors can issue on-the-spot rewards to workers who demonstrate safe behaviours, turning safety into a rewarding, engaging experience rather than an obligation.

In the fast-paced, high-risk construction industry, Scratchie provides an invaluable tool to provide real-time feedback, connecting safe behaviours with immediate rewards. This immediacy ensures safe actions are fresh in workers’ minds, reinforcing the connection between an action and its positive outcome.

Want to improve your worksite’s feedback and safety culture? Join us for our live Procore webinar in early August, and discover the digital solution that’s spreading the science of safety throughout Australia’s construction industry.


What is the Job Characteristics Model? 

The Job Characteristics Model is a work design theory by organisational psychologists Richard Hackman and Greg Oldham. The model posits five core job characteristics that impact workers' motivation, satisfaction, and performance.

These characteristics include skill variety, task identity, task significance, autonomy, and feedback. The model asserts that jobs should be designed to possess these characteristics to a high degree to inspire intrinsic motivation among employees.

The model's underlying mechanism suggests these characteristics influence three critical psychological states—experienced meaningfulness, experienced responsibility for outcomes, and knowledge of results—which affect the employee's job outcomes, including job satisfaction, performance, and absenteeism.

What is the Dopamine Effect? 

The dopamine effect refers to the pleasure and satisfaction signals sent by dopamine, a neurotransmitter in our brain, in response to a positive experience. Dopamine release reinforces the understanding that certain actions are positive and rewarding, which makes an individual more likely to repeat these behaviours.

What is the importance of timing in giving feedback? 

The timing of feedback is important for its effectiveness. Quick feedback allows individuals to clearly associate the feedback with their actions as it's processed in real-time. This enables immediate learning and behaviour modification. 

Delayed feedback, however, may make it harder for individuals to connect feedback with specific actions due to the time gap. For instance, any safety issue raised during an employee's annual review may not have the same impact that it would if raised immediately as the issue is no longer fresh in the employee’s mind.

What is Scratchie, and how does it utilise immediate feedback? 

Scratchie is an innovative app designed to foster a safety culture in the workplace through immediate feedback and positive reinforcement.

The app enables supervisors to issue on-the-spot rewards to workers who demonstrate safe behaviours, turning safety into a shared, enjoyable experience. This helps reinforce safe practices and fosters a safety-conscious culture across an entire team.

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