William Liao

November 21, 2021

Prediction error and delight

There’s a concept in neuroscience called “reward prediction error” that describes a phenomenon where dopamine — a neurotransmitter that plays a role in how we experience pleasure — is increased when a reward exceeds expectations, stays at baseline when rewards meet expectations, and is depressed when rewards fall below expectations. 

In layman’s terms: 

The more something exceeds expectations, the more pleasure we experience. 

The more something falls below expectations, the less pleasure we experience. 

It turns out that there’s a solid neuroscientific basis for the adage “underpromise, overdeliver.” 

It’s better to overestimate when a product will be delivered — in that way, the product which will likely be delivered sooner yields a positive experience. 

It’s better to slightly underestimate your sales targets — in that way, the numbers you hit that likely will exceed your original targets will yield a positive experience. 

Awareness of this phenomenon can be instructive for whomever we engage, whether it be with colleagues, business partners, or customers. 

When you optimize for prediction error in the right direction, you potentiate delight.