Sex and French Fries
I am writing 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.
Otis Fulton, Ph.D., spent most of his career in the education industry, working at the psychometric research and development firm MetaMetrics Inc., Pearson Education and others. Since 2013, he has focused on the nonprofit sector, applying psychology to fundraising and donor behavior at Turnkey. He is the co-author of the 2017 book, ”Dollar Dash: The Behavioral Economics of Peer-to-Peer Fundraising,” and the 2023 book, "Social Fundraising: Mining the New Peer-to-Peer Landscape," and is a frequent speaker at national nonprofit conferences. With Katrina VanHuss, he co-authors a blog at NonProfit PRO, “Peeling the Onion,” on the intersection of psychology and philanthropy.
Otis is a much sought-after copywriter for nonprofit fundraising messages. He has written campaigns for UNICEF, St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital, March of Dimes, Susan G. Komen, the USO and dozens of other organizations. He has a Ph.D. in social psychology from Virginia Commonwealth University and a Bachelor of Arts from the University of Virginia, where he also played on UVA’s first ACC champion basketball team.
Katrina VanHuss has helped national nonprofits raise funds and friends since 1989 when she founded Turnkey. Her client’s successes and her dedication to research have made her a sought-after speaker, presenting at national conferences for Blackbaud, Peer to Peer Professional Forum, Nonprofit PRO, The Need Help Foundation and her clients’ national meetings. The firm’s work is underpinned by the study and application of behavioral economics and social psychology. Turnkey provides project engagements, coaching, counsel and staffing to nonprofits seeking to improve revenue or create new revenue. Her work extends into organizational alignment efforts and executive coaching.
Katrina regularly shares her wit and business experiences on her and Otis Fulton's NonProfit PRO blog “Peeling the Onion.” She and Otis are also co-authors of the books, "Dollar Dash: The Behavioral Economics of Peer-to-Peer Fundraising" and "Social Fundraising: Mining the New Peer-to-Peer Landscape." When not writing or researching, Katrina likes to make things — furniture from reclaimed wood, new gardens, food with no recipe. Katrina’s favorite Saturday is spent cleaning out the garage, mowing the grass, making something new, all while listening to loud music by now-deceased black women, throwing in a few sets on the weight bench off and on, then collapsing on the couch with her husband Otis to gang-watch new Netflix series whilst drinking sauvignon blanc.
Katrina grew up on a Virginia beef cattle and tobacco farm with her three brothers. She is accordingly skilled in hand to hand combat and witty repartee — skills gained at the expense of her brothers. Katrina’s claim to fame is having made it to the “American Gladiator” Richmond competition as a finalist in her late 20s, progressing in the competition until a strangely large blonde woman knocked her off a pedestal with an oversized pain-inducing Q-tip. Katrina’s mantra for life is “Be nice. Do good. Embrace embarrassment.” Clearly she’s got No. 3 down.