What can a globe-trotting neuroscientist with marketing & PM experience do for Airbnb’s community?


Airbnb is looking for someone to relaunch the Rewards Program, because it didn’t work out well. I think I know why - given how our brain reward system works. This is what makes me unique from every other applicant: I have the key solution from a brain-science perspective.

Our previous rewards program may not have had the results we wanted because it focused on extrinsic motivators. As an experienced project manager and Airbnb host who happens to be a neuroscientist, I have some ideas and insights into how a more comprehensive program - that addresses both extrinsic and intrinsic rewards appropriately - can get us the short and long-term benefits that keep top hosts motivated to excel. And I also have some questions I’d like to ask first to get a better understanding.

  • Why did we get rid of the Superhost programme and the Superhost badge?
  • What was the most successful part of the programme we canned
  • What kinds of experiments have we run?
  • How did we collect feedback on those experiments? 
  • What algorithm and analytics did we use to measure hosts’ performance?
  • What’s already in place for Host Awards, Superhost & Host Rewards?


Money, social reputation, desire to win (competition, badge, trophy, recognition from others), and avoidance of punishment (eg. don’t want to receive a bad review) are extrinsic motivations - they have a temporary effect on reward because once the reward is obtained, there is little or no further drive/reason to repeat the behaviour that got us to the reward in the first place.

Intrinsic motivation is driven by enjoyment or interest in the task itself, it comes from within us. Curiosity, sense of belonging, and autonomy are intrinsic; they are critical to our cognitive and social behaviour. Intrinsic motivation does not mean that a person will not seek rewards, rather that such external rewards are not enough to keep a person motivated. Even with the absence of external incentives, we experience “flow,” and these behaviours keep us productive, creative, and feel rewarded long-term. 


Extrinsic motivation involves the green region - attention, memory, and sensory function, while intrinsic motivation involves the yellow region - perception, self-awareness, interpersonal experience, and decision making (including reinforced behaviour).

To apply this to Airbnb, we can design the Host Reward Program based on both types of motivation.


For the extrinsic programme, we can extend the host-ranking system into increments such as: Top Host (bronze), Super Host (silver), Elite Host (gold), and Ultimate Host (diamond) based on their average ratings, number of reviews, consistency, response time, initiative/involvement in local meet-ups, etc. Measure and rate host performance with an algorithm that makes each level competitive yet attainable. Once a new host-rank is achieved, the host would receive online and in-person recognition, travel credit and/or monetary reward.

However, this level-up system alone may not be enough to create long-term effects because monetary rewards, praises, and social recognition are extrinsic motivators. Thus, in order to reinforce the “top host behaviour,” ie. have it reoccur in the future, we also need to map out programs that are based on intrinsic motivation. Two of such programs can be the A) Airbnb Weekly Hangouts, and B) Host-Hosting-Host programme, as starting ideas to build on.

Airbnb Weekly Hangouts


Different from the current meet-ups, these weekly hangouts take place at the same place in town, on the same day of the week, and welcome all locals, travellers, hosts, and friends. There are no limits to topic, no limits to guest list; they are open to everyone. Ask anyone who has attended a couch surfing meeting. I attended one and it was AMAZING - so we need one at Airbnb. Sure, a bed-and-breakfast is a place to relax and stay for the night, not everyone needs company. But for those that feel a bit bored, lonely, or homesick (like I was on my first trip alone and first Airbnb-experience to Rome, Italy), or those that are looking to experience the local place with others, the weekly hangout is the place to be. We would organize these in-person hangouts at a local gem and welcome all to share their stories in this dynamic local community.

The weekly hangouts are the best way to meet new people, find travel buddies to explore with, make friends, and get a safe introduction to your surroundings. It doesn’t matter if you’re a local, an expat, a workaholic trying to get a life, an Airbnb guest who never sees their host, an Airbnb host who hasn’t talked to their guest since check-in, or just someone passing through town at the moment, do not worry about coming alone because that’s what this is all about! One thing I learned from backpacking solo is that if you’re alone, you’re rarely alone.

Initially we can reach out to Country Managers, Superhosts, and current meet-up organizers to create these weekly hangouts. Any Airbnb host can also take the initiative to oversee upcoming hangouts and create other local events. Not only would they get recognized for their proactivity but also feel rewarded themselves for creating a community. Sense of belongingness is what drives us beyond monetary benefits and makes strong interpersonal connections and communities.  

Host-Hosting-Host programme: where hosts can host each other locally. 




When I tell my friends about my Airbnb hosting experience, most of them are interested in the idea but are doubtful (besides the idea of with having strangers in their house and using their stuff) because they don’t have another place to stay. 

A Host-Hosting-Host program promotes hosts to host each other, therefore:

  • encourages people to try hosting on Airbnb
  • makes hosts better (by learning from other hosts)
  • creates a community

Hosts can host each other for exchange:

  • for free (some things like friendship are priceless)
  • for credit (to travel on Airbnb)
  • for assistance (cleaning, delivering keys, etc.)
  • for gifts (paintings, hand-made furniture)

Airbnb is a community of life-loving people. Some hosts do it just for the money, some hosts do it for more than that - because they love it! Awards and recognition alone create short-term incentive for hosts to get the reward, in order to reinforce this positive motivational behaviour to repeat in the long-run we should strengthen the reward by creating these community-focused programs that bring out the intrinsic motivation in people.  

People do nice things to others to gain a good reputation or social approval just like they work for salary. For those that love what they do for a job, career or living, they are not working for just the salary but also for intrinsic rewards - for the love of it, because it makes them happy from the inside. It may sound warm and fuzzy but it’s actually brain science.

These are just some of my ideas of how to apply my skills toward enriching the Airbnb community while continuing to improve the experience for guests & hosts. If I were to manage the Airbnb Host Rewards Program, (I would feel deeply rewarded on a daily basis,) rewards would not only flourish amongst hosts but also bloom across the entire Airbnb community.


I am extremely interested in this position and my friends already call me the Airbnb ambassador! I hope you seriously consider hosting my professional career and let’s meet soon to share some crazy travel stories, with the puppies, in The Paris room. 

Please feel free to check out my:


Anna Li

People were created to be loved.
Things were created to be used.
The reason why the world is in chaos
is because things are being loved
and people are being used.

Hot water, wifi, clean bed. The luxurious necessities of most modern backpacker. When these were stripped away from my daily life, I instantly felt the need to get out of there - this remote village in Sri Lanka. There was a storm outside. The beach was wet, the air was muggy and stinky. There were no people on the street. No foreigners, no locals. The mosquitoes loved me, the cockroaches greeted me too.

The hotel owner was not only a good salesman, but also a good lier. But I do understand that he has a quota to meet and a quality-of-life standard to meet. I still thought though life is too short and this trip is too short for me to spend a mediocre time here. If I can get something better, then why stay with this one?

I was not satisfied. I had some standards, wants, and needs are they were not being met there. But even when they being were met while I was elsewhere in the world before/during/after my travels, I had a new set of standards, wants, and needs. 

Sure, in the beginning when I returned to “civilization,” I would exclaim over toilet paper availability and functional electric fans. But in time I would move on to a new place and things would change again. People’s time is limited to some extent, certain people travel for a short time and others long or longer, some stay and work or even settle down. I think if I would stay somewhere, the question of satisfaction will still eventually become a mystery again. 

The apartment I grew up in didn’t have hot water or wifi, then we moved to Canada and had hot water, and wifi came later. We got our first car, a better apartment, then a house. Soon we switched to a better car and a better house. I got a better education, my parents got better jobs, I got a job, then a better job; we have better clothes, better vacations, better lives. It won’t stop. 

To travel is to live life, to meet people, to learn about other cultures, to try new things, and much more (and much different depending on values, priorities, and other factors). The budget travellers figure out very soon what their baseline limit is. Are you willing to sleep on the ground in the engine room of a boat, or even on the street on your stuff? Are you willing to try local food, or eat the cheapest instant noodles all week, or not to eat at all because you just lost everything?

On the other hand, given that the basic sleeping and eating needs are met, how much more are you willing to pay for a better room, better food, better adventures, a better experience? 

Life encourages and praises improvement, time moves forward and growing up is what we do all life long. There are quotes and books that tell us to appreciate the small things in life, to be satisfied with what you have already, and to know “less is more.” So it’s an adventure to find the balance. It’s almost like a computer-adaptive exam, when you do well and have more, life gives you more challenges and sacrifices; when you realize this is making you unhappy and is not worth the time in your life, move on and do something that is worthy to you. Once the balance is found, the bar will change itself again.

Lost and found. Found and lost. Repeat. Travel is a journey. Life is a journey. It’ll always sort itself out in the end, so enjoy the ride.

Chinatown in Manhattan, NYC. February 1, 2014

After visiting Brooklyn bridge, we were in need of warm food - so we ate dinner at Xi’an Famous Foods and tried their stewed pork burger, spicy cumin lamb burger, and spicy & tingly beef hand-ripped noodles - everything was delicious and I highly recommend this place.

There were fire crackers and confetti poppers everywhere on the floor due to Chinese New Year spirit - definitely a great atmosphere! 

Happy Chinese New Year :)

Your blog is glorious. Love all of the beautiful photos from around Alberta. Where are you from?

Asked by adventuretoanywhere

Thank you for such a lovely comment! I lived in Calgary for about 6 months and explored some parts of Alberta - very beautiful! I’m from Toronto/Montreal :)