Who does your dopamine work for?

(This is from Edition 13 of The Upleveler, our weekly smartletter)


What's common to...

  • Checking Facebook or Instagram to see if you have any new 'likes' 

  • Looking for and finding a little bit of chocolate in the refrigerator

  • Receiving praise for a kind act

  • Playing Candy Crush and finally nailing that level

Apparently, all of these are connected with a neurotransmitter named 'dopamine'. A neurotransmitter is a chemical sent from one neuron to another - it's often likened to being a biochemical postman, transmitting information.

Among other things, dopamine is connected with the way we experience motivation and reward, and what we pay attention to. Do something that makes you feel good, and dopamine is sent out as a sign that this felt good. Stumble upon something unexpected and the resulting dopamine rush signals that this is something you'd like more of. (This is a bit of a simplification since this is due to a mass of interconnected neurological, biochemical, and psychological systems.)

Businesses know this.

As you'd expect, there are people and companies that exploit this in us, especially our love of surprise. Scratch cards, gifts inside packets of snacks, a notification that tells us we have three new messages waiting for us, a TV debate that confirms our beloved political positions - all of these hold out the promise of reward and motivate us to keep coming back for more. 

In some cases, our expectations are thwarted. We don't always get the reward. If we did so each time, we'd get used to it and the dopamine hits would probably disappear. Unpredictability is the key factor here. So companies behind apps, who would like to make you come back, end up designing for this.

While once we evolved to reward our brains when we found unexpected bounties of fruit or found a promising mate, today, that mechanism keeps us chasing little rewards in pointless games, succumbing to discounts on unhealthy food, in enjoying rumours and conspiracies, and in the self-praise of the social media treadmill.

What can you do?

Fighting your urges is hard work. Giving in to temptation doesn't make us bad people. The truth is that we were not really built for a world like this! But it's a good idea to recognise that this is happening, and that people are out there trying to pick-pocket our attention and time. It all adds up to reduce the probability that we will achieve great-but-hard things that will ultimately give us satisfaction. 

So here are five things you can do to wrest a little bit of control away from the dopamine dopes:

  1. Dopamine isn't bad. It's associated with lots of positive things such as learning new things, social interaction, physical attraction and so on. Design your world to get your dopamine rush from the right actions. For instance, from a gamified learning app like Duolingo.

  2. Do a 'reward' audit: what are the things in your environment that give you a rush? Do they command a high degree of your attention? Are they the ones you want? Start with the stuff on your phone. (There are tools that can actually do this for you.)

  3. It's hard to recognise these things in ourselves. Team up with others and watch each others' 'dopamine' backs.

  4. Learn to spot the tricks used by businesses. If you find yourself doing actions and waiting for rewards that don't come every time, you might be getting 'played'. Go with the ones that seem to be hacking you so that enable you to uplevel.

  5. Build a habit of deliberate reflection. Find a system that lets you regularly ask questions about your environment (we've built something like this called Pause at Yellow).

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