100 Things You Should Know About People: #8 — Dopamine Makes You Addicted To Seeking Information

iphone with text message
Does the unpredictability of a text message trigger dopamine release?

Do you ever feel like you are addicted to email or twitter or texting? Do you find it impossible to ignore your email if you see that there are messages in your inbox? Have you ever gone to Google to look up some information and 30 minutes later you realize that you’ve been reading and linking, and searching around for a long time, and you are now searching for something totally different than before? These are all examples of your dopamine system at work.

Enter dopamine — Neuro scientists have been studying what they call the dopamine system for a while. Dopamine was “discovered” in 1958 by Arvid Carlsson and Nils-Ake Hillarp at the National Heart Institute of Sweden. Dopamine is created in various parts of the brain and is critical in all sorts of brain functions, including thinking, moving, sleeping, mood, attention, and motivation, seeking and reward.

The myth — You may have heard that dopamine controls the “pleasure” systems of the brain: that dopamine makes you feel enjoyment, pleasure, and therefore motivates you to seek out certain behaviors, such as food, sex, and drugs.

It’s all about seeking — The latest research, though is changing this view. Instead of dopamine causing us to experience pleasure, the latest research shows that dopamine causes seeking behavior. Dopamine causes us to want, desire, seek out, and search. It increases our general level of arousal and our goal-directed behavior. (From an evolutionary stand-point this is critical. The dopamine seeking system keeps us motivated to move through our world, learn, and survive). It’s not just about physical needs such as food, or sex, but also about abstract concepts. Dopamine makes us curious about ideas and fuels our searching for information. The latest research shows that it is the opioid system (separate from dopamine) that makes us feel pleasure.

Wanting vs. liking — According to Kent Berridge, these two systems, the “wanting” (dopamine) and the “liking” (opioid) are complementary. The wanting system propels us to action and the liking system makes us feel satisfied and therefore pause our seeking. If our seeking isn’t turned off at least for a little while, then we start to run in an endless loop. The latest research shows that the dopamine system is stronger than the opioid system. We seek more than we are satisfied (back to evolution… seeking is more likely to keep us alive than sitting around in a satisfied stupor).

A dopamine induced loop — With the internet, twitter, and texting we now have almost instant gratification of our desire to seek. Want to talk to someone right away? Send a text and they respond in a few seconds. Want to look up some information? Just type it into google. What to see what your friends are up to? Go to twitter or facebook. We get into a dopamine induced loop… dopamine starts us seeking, then we get rewarded for the seeking which makes us seek more. It becomes harder and harder to stop looking at email, stop texting, stop checking our cell phones to see if we have a message or a new text.

Anticipation is better than getting — Brain scan research shows that our brains show more stimulation and activity when we ANTICIPATE a reward than when we get one. Research on rats shows that if you destroy dopamine neurons, rats can walk, chew, and swallow, but will starve to death even when food is right next to them. They have lost the desire to go get the food.

More, more, more — Although wanting and liking are related, research also shows that the dopamine system doesn’t have satiety built in. It is possible for the dopamine system to keep saying “more more more”,  seeking even when we have found the information. During that google exploration we know that we have the answer to the question we originally asked, and yet we find ourselves looking for more information and more and more.

Unpredictable is the key — Dopamine is also stimulated by unpredictability. When something happens that is not exactly predictable, that stimulates the dopamine system. Think about these electronic gadgets and devices. Our emails and twitters and texts show up, but we don’t know exactly when they will or who they will be from. It’s unpredictable. This is exactly what stimulates the dopamine system. It’s the same system at work for gambling and slot machines. (For those of you reading this who are “old school” psychologists, you may remember “variable reinforcement schedules”. Dopamine is involved in variable reinforcement schedules. This is why these are so powerful).

When you hear the “ding” that you have a text — The dopamine system is especially sensitive to “cues” that a reward is coming. If there is a small, specific cue that signifies that something is going to happen, that sets off our dopamine system. So when there is a sound when a text message or email arrives, or a visual cue, that enhances the addictive effect (for the psychologists out there: remember Pavlov).

140 characters is even more addictive — And the dopamine system is most powerfully stimulated when the information coming in is small so that it doesn’t full satisfy. A short text or twitter (can only be 140 characters!) is ideally suited to send our dopamine system raging.

Not without costs — This constant stimulation of the dopamine system can be exhausting. We are getting caught in an endless dopamine loop.

Write a comment and share whether you get caught in these dopamine loops and whether you think we should use what we know about these systems to create devices and websites that stimulate them.

And for those of you who like research:

Kent C. Berridge and Terry E. Robinson, What is the role of dopamine in reward: hedonic impact, reward learning, or incentive salience?: Brain Research Reviews, 28, 1998. 309–369.


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178 Replies to “100 Things You Should Know About People: #8 — Dopamine Makes You Addicted To Seeking Information”

  1. Thanks Susan, I got so much out of reading this. Made myself a page of notes and thoughts almost as long as your post! And it was definitely my dopamine system that drove me to your page.

  2. “According to Kent Berridge, these two systems, the “wanting” (dopamine) and the “liking” (opoid) are complimentary”

    Didn’t you mean ‘complementary’? Or do you get these two systems for free with a purchase of another system? :)

  3. M — Thanks … Great catch. (I’ve fixed it now)… I kind of like your definition of how they could be complimentary!

  4. Absolutely fascinating.

    Makes a lot of sense, and it excites me to see how a previous model (dopamine causes pleasure) can still work but be wrong when presented with new information. I figure this sort of thing reaches out with math, science, physics (especially physics), what we know about other people, what we know about our relationships, etc.

    And I’m sure getting the e-mail saying you have a comment on your blog has stirred your dopamine system ;-)

  5. Thanks for writing in Dawn. I think there are a lot of people who feel the way you do. I guess I’d better write the blog on how to change habits soon… because that is what you have to do to break the dopamine loop. I’ll work on it for an upcoming post soon!

  6. “Research on rats shows that if you destroy dopamine neurons, rats can walk, chew, and swallow, but will starve to death even when food is right next to them. They have lost the desire to go get the food.”

    Can you please share with me the citation? I’m having a hard time buying this.

  7. I used several sources of information for the article, but I think that Kent Berridge has done a lot of the recent work in this field. I would check out the article I reference in the post, or else search for his research on Google. He’s done a lot of studies on dopamine and rats.

  8. Nice post! Thanks for the walk down psych. memory lane for me. My first thought was of good ol’ Pavlov and of course Skinner. Specifically, I was reminded of the Variable Ratio schedule because of how powerfully it drives responses and resists extinction. Gambling is the most often cited example, but many Internet activities may be analogous.

    This also reminded me of a great slate article by Emily Yoffe on the same topic. It’s well worth a read.

    Prasanna: Yoffe’s article cites as the Berridge paper for the “…rats whose dopamine neurons have been destroyed…” studies.

  9. Sorry. I didn’t realize my URLs would be stripped. My comment read strangely now. :)

    The Emily Yoffe article is easily found by Googling “‘Emily Yoffe’ Slate Berridge” exactly as shown in the quotes.

    The Berridge citation I mentioned is in the second sentence of the thirteenth paragraph of Yoffe’s article.

  10. Fabulous! This has rejuvenated my love of biological psychology. Shared it on Twitter, in about 8 different Tweets. Still waiting for the replies to come in ::::tap tap tapping my fingers::::


  11. Fascinating. So this generation will have a different brain chemistry than any other generation before. I wonder how this will change human behavior? Are there any studies that show what happens when animals are kept in a dopamine group permanently?

  12. Many thanks for this post. loved it.

    so glad that after a year, I finally started using twitter in 08, as otherwise, I would have never come across gem blog/posts like yours.

    It also explains the ‘mechanism’ of why we love mystery box like JJAbrams explains!?


    definitely a lot of food for thought.. now how do we ‘apply’ that into the business.. that would be an interesting artform.



  13. Never heard of you before Susan, but I’m gonna subscribe to your rss now. I’m seeking more of your mind!



    1. A lot of research shows that consciousness may in fact just be an illusion along with free will. I wouldn’t use something we can’t measure (like consciousness) as a scientific argument for how something works, that’s more philosophy than psychology…. No one knows if concepts like consciousness and the feeling of self are even linked, because one of those factors is doubted to exist.

  14. Loved this article, thank you. I think of Rachel about if this chemistry change will have some effect in future human behaviours.
    I fear I may be addicted to Twitter (to me it’s now the most useful source of professional info as well as networking. The day I don’t connect or tweet I feel something is missing ;)

  15. Thanks for the brilliant post!

    The human desire to explore unpredictable circumstances and seek new information is powerful!

    In my opinion, it’s the root cause of the complicated behavioral phenomena known as distracted driving.

    My name is Matt Howard and i am the founder of a company called ZoomSafer. We’re the leading provider of innovative software solutions to ensure safe and legal use of mobile phones while driving. Uniquely designed for today’s highly mobile, hyper-connected, and dopamine-driven society, ZoomSafer offers practical and affordable solutions that prevent distracted driving for consumers, corporations, and government organizations.

    In other words, we automatically detect when you’re driving and we apply a policy to your phone that suppress alerts, minimize distractions, and protect you from your own dopamine.

    Help prevent distracted driving. Check it out for FREE at http://www.zoomsafer.com

    1. Matt-

      Your dopamine system drove you to try to make money off of this article. And you didn’t even know it!

  16. It’s more the pathways/systems within the brain that rely on dopamine as a neurotransmitter than it is the dopamine itself. Dopamine is also used as neurotransmitter outside of these feedback systems.
    It’s the wiring pattern more than it is the electrons that matters.

  17. Interesting Susan.

    I just finished Jonah Lehrer’s book “How We Decide”.

    He says: “Dopamine is the reward your brain delivers to the pleasure receptors in your brain when you make a correct decision. Over time it trains your brain, and creates shortcuts. The purpose of dopamine neurons is to predict future events. Unpredictable events deliver 3 to 4 times the dopamine.”

    Do you agree with his definition?

    1. I really like that interpretation of the data. Those addicted to drugs often recall the initial high that keeps calling them back to using. This is likely that first punch in the face of dopamine. The same punch in the face that drives Homo Sapiens to seek information based on what was previously beneficial. Can’t wait to check out the book. Thanks Sheldon.

      1. I wouldn’t use drugs as an example, the same things happens when addicted to anything. Exercise, food, alcohol and drugs alike, however, somethings cause a chemical dependency (Some drugs), in which if you stop taking them you get sick and can possible die. Two very different types of addiction.

  18. Thanks for writing in Sheldon. Jonah Lehrer’s book is one of my favorites. I think that what Jonah says about dopamine is kind of correct. I believe that the latest research shows that dopamine is more complicated than we think. And after reading some of the research articles I’m convinced that the seeking behavior that it causes is probably some of the most significant effects of dopamine.

  19. Fascinating.

    I’ve been designing technology for 30 years since my Psychology degree and only recently realised how fundamentally that background informs the way I approach design and what I value in it.

    I found myself explaining the lure of social media to a friend (of my own generation) only this week and resorting to that little lift (or drop) we all get when we broach our inbox (according to whether it’s brimming or empty) as the best pointer

    The effect on my kids generation is clearly even more pronounced by a couple of orders of magnitude. Twitter, Facebook – and whatever comes next – now ARE the mainstream and starting to fulfil the potential for change that everyone got so excited about in the run up to the Internet bubble – and then lost interest when it burst. This only hid the change and delayed it a bit. Global recessionary forces are changing that. Those who understand these drives (intuitively and academically) will shape not just the web or the Internet but the future of human society and civilization.

  20. This article was riveting but you lost major points by giving every symptom BUT NO RELIEF. I am in a desperate dopamine loop and want to stop but can’t seem to do it. Why on earth would you leave us hanging. FINISH the story by offering some assistance for the rats who would very much like to stop drooling and seeking and seeking and drooling

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  22. Isn’t the writing of these comments also tied in to the dopamine system? “Will I get a response? Will I get a response?…”

    1. But Chris, you too wrote due to your dopamine system. Don’t respond or mine will and we’ll be caught in an infinite regress of dopaminergic warfare.

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  25. Fascinating read–delighted to find this website (linked from an MSNBC Red Tape article).

    This puts my instinctive revulsion of Twitter in a new light and may explain why my cell phone is usually off (I only carry it for emergencies) and why I *usually* avoid blogs.

    Or maybe I’m just a hardcore Luddite. ;-)

  26. Hi Susan,

    I was delighted to find your article. I’m preparing research into a phenomenon known as ‘website stickiness’ and examining the methods employed by successful websites to keep their users stimulated and engaged for increasingly long durations – the social networks have this down as a fine art! It’s great to see someone like yourself covering this topic from a neuro-scientific perspective – I have ordered a copy of your book on Amazon and look forward to reading it.


  27. Great article! Have you written any articles advising about how to get out of the dopamine loop/spend time on the internet more productively? Now I have recognised that some of my internet habits are not very healthy/time-wise, I want to improve the way I use my time online.

  28. Hi Karen,

    Thanks for writing in. You asked if I’ve written any posts about how to break a dopamine loop. I haven’t written that specifically, although this post about not multi-tasking: http://www.whatmakesthemclick.net/2009/11/04/7-strategies-to-replace-multi-tasking/ has relevant information. What you need to do is break the loop, which means going “cold turkey” sometimes… i.e., spend some time every day with the computer and cell phone and other devices totally turned OFF and in another room. Or they are inside and you go outside. If you spend a few hours a day totally offline that should help break the loop.


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  30. Hey, Susan!

    I’m very interested in this research: do you know if there is quantitative data available on the reinforcement and reward systems as a function of schedule, experience, etc.? I want to build me some (wildly approximate) models for prediction purposes, and I’m only equipped with what I got from my two psych classes on the topic, which are more qualitative.


  31. Ayurveda, the several thousand year old system of medicine from India, has many suggestions on how to re-sync our physiology and psychology to the rhythms of nature. This, plus meditation and yoga, allows us to find the source of happiness deep within and unhook from the cycle of seeking.

  32. This aamazing post..thans for sharing thes cool stuff…Compulsions means the powerlessness to stop actions like shopping and gambling. extravagant surfing can spark Information Overload.

  33. You wanted to know how to fix it. Since 1987 Neu-Becalm’d has been doing just that, repairing brain chemistry through precursor loading. Providing the brain enough raw materials to keep up with the demand from this overstimulation.

  34. Thank you for sharing brilliant ideas. 100 you should know about people! Dopamine make you addicted in seeking information and ideas. Nice post.

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  41. Knowledge is power. Dopamine is maybe one of the things that drives me to paint and paint some more.
    It would be something to get buyers to be addicted
    to Dopamine to buy art.

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  43. This is how I lose whole days. In a row. And can’t sleep at night. I was going to get offline until I saw this article, and I just HAD to read it. My reward is that I now know that my internet addiction is an addiction to the Dope.

  44. very facinating….
    how does endorphin play in this?
    I thought endorphine is the brain chemical that makes u happy.

  45. When developing professional athletes we utilise this dopamine stimulation and reward seeking process to create sustained momentum.

    This practice can be both profound for the athlete and yet precarious to manage. Athletes are hungry for continouse stimulation and are constantly pushing their boundaries, by working with them to design their rewards and for them to almost taste it keeps the brain seeking.


  46. We are currently finding how easy it is to become caught up in the dopamine cycle when on Pinterest! Many of us who lose time when on Pinterest agree with your article.

  47. can u give me the data of how this research was carried out? the method used for study? or is it just an asumption?

  48. Vishal,

    I suggest you check out Berridge’s work. I gave a reference in the article. You can read at his website about the research he did.

  49. Hi,

    I am going to be a dissenting voice. I think Kent Berridge is on the wrong track.

    He is almost certainly correct in believing “liking” and “wanting” to be distinct feelings. But as the link given by Andreas above points out, there remain unanswered questions about “wanting”. Why would information gathering lead to wanting? And if dopamine causes wanting, how does this wanting motivate?

    Interestingly, the experimental results can be interpreted just as successfully in another way. Kent Berridge assumes that fixed concentrations of dopamine are responsible for certain feelings. If instead we imagine that changes in dopamine concentration are responsible, we arrive at a more satisfying model. According to this model rises in dopamine levels cause pleasant or pleasurable feelings; falls cause unpleasant or painful feelings.

    If you smell some great aroma from a bakery, at first your dopamine levels go up and then, as must be, they come down again. When your dopamine rises, you feel a pleasant sensation which we call “liking”. When it falls, you feel a slightly unpleasant sensation which we call “wanting”. Together the liking and the wanting make you go into the shop and buy some pastry.

    One plus for this hypothesis is that it explains how wanting motivates. A “want” is proposed to be an unpleasant feeling, a pain. When we have a pain, we are motivated to do things to get rid of the pain.

    If it seems unlikely that a want is a pain, think again. If you want something very badly, it becomes a longing – which is without doubt a painful feeling. And if you have a headache, you also have a want. You want the headache to stop.

    The model also gives a clue as to how our feelings are regulated. This is because it is a dynamic model – that is, involving change. (In contrast Berridge´s model is static.) So it is easy to imagine how changes in dopamine levels result in changes in the intensity of our feelings.

    But there isn´t enough space to discuss this in depth here. Have a look instead at “Is Kent Berridge wrong?” on my blog http://philipludikar.com/the-guess-worker.

  50. I don’t drop a great deal of responses, but I looked at a bunch of comments on 100 Things You Should Know About People: #8 – Dopamine Makes You Addicted To Seeking Information | Weinschenk Institute, LLC. I do have some questions for you if you do not mind. Could it be just me or do some of the comments look as if they are coming from brain dead people? :-P And, if you are writing at other online sites, I would like to follow you. Would you post a list of the complete urls of your shared pages like your linkedin profile, Facebook page or twitter feed?

  51. Wonderful website you have here but I was wondering if you knew of any message boards that cover the same topics talked about here?
    I’d really like to be a part of community where I can get suggestions from other experienced individuals that share the same interest. If you have any suggestions, please let me know. Thanks!

  52. Is the dopamine loop making people anxious? Combined with multitasking do we stand a chance in this modern world or should we just book into a clinic now. I would like to develop an app that would cut down people’s use of twitter, smart phones and emails. I fear though the dopamine addicts would turn on me

  53. haha im not sure this article was effective in warning me, all it did was make me immediately switch to google a research dopamine :)

  54. This is a great article, but I have a few questions. If you are an internet addict, does this mean you have too much dopamine and it drives you to search for information? or not enough dopamine, so you seek the buzz of searching?

    I’ve been researching amino acid and other supplement therapy for ADHD and I totally have an internet/search addiction.


    Best regards,


  55. thnx i’m verry intrested in this topic !!
    but if seeking information means curiosity and curiosity is one major caracteristic of human intellegence so does this mean that dopaminic system is involved in intellegence means that those people with high IQ have a bigger renforcement of this neurologic system or not?!
    thnx again :)

  56. (I write the “well-being” section of mylittlebird.com)

    Probably a silly question…
    I was so impressed by your piece on dopamine, but can’t figure out where to find a list of similar pieces, a table of contents for your blog items — could you please tell me how to do this?
    (I tried searching “100 things” — but because I am mostly interested in certain topics — research on the brain, behavior, etc. — and not others, like self-improvement or business strategies, would like to be able to scan a list of what else you have written about before signing up for anything.)

    thanks, Mary

    1. Thanks for writing in and it’s not a silly question at all. There isn’t a way at the blog to get a table of contents, similar pieces, etc. I’ve been wanting to provide that, but haven’t figured out an efficient way of creating it. I do tag the blog posts, so the best thing at this time would be to use the search field.

  57. As to my opinion, the counter-reaction of dopamine and opioid systems’ effects are closed circuit type of inhabitants keeping us in a rat race on o wheel…
    Unless one link is broken loop is infinite. Breaking that link may mostly be counted as “unhealthy” and may cause one to be banished from the community…

  58. Is it possible for someone to have very high levels of dopamine all the time? Like more than an average person causing them to feel a little bit “high” all the time?

    1. Emily,

      It is possible for people to have higher levels of dopamine than other people, and/or high levels of dopamine sometimes rather than others. Higher levels of dopamine are associated with drug addiction, post traumatic stress disorder, and attention deficit disorder. Here is a really good article about the complexities of dopamine: http://www.slate.com/articles/health_and_science/science/2013/07/what_is_dopamine_love_lust_sex_addiction_gambling_motivation_reward.html

      Hope this helps.

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  60. Is the dopamine loop making people anxious? Combined with multitasking do we stand a chance in this modern world or should we just book into a clinic now. I would like to develop an app that would cut down people’s use of twitter, smart phones and emails. I fear though the dopamine addicts would turn on me

  61. If this is true then it answers why I keep changing my mind about my business. I have idea after idea and continually start newer and better things rather than sticking with one. This is ‘neat’ to know, but I want to use it as a cure for my inability to remain on one idea. But when I looked opioid up it is responsible for producing endorphins in our body and not the dopamine regulator you’ve stated here. Most was research about opiates and heroin addiction. Yes your body makes its’ own opiates but those are sited for pain regulation. Where did you get your studies? I’d like to look at those.

  62. Is the dopamine loop making people anxious? Combined with multitasking do we stand a chance in this modern world or should we just book into a clinic now.

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