The Dopamine Seeking-Reward Loop, or “Why Can’t I Stop Scrolling On My Newsfeed”

We’ve all been there. You glance at Instagram (or your twitter feed, or your Linked in feed, or Facebook, or your newspaper app…). You look at the first entry and then the next, and then swipe with your finger or thumb to see what comes next and then next, and before you know it 15 minutes has gone by.

You just became part of a dopamine seeking-reward loop.

Here’s a video I recently recorded about the dopamine seeking-reward loop and what to do about it. And below is a text summary of the video.

I wrote an article in 2012  about dopamine and how it helps you become “addicted” to texts and also to searching.  That was 2012 and by now stimulating the dopamine loop has become ubiquitous and is involved in almost everything you do on your smartphone. So let’s re-visit the dopamine loop:

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.

The “seeking” brain chemical — Dopamine was originally thought of as critical in the “pleasure” systems of the brain. It was thought that dopamine makes you feel enjoyment and pleasure, thereby motivating you to seek out certain behaviors, such as food, sex, and drugs. But then research began to show that dopamine is also critical in causing seeking behavior. Dopamine causes you to want, desire, seek out, and search. It increases your general level of arousal and your goal-directed behavior. Dopamine makes you curious about ideas and fuels your searching for information.

Two systems —  According to researcher Kent Berridge, there are two systems, the “wanting”  and the “liking”  and these two system are complementary. Dopamine is part of the wanting system. It propels you to take action. The liking system makes you feel satisfied and therefore pause your seeking. But the dopamine wanting system  is stronger than the liking system. You tend to seek more than you are satisfied.  You can get into a dopamine loop. If your seeking isn’t turned off at least for a little while, then you start to run in an endless loop.

The scrolling dopamine loop — When  you bring up the feed on one of your favorite apps the dopamine loop has become engaged. With every photo you scroll through, headline you read, or link you go to you are feeding the loop which just makes you want more. It takes a lot to reach satiation, and in fact you might never be satisfied. Chances are what makes you stop is that someone interrupts you. It turns out the dopamine system doesn’t have satiety built in.

Anticipatory rewards and pavlovian cues — The dopamine system is especially sensitive to “cues” that a reward is coming (remember Ivan Pavlov?) 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 (auditory cue) or a visual cue that a notification has arrived, that cue enhances the addictive effect. It’s not the reward itself that keeps the dopamine loop going; it’s the anticipation of the reward. Robert Sapolsky talks about this anticipation/dopamine connection in his research.

Or maybe turn off the device altogether for a while. Radical idea, I know.

 

Here are some references:

Arvid Carlsson and Nils-Ake Hillarp at the National Heart Institute of Sweden first “discovered” dopamine in 1958

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.

Robert Sapolsky —

Dopamine Jackpot – Anticipating Reward

100 Things You Should Know About People: #76 — Anticipation Trumps The Actual Experience

Ad for 4 weeks vacationYou are planning a trip, 7 months away, with your sister to the Cayman Islands. The two of you talk on the phone at least once a week, discuss the snorkeling you plan to do, and talk about the restaurants that are close to the place you are staying. You look forward to the trip for a long time.

Anticipation vs. reality — Contrast that with the actual experience of the trip and you may find that the anticipation was better than the trip. In fact, Terence Mitchell (1997) conducted research on just this situation. He studied people who were taking either a trip to Europe, a short trip over the USA Thanksgiving holiday weekend, or a 3-week bicycle tour of California.

Trip ratings differ — Before the event people looked forward to the trip with positive emotions, but during the trip their ratings of the trip were not that positive. The little disappointments that always occur while traveling colored their emotional landscape to the point where they felt less positive about the trip in general. Interestingly, a few days after the trip, the memories became rosy again.

How to Have A Great Vacation and Great Memories — While we are on the subject of vacations, here are some interesting bits of information from a variety of research. To get the most enjoyment out of vacations:

  • Several short vacations are better than one long one
  • How the vacation ends affects your long term memory of it more than what happened at the beginning or middle
  • Having an intense “peak” experience makes you more likely to remember the trip positively, even if the intense experience wasn’t necessarily positive
  • Interrupting a trip makes you enjoy the uninterrupted part even more

What do you think? If you ask customers for feedback on a product or website should you ask them while they are doing it? Or later when things are “rosy”? And if you say you want to get more “honest” feedback, which is the more honest?

For those of you who like to read the research:

Mitchell, T. R., Thompson, L., Peterson, E., & Cronk, R. (1997). Temporal adjustments in the evaluation of events: The “rosy view”. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 33(4), 421-448.