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·5 mins

Dopamine is a chemical in our brains associated with good feels. Rather than explaining it myself, I’ll share a quote from the book “The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion”, (pp. 102-103):

All animal brains are designed to create flashes of pleasure when the animal does something important for its survival, and small pulses of the neurotransmitter dopamine in the ventral striatum (and a few other places) are where these good feelings are manufactured. Heroin and cocaine are addictive because they artificially trigger this dopamine response. Rats who can press a button to deliver electrical stimulation to their reward centers will continue pressing until they collapse from starvation.

[Drew] Westen found that partisans escaping from handcuffs (by thinking about the final slide, which restored their confidence in their candidate) got a little hit of that dopamine. And if this is true, then it would explain why extreme partisans are so stubborn, closed-minded, and committed to beliefs that often seem bizarre or paranoid. Like rats that cannot stop pressing a button, partisans may be simply unable to stop believing weird things. The partisan brain has been reinforced so many times for performing mental contortions that free it from unwanted beliefs. Extreme partisanship may be literally addictive.

In the text above, the author is discussing why politically divided individuals get so heated about politics. One suggestion, as the author notes, is that tribal signalling (what political arguments often are) triggers a dopamine reward in the brain.

Sugar is one way to deliver a hit of dopamine

Tech companies and dopamine #

Modern apps like Instagram, Snapchat, TikTok, Twitter, Reddit, HN, and so on have been optimized to provide strong hits of dopamine.

An example of this are notifications often in the form of a little red dot. Every time you see that red dot, you feel an urge to check your notifications, and you receive a dopamine reward in doing so. We’re Pavlov’s dog and notifications are a little treat.

You may be wondering: how did we arrive here? Was there some nefarious plot by thought leaders at tech cos to build products that are physically addictive? The true answer—in most cases at least—is that no, there was no conspiracy to make addictive products.

However, it can be said that the addictiveness of these apps is a side effect of how they were optimized. It just so happens that the same actions that increase engagement metrics are well correlated with things which trigger a dopamine release in the brain.

How did we get here? #

Through the use of A/B testing, we have slowly created products highly optimized for engagement.

The word engagement is just a polite way of saying “keep people glued to the screen”. It’s also something that’s relatively easy to measure. You can measure engagement in terms of:

  • How long do people spend using your product?
  • How likely are people to continue using it?
  • How many times does someone perform a particular action?

The process of optimizing for engagement is simple: create a hypothesis, figure out what metric you are measuring to test the hypothesis, and conduct an experiment.

A simple example might be that you create a “pay now” button somewhere on a website’s checkout form, and test which colour is more likely to get clicked. You show 50% of people a blue version of the button, and show the other 50% a red version of the same button. You let the experiment run for a while, then examine the results to see which button was more likely to be clicked, red or blue.

Do this over and over and eventually you’ll have a product that’s highly optimized to trigger a dopamine reward in the brain.

Rewards #

The thing about these dopamine reward apps is that they sometimes have little reward aside from the dopamine hit.

When you’re scrolling through Instagram liking your friends posts and leaving funny comments then waiting for them to like your comment or reply back you’re probably not going to get any real economic value out of it. Your Instagram activity is probably not going to lead to a job, and you’re probably not going to get famous.

To Facebook, you (as a human) are worth about $30 per year in terms of revenue. And of that $30, Facebook is keeping all of it for themselves. They’re not rewarding you for your attention in economic terms.

And even if they did: would you be more likely to use Instagram if Facebook sent you a $30 cheque every year? Probably not. The dopamine is worth more than that.

What can we do about it? #

It’s up to individuals to moderate their own behaviour. Most things are probably okay in moderation.

To use an analogy, let’s compare Instagram to sugar. Sugar is a substance that triggers a rush of dopamine in the brain. It’s also linked to health problems like obesity and diabetes. Thus, it’s probably not a good idea to eat sugar all day every day.

At the same time, if you completely cut sugar from your diet you’d probably benefit more than you lose. You certainly won’t starve without sugar (since it has no nutritional value beyond calories), and it won’t affect your economic prospects in any way.