Somewhere there is woman going into a carb coma saying, I cannot believe I ate all of those chips, as her Spanx are saying, I can. There is also a barstool somewhere saying, oh, you again, as some woman says, give me anything, as long as it is strong and does not have a man’s name. The former tried to control a bad food, the latter a bad boy. Neither worked out, but not for the reasons they might think.  

Evolution and the Neurochemical Cookie Jar

One of the reasons some women are attracted to the bad boy is evolution driven. The female ancients wanted the tough guy because he could provide better food and protection. The human brain consolidates and simplifies information. Over generations this process is stored as instinct. [1] For example, the fight-or-flight instinct is just a consolidation and simplification of millions of lessons in resolving conflicts with enemies. Women’s innate attraction to the bad boy is another example of this.  

The Ventral Tegmental Area (VTA), which is in the old brain, processes cues from other parts of the brain and body to determine if basic needs are being met, such as feeding, breeding and social connection.[2] When we achieve these goals dopamine (the brain’s happy dance drug) is released.[3] However, we can easily trick the VTA. For example, when we are masturbating or using birth control, the VTA releases dopamine as if we were procreating. In other words, the VTA took the lid off the neurochemical cookie jar because we said we cleaned our room, thereby earning a cookie. However, in fact, we did not clean our room we just pushed every thing under the bed.

The Plot Thickens

The reward center of the brain absolutely loves variable reinforcement, which is what taming the bad boy is. Fixed reinforcement means if you do X you get Y, and thus, do 2X and get 2Y. Conversely, variable reinforcement gives somewhat random rewards to specific behaviors. Two-X does not always get 2Y. With the bad boy, you never know what you are going to get. He might stick around or he might slap you around. You just never know with the bad boy, so you sleep with your eyes open and watch your jewelry. 

This is appealing because dopamine increases with uncertainty.[4] This is because evolution uses dopamine to motivate us to do things that are good for our survival. The ancients’ survival depended on being more aware of things that changed in the environment than things that were constant because the former was more threatening. Thus, evolution rewarded us for paying attention to things that were variable by rewarding us with dopamine. When consolidated and simplified in the brain this becomes “engaging with uncertainty is good”, hence the appeal of gambling and an added appeal of the bad boy.

Plus, anticipating (or wanting) the reward of something releases more dopamine than actually getting it. Like the compulsive gambler anticipating the big pay-off, the woman or man trying to tame the bad boy is anticipating the jackpot of love and affection on one level. On another level, the easily tricked old brain believes it is protecting itself by paying attention to variables in the environment and once again, it takes the lid off the neurochemical cookie jar under false pretenses.

In addition, we have consolidated and simplified millions of lessons about hunting and gathering down to “the harder it is to obtain the more precious it is.” Yet, another reason the hard to get love of the bad boy is appealing. Since the brain uses dopamine to motivate behavior, seeking objects that are difficult to obtain results in more dopamine.   

Likewise, calorie dense palatable foods partly appeal to the gullible old brain because they had more nutrient content and energy value. For the ancients, who were subject to jackal attacks and enduring periods of hunger, greater nutrient content and energy value was good. Hence, the brain consolidated and simplified that into the message, “rich, calorie-dense food is good”. However, our calorie dense foods and circumstances are different from the ancients. Today’s calorie dense foods are mostly processed, and we are far more sedentary than the ancients were. Yet, like the ancients, the preference for calorie-dense foods has not changed. [5]

But everyone is not obese and in a toxic relationship

Obviously, there are other variables and influences such as early life experiences, availability of serotonin to deliver control from the thinking part of the brain, other neurochemical motivators besides dopamine, genetics, epigenetics, stress levels and the influences of gut-bacteria, etc.

My point is our technology has created a world that is too complex for our biology. Furthermore, evolution is not going to change its gait for humans because we falsely believe we rule the earth, contrary to the opinion of hurricanes and viruses. Likewise, we are not going to throw away our iPhones. Therefore, there is only one solution: accept that it would be easier to get the Beatles back together than change the instincts of old brain; it is simply not happening. The issue is, understanding our circumstance and avoiding sub optimal outcomes from the disparity between our sociology, technology and neurobiology; because from the old brain’s perspective, we live in a much more hostile environment than the ancients. Remain fabulous and phenomenal. 

Sidebar: Not surprisingly, Psychology Today was recently chosen as the top Psychology Website; Very surprisingly, I was chosen as one of the "30 Most Influential Neuroscientists Alive Today" I am so honored by this, and I truly believe this is largely because of the unwavering support of my readers and Psychology Today. So this really belongs more to you guys than me. Thank you. - Billi 

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1.      Sanchez, A.P., [Reflexes, instincts, emotions and passions]. An R Acad Nac Med (Madr), 2008. 125(2): p. 377-84; discussion 384-6.

2.      Ferreira, J.G., et al., Organization of ventral tegmental area projections to the ventral tegmental area-nigral complex in the rat. Neuroscience, 2008. 153(1): p. 196-213.

3.      Hosp, J.A. and A.R. Luft, Dopaminergic meso-cortical projections to m1: role in motor learning and motor cortex plasticity. Front Neurol, 2013. 4: p. 145.

4.      Bruhn, C., [The reward system of the brain: the brain loves surprises]. Dtsch Med Wochenschr, 2014. 139(18): p. 928-9.

5.      Peters, J.C., et al., From instinct to intellect: the challenge of maintaining healthy weight in the modern world. Obes Rev, 2002. 3(2): p. 69-74.

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