The Dopamine Seeking-Reward Loop
Or, "Why can't I stop scrolling on my app feeds?"
Posted Feb 28, 2018
We've all been there. You glance at Instagram (or your Twitter feed, or your LinkedIn 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 revisit 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.
According to researcher Kent Berridge, there are two systems, the "wanting" and the "liking" and these two systems 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.
Can you get out of the loop?
The combination of dopamine release in the brain plus a conditioned response with motor movement (the swipe with finger or thumb), makes this dopamine loop hard to stop. One way you can get some control is to create a counter-movement—a physical movement you do that becomes its own conditioned response. For example, my counter movement conditioned response is that when I realize I'm in a dopamine loop I immediately press the home button and place the phone face side down. If you can come up with a physical movement that becomes a conditioned response you can at least break the dopamine seeking-reward loop once it has started.
Or maybe turn off the device altogether for a while. Radical idea, I know.
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.
Arvid Carlsson and Nils-Ake Hillarp at the National Heart Institute of Sweden first "discovered" dopamine in 1958.
Robert Sapolsky talks and teaches about dopamine and anticipation.