Are you familiar with that awful, pleasurable sound the Facebook messenger app makes when you refresh it? I certainly am… In the middle of doing hard, important, no-fun work, those tiny moments of reprieve glow like a fata morgana to a thirsty woman crawling the desert of academic boredom.
My brain suggests to me that, even though the work I am intending to do is actually really important, what I really need, right now, to ensure my survival, is to check Facebook. And Instagram. And my email. Again and again.
The culprit: dopamine
Dopamine plays a key role in this uncomfortable craving of having to check if anything important has happened since I last checked social media (i.e. 10 seconds ago). This neurotransmitter entices us to seek out that which is pleasurable and avoid that which is aversive – to eat hobnobs, get some Netflix and Chill, and find the right answer during a pub quiz.
The enjoyment of these rewards is handled by a different system of neurotransmitters called opioids, which counteract the drive in order to satisfy a desire. If you feel satisfied with your actions, in evolutionary terms, you can take a rest because the world is ok. Dopamine is associated with the anticipation of a reward and motivates action towards it.
Studies on unfortunate rodents indicate that both too few and too many dopamine neurons can be detrimental to our health. If dopamine neurons are destroyed, rats starve to death because they don’t desire food. If the dopamine system is overstimulated, rats starve because they prefer to satisfy their desire for more dopamine, instead of eating.
Statements like these necessarily oversimplify the intricate processes at the core of this phenomenon, as the brain is a fascinatingly complex organ. With this caveat in mind, dopamine does seem to help us predict rewards in our environment, filtering through masses of incoming information to identify the patterns that lead to desired outcomes.
Triggering your checking habits
In its search of indicators promising reward, the system is biased towards new and surprising outcomes. That is why slot machines, Facebook notifications and a text message from your blasé love interest lead to peaks of dopamine release.
All of them provide unpredictable rewards at unexpected, irregular moments that are beyond our control (known as a ‘variable-ratio schedule’ of reinforcement). Designers can use these insights about human psychology to create environments (both on- and offline) that target our dopamine systems and motivate us to take certain actions.
Since we tend to learn which sequence of events lead up to a reward over time, the release of dopamine shifts from the moment of reward to earlier cues that a reward will come. It is in fact anticipation, rather than the reward itself, that triggers dopamine release.
Clear sensory cues such as sound, movement, colour or smell that mark the arrival of a reward activate our anticipation, even (and especially) if a reward does not follow every time. These cues act to initiate a specific behaviour in the hope that something good will happen, and if you receive a reward that is unsatisfying, this behaviour can become habitual and your dopamine-seeking can take on addictive patterns.
As a business, keep in mind the long-term interactions with your customers when considering whether or not to design potentially addictive technology. Of course you could motivate them to take action by creating desires and proposing avenues to satisfy them. But if your customers repeatedly fail to find what they seek, they will become increasingly frustrated with your service and move on when a competitor offers a less frustrating alternative.
On a personal level
As an individual, if you want to reduce the distractive impact of low cost, short term gratification, you can reduce the cues in your environment that promise immediate reward by turning off push notifications, uninstalling apps that allow you to scroll endlessly and turning off your phone when you can. You can also analyse the situation in which you find yourself to see in which situations you crave distraction:
- Do they have anything in common?
- Could you satisfy your urge in another, non-technology related manner that quiets your craving more holistically?
Remember that while distraction is omnipresent and attractive, humans are capable of delaying gratification to an impressive degree – we can study hard for a decade to enter a profession in the distant future, save for retirement and sacrifice joy in the present for happiness further down the road.
The power of conscious choice
You have the capacity to make a conscious choice, change your environment and take back control over your attention. One way to do so is to set explicit rules for yourself on how to handle media, e.g. during meal times, in the evening or right after you wake up.
When engaging with others, think about how you want to approach them. Do you want to engage them with one of the many “pings” interrupting their stream of consciousness, or with a slower medium that communicates in a richer manner?
A letter, voice message, phone call, visit, or note can all provide an extra depth through the effort required to deliver the message, which can lead to a deeper feeling of reward than any Facebook status update might promise you.
Resources & further reading:
Nahai, N (2013). Dopamine loops: the hidden psychology of why we’re addicted to our phones, Slideshare.
Weinschenk, S. (2012). Why we’re all addicted to texts, twitter and google, Psychology Today.
Levitin, D. (2015). Why the modern world is bad for your brain, The Guardian.
Weinschenk, S (2009). 100 Things You Should Know About People: #8 — Dopamine Makes You Addicted To Seeking Information, The Team W.>
This scientific paper presents evidence for the popular conjecture that mobile devices are ‘‘habit-forming’’ in that they bring about “checking habits”: brief, repetitive inspections of dynamic content quickly accessible on the device. Checking habits occasionally spur users to do other things with the device and may increase usage overall. Checking behaviours emerge and are reinforced by informational ‘‘rewards’’ that are very quickly accessible.
If you want to learn more about how toxic love relationships keep you hooked, similar to the processes described above, check out this article.