The Science Behind Dopamine And How Businesses Leverage It
Dopamine is a chemical produced by our brains that plays a crucial role in motivating behaviour. It gets released whenever we take a bit of delicious food, when we workout, or have a great social interaction
Dopamine reinforces the association between a particular stimulus or sequence of behaviours and that feel-good reward that follows.
Every time a response stimulus results in a reward, the associated feelings become stronger and stronger through a process called long-term potentiation.
Smartphones have provided us with an unlimited supply of social stimuli that are positive and negative. When you get that notification, whether it’s a text message, a “like” on Instagram, or Facebook notification, there’s potential for it to be a positive social stimulus with a dopamine influx.
Reward Prediction Error encoding serves as dopamine mediated feedback signal in our brains. Casino owners have been using this neurological feature to their advantage for years. If you have played slots before, you have experienced that intense feeling of anticipation while those wheels are turning.
The moments between the lever being pulled and the outcome, our dopamine neurons increase their activity, creating a rewarding feeling just by playing the game. As negative outcomes accumulate, the loss of dopamine activity encourages us to disengage.
A perfect balance of positive and negative outcomes must be maintained to keep our brains engaged to keep us playing and spending more at the casino.
Social media apps have taken advantage of our dopamine driven wiring as well. The apps we use implement a reward pattern that is optimized to keep you engaged as much as possible. This process is called Variable Reward Schedule and it was introduced by B.F Skinner in the 1930s.
The way the schedule works is by perceiving a reward to be delivered at random, and if checking for the reward comes at little cost, we end up checking habitually. This is the reason you check your phone randomly for a notification when you feel slightly bored because of pure habit.
Facebook is notorious for using the Variable Reward Schedule. If you have been a Facebook user for sometime, you probably have noticed how they've expanded their criteria for notifications.
When you first joined Facebook, your notifications revolved around the connections you made, creating that link between notification and social reward. But as you used Facebook more and more, you began interacting with Facebook groups, events, and the pages you liked.
Your notifications center became more active because of this. After a while, you would open the app at any time and expect to be rewarded with a notification. The more you keep doing this, the more likely you are to stay on the app to scroll and view the Ads on your timeline.
Facebook took this to Instagram and implemented a Variable-Ratio Reward schedule. Instagram’s notification algorithms will sometimes withhold a “like” on your photos to deliver them in large bursts.
When you make a post, you may be disappointed to find less responses than you expected, only to receive them in a larger bunch later on. Your dopamine centers have been primed by those initial negative outcomes to respond to the sudden influx of social appraisal.
This use of a variable-ratio reward schedule takes advantage of our dopamine driven desire for social validation. The Instagram algorithm optimizes balance of negative and positive feedback signals until we become habitual users.
Takeaway: Social media isn't going away anytime soon. As long as Facebook is making money from their Ads, they will keep doing this to milk every ounce of attention from you. The best thing to do to get yourself out of this loop is to be mindful of every time you pick up your phone and putting that energy into other productive things.