Silicon Valley’s Secret Sauce

“The short-term dopamine driven feedback loops we’ve created are destroying how society works.” Chamath Palihapitiya, Former Facebook Executive

Chamath’s now widely quoted statement presents a gloomy outlook for our future and dopamine has often been cited as Silicon Valley’s secret sauce so I thought it was time to find out why.

You may have noticed that dopamine has become the celebrity of brain chemicals in the media in recent years, being accused of causing a nation’s addiction to cupcakes or flaunted as a way to supercharge your sex drive (with the help of a watermelon), but what is dopamine really and why are dopamine loops triggered when we use our smartphones and connected devices?

Dopamine is one of about 20 major neurotransmitters, brain chemicals that carry urgent messages around our bodies. Without these neurotransmitters we would die.

It is at the basis of learning. It anticipates a reward when you do an action and if the reward is met that behaviour becomes a habit. The key here seems to be that dopamine is released in anticipation of a reward. Why do we keep checking our smartphones and social media accounts? Because each time we check we get a quick dopamine hit in anticipation that we might get a reward, such as a satisfying moment of social affirmation because someone liked your post. The more we check, the more the behaviour is reinforced and the compulsive loop is created.

But it turns out that the strongest way to learn a behaviour is to reward it on a random schedule. Product designers are programming their apps to perfectly time rewards so they can grab as much of our time as possible as they compete in the Attention Economy.

Plenty has been written about Instagram strategically withholding “likes” from certain users, playing with their insecurities and citing it as a ploy to trick them into engaging with the app more often. In the interest of balance you might want to read this article that says that’s all tosh.

In the 1950’s the psychologist BF Skinner ran a series of experiments using an apparatus, that has since become known as the “Skinner Box”, with a lever that rats could push to deliver them food. Pretty quickly the rats wised up to the fact that if they pressed the lever they would get their reward, a food pellet, but the fascinating part of his experiment was the discovery that unlike the mice that received the same reward each time, the mice that only received rewards some of the time would press the lever compulsively. It appears that dopamine causes seeking behaviour and when we are presented with variable rewards we seek them out more. This, by the way, is exactly the same reason why slot machines are so addictive.

We know that emails, tweets, texts and messages will ping through all day long, but we don’t know from whom or when and it is this unpredictability that stimulates the dopamine system. Constant stimulation of the dopamine system is pretty tiring, so next time you’re feeling exhausted after just spending a day at your desk that could be a factor.

The dopamine system is sensitive to cues, whether that be auditory – a pinging noise announcing a new message – or visual – a red badge indicating there are new notifications. I’m going to have a go at turning off all those cues on my devices to give my over stimulated dopamine system a bit of rest.

But what if I miss an important message? There-in lies the rub. #FOMO

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