On anticipation as habit: dopamine and desire

Intermittent reinforcement is a schedule of rewards for certain behaviors or responses but without any predictable pattern. In other words, the reward comes periodically, not every time it’s performed.

It’s the slot machines, where you sometimes win but you keep pushing the levers because this might be the moment, it’s the social media where you keep checking to see if somebody liked your post, it’s scanning all day for text messages and notifications, it’s the relationships where sometimes somebody is nice to you, but not all the time, it is the shopping app that says you liked this, so maybe you would also like this; it is the personal visual stimuli recommendation that pops up on your screen because you previously watched something; it’s the unpredictability of a parent who at times showers you with attention and sometimes completely ignores you, it’s the hard to get reward.

Many people think that the neurotransmitter of pleasure is released when the brain receives the reward, but dopamine is actually released in anticipation of a reward. It is the excitement of craving and desire. A recent study found that people have higher dopamine levels when they shop online and they are waiting for their item to arrive, rather than buying it immediately in a mall.

Dr. Robert Sapolsky, a neuroscientist at Stanford, studied monkeys in conditions where they humanely received coveted food rewards by pressing a button. After 10 presses, the treat appeared. There was a surge of dopamine while pressing the magic button. It’s the dopamine that keeps the monkey pressing the bar until the treat arrives. Dopamine significantly diminished once the monkey participants realized that the 10 presses was all they consistently had to do. Immediate gratification is, well, immediate. And then over.

In a second experiment, the monkeys received the food treat only 50 percent of the time, randomly, after they pressed the bar. What happened to the dopamine in that situation? Twice as much dopamine was released when there was only a 50/50 chance of getting the food treat.

Our brains are wired for dopamine. It’s part of us. But the constant craving for dopamine can lead to repetitive behaviors and ultimately deplete the very receptors evolved to receive dopamine. Understanding our anticipatory nature and desire for pleasure is important to address behaviors that can become unhealthy or even addictive. The chase becomes the pull. There are strategies to reduce this cycle.

Check out Dr. Sapolsky’s book which is very interesting and highly readable, on our propensity for good and bad behaviors, which are not unrelated.

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