“We are abusing a useful and necessary [reward] system. We shouldn’t do it, even though we can.” -Dr. Schultz
In the modern world, you are the commodity and your attention is a form of currency. What we give our attention to is what we give ourselves to. To give our time away is also to give our Essence away. What government today wouldn’t love the information on its citizens available to them through phones, computers and social media? No need to hire torturers anymore! We lay our cards on the table, our hearts on our sleeves, and our personality quiz answers for everyone to see. No more intimacy or real connection – just wham-bam social nudity and pseudo relationships.
But what makes us give ourselves away so readily now? Why do we constantly “log in” and follow prompts? The terms “behavioral economics” and “persuasive technology” are now bandied about by scientists and tech nerds alike. There’s no need to force a desired behavior from its citizenry because the brain’s reward system is so beyond hijacked and vulnerable from social media “hits.”
In an unprecedented attack of candour, Sean Parker, the 38-year-old founding president of Facebook, recently admitted that the social network was founded not to unite us, but to distract us. “The thought process was: ‘How do we consume as much of your time and conscious attention as possible?’” he said at an event in Philadelphia in November. To achieve this goal, Facebook’s architects exploited a “vulnerability in human psychology”, explained Parker, who resigned from the company in 2005. Whenever someone likes or comments on a post or photograph, he said, “we… give you a little dopamine hit”. (source) [emphasis added]
He also called Facebook a “social-validation” feedback loop and said “… It probably interferes with productivity in weird ways. God only knows what it’s doing to our children’s brains.”
Another Facebook executive recently admitted, with “tremendous guilt” that:
It literally is a point now where I think we have created tools that are ripping apart the social fabric of how society works. That is truly where we are.
It is a point in time where people need to hard break from some of these tools, and the things that you rely on.
The short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops we’ve created are destroying how society works…(source) [emphasis added]
I hardly need to explain dopamine to our sharp, highly educated readers. It’s the most “in vogue” neurotransmitter of the decade. Discovered in the late 1950s, it is just now gaining steam among laymen and those who were plagued with ADHD growing up. Dopamine helps control movement, pleasure, mood, thinking, sleep, motivation, reward and taking action to move toward a reward (but of course it does way more than that).
Attention deficit (distraction, brain fog) is thought to be an issue of not enough dopamine getting to the prefrontal cortex of the brain. Amphetamine drugs are just one of the ways people artificially stimulate a dopamine hit. In fact, before being diagnosed, one of the signs of ADHD is unconsciously self-medicating; drugs, alcohol, shopping, relationship-hopping, binge-watching, adrenaline rush activity, sex, porn, etc. Few are left to wonder “is porn harmful?”
Dopamine is tied to the brain’s reward system. Whether it’s a mouse with a lever or a human at a slot machine, dopamine shots to the brain keep the hand on the lever (or needle, joystick, chocolate cupcake, beer, cigarette, phone). In fact, it’s really the anticipation of “winning” that can become addictive, not necessarily the reward itself – thus, lotto ticket sales. The anticipation addiction is what BF Skinner called “intermittent reinforcement” because receiving a reward only part of the time is far more intense than reward for every time one does a “desired behavior.” You can now see the addictive nature of logging in to see validations from friends.
The dopamine fascination is also gaining steam among “productivity” addicts, pick-up artists, science groupies, Little Pharma, authors, gurus, app makers and pretty much anyone who’d like to control human behavior, whether it be for their own happiness or for sales, recruits or culture creation. The addiction to “self-help” and motivational workshops is also a form of intermittent dopamine hit because it’s the promise of one day being fully “fixed” or having finally “arrived.”
Sadly, flooding our brains with too much dopamine is detrimental – and we don’t even know how detrimental yet.
Overflooding the brain with dopamine is involved in addiction – and it creates its own feedback loop. What goes up, must go down.
The Guardian explains why social apps have a hold on us:
Every habit-forming drug, from amphetamines to cocaine, from nicotine to alcohol, affects the dopamine system by dispersing many times more dopamine than usual. The use of these drugs overruns the neural pathways connecting the reward circuit to the prefrontal cortex, which helps people to tame impulses. The more an addict uses a drug, the harder it becomes to stop.
“These unnaturally large rewards are not filtered in the brain – they go directly into the brain and overstimulate, which can generate addiction,” explains [Dr. Wolfram Schultz, now a professor of neuroscience at Cambridge University]. “When that happens, we lose our willpower. Evolution has not prepared our brains for these drugs, so they become overwhelmed and screwed up. We are abusing a useful and necessary system. We shouldn’t do it, even though we can.” Dopamine’s power to negatively affect a life can be seen vividly in the effects of some Parkinson’s drugs, which, in flooding the brain with dopamine, have been shown to turn close to 10% of patients into gambling addicts. [!] [emphasis added]
Imagine what Silicon Valley is doing with that information as they work on new apps. Now brace yourselves and think about the death-grip that “logging in” has on your life. Or, checking your smartphone. Or even the gold stars and candy you received in school for the “right answers.”
Think about how dumbed-down the news is with its obvious slant of “you’re a good person if you go along with [insert agenda], but you’re a bad person if you don’t go along with [insert agenda].” And people go along with agendas to get the reward of “being good.”
Social media is not just a news agenda, however; it’s peer pressure in its finest form. Everyone is watching what you like and share – they start policing you with negative or positive feedback. Basically everyone starts “chiseling” each other about what makes a “good” person and you’re forced to put your own values aside when you censor your thoughts before sharing.
It’s the hijacking of your dopamine and reward system, and is even implicated in depression. Not to mention, our screen time can affect our sleep. Recent studies show that Americans are getting less sleep than ever before and that factor alone is causing depression. What goes up must come down.
Maybe they call it “logging in” because it’s like a full-time job. Or maybe it’s because we do it so unconsciously that it is as if we are “sleeping” through life. Social media is a medium – it mediates social behavior to you – the “user.” Get it?
The good news is, you can take back your reward system by simply refusing to participate in the feedback loop anymore. Limitations are fine, but the behavior can become addictive again so a hard break might be necessary. Sometimes being aware of the problem is all we need to break the cycle and regain control.