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Shedding Light in the Darkness

Dopamine – Silicon Valley’s Secret Sauce

dopaserveimageFascinating article in The Guardian today highlighting the role of the pleasure neurotransmitter dopamine. Silicon Valley hails it as the secret sauce that makes an app, game or social platform “sticky” – the investor term for “potentially profitable”. “It is the sex, drugs and rock’n’roll molecule,” says Ramsay Brown, the 28-year-old cofounder of Dopamine Labs, a California startup that promises to increase the rate at which people use any running, diet or game app.

British clinical psychologist Vaughan Bell once described dopamine as “the Kim Kardashian of molecules”.

Writing in the New York Times, David Brooks noted: “Tech companies understand what causes dopamine surges in the brain and they lace their products with ‘hijacking techniques’ that lure us in and create ‘compulsion loops’.” Most social media sites create irregularly timed rewards, Brooks wrote, a technique long employed by the makers of slot machines, based on the work of the American psychologist BF Skinner, who found that the strongest way to reinforce a learned behavior in rats is to reward it on a random schedule.

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.

Back in 2012 Psychology Today reported about Facebook: When we view an attractive face, dopamine is released in the same reward pathway that is stimulated when we eat delicious food, make money, have sex, or use cocaine. We all post our best photos on Facebook and carefully select our profile picture to welcome friends to our page. Users can click on and feel the rush anytime they want.

“The short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops that we have created are destroying how society works: no civil discourse, no cooperation, misinformation, mistruth,” warned former Facebook executive Chamath Palihapitiya. “And it’s not an American problem. This is not about Russian ads. This is a global problem.”

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