The role of dopamine in social media

What is it that makes our inbox such an enticing place that we spend hours there every day? It’s a question that fascinates me, mainly because I have such an uncomfortable relationship with email. I get lots of it, am often slow to respond and frequently end up feeling guilty because my email has got the best of me.

Psychologist Susan Weinschenk puts the blame for our obsession on dopamine:

[T]he latest research shows that dopamine causes seeking behavior. Dopamine causes us to want, desire, seek out, and search.


It’s not just about physical needs such as food, or sex, but also about abstract concepts. Dopamine makes us curious about ideas and fuels our searching for information. The latest research shows that it is the opoid system (separate from dopamine) that makes us feel pleasure.

Wanting vs. liking – According to Kent Berridge, these two systems, the “wanting” (dopamine) and the “liking” (opoid) are complementary. The wanting system propels us to action and the liking system makes us feel satisfied and therefore pause our seeking. If our seeking isn’t turned off at least for a little while, then we start to run in an endless loop. The latest research shows that the dopamine system is stronger than the opoid system. We seek more than we are satisfied (back to evolution… seeking is more likely to keep us alive than sitting around in a satisfied stupor).

A dopamine induced loop – With the internet, twitter, and texting we now have almost instant gratification of our desire to seek. Want to talk to someone right away? Send a text and they respond in a few seconds. Want to look up some information? Just type it into google. What to see what your friends are up to? Go to twitter or facebook. We get into a dopamine induced loop… dopamine starts us seeking, then we get rewarded for the seeking which makes us seek more. It becomes harder and harder to stop looking at email, stop texting, stop checking our cell phones to see if we have a message or a new text.

This sheds much needed light on why we spend so much time checking for new email only to then not deal with it when it has arrived, but there is more to the email problem than dopamine.

There are cultural problems around the use of email as a proxy for productivity; huge email loads being worn as a badge of honour by people who like to equate their inbox martyrdom with a commitment to work; and defensive emailing by people who feel so scared or insecure that they CC everyone. These issues around the sending of mail need to be tackled, probably before we try to tackle our dopamine-fueled inbox obsession.

But as Weinschenk points out, tools like Twitter are just as likely to “send our dopamine system raging”.

So if social media is as addictive as email, isn’t it pointless to try to replace one with the other? I don’t think so, no, because there’s more to it than trying to reduce inbox faffing, as important as that is. It’s also about improving sharing, findability, archiving, collaboration, conversation, staff relationships, morale and efficiency. These benefits, in my opinion, outweigh the potential flaws in the new tools.

We do need to be aware that social media isn’t without its problems, but understanding the fundamental biological and psychological processes that shape the way we interact with technology will help us to solve those problems. I look forward to watching and maybe even participating in the emerging field of technopsychology.

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