فصل 05

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فصل 05

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FIVE

The Brain’s Big Lie: Why We Mistake Wanting for Happiness

In 1953, James Olds and Peter Milner, two young scientists at McGill University in Montreal, were trying to make sense of a very puzzling rat. The scientists had implanted an electrode deep into the rat’s brain, through which they could send shocks. They were trying to activate an area of the brain that other scientists had discovered would create a fear response in rats. According to previous reports, lab rats hated the shocks so much, they would avoid anything associated with the moment of brain stimulation. Olds and Milner’s rat, on the other hand, kept returning to the corner of the cage where it had been shocked. It was as if their rat was hoping for another shock.

Stymied by the rat’s curious behavior, they decided to test the hypothesis that the rat wanted to be shocked. They rewarded the rat with a mild jolt every time it moved a little bit to the right and away from the corner. The rat quickly caught on, and in just a few minutes, it was all the way in the other corner of the cage. Olds and Milner found that the rat would move in any direction if they rewarded it with a shock. Pretty soon, they could operate the rat like a joystick.

Were the other researchers wrong about the effects of stimulating this area of a rat’s midbrain? Or had they somehow ended up with a masochistic rat?

Actually, they had stumbled on an unexplored area of the brain, thanks to a bit of clumsiness during the implanting procedure. Olds was trained as a social psychologist, not a neuroscientist, and had yet to develop real laboratory skill. He had implanted the electrode in the wrong area. By mistake, they had found an area of the brain that seemed to produce incredible pleasure when stimulated. What else could explain why the rat would go anywhere to get another shock? Olds and Milner called their discovery the pleasure center of the brain.

But Olds and Milner did not yet understand what they had tapped into. That rat wasn’t experiencing bliss—it was experiencing desire. What neuroscientists eventually learned about that rat’s experience provides a fascinating window into our own experience of cravings, temptation, and addiction. As we look through that window, we’ll see that when it comes to happiness, we cannot trust our brains to point us in the right direction. We’ll also explore how the new field of neuromarketing is using this science to manipulate our brains and manufacture desire, and what we can do to resist.

THE PROMISE OF REWARD

Once Olds and Milner had discovered the “pleasure” center of their rat’s brain, they set to work demonstrating just how euphoric stimulating this area of the brain was. First they starved the rat for twenty-four hours, then placed him in the middle of a short tunnel with food at both ends. Normally, the rat would run to one end and gobble down the rat chow. But if they shocked the rat before he made it to the food, he would stop at that spot and never budge. He preferred to wait for the possibility of another shock rather than the guaranteed reward of food.

The scientists also tested whether the rat would shock himself if given the opportunity. They set up a lever that, when pressed, would electrically stimulate the rat’s pleasure center. Once the rat figured out what the lever did, he began giving himself shocks every five seconds. Other rats given free access to self-stimulation showed no signs of satiation, and would continue to press the lever until they collapsed from exhaustion. Rats even found self-torture acceptable if it led to brain stimulation. Olds put self-stimulating levers at the opposite ends of an electrified grid, and set it up so that a rat could only receive one shock at a time from each lever. Rats willingly ran back and forth across the electrified grid until their charred feet were so injured they could not continue. Olds became even more convinced that the only thing that could produce this behavior was bliss.

It didn’t take long for a psychiatrist to think this experiment would be a pretty neat thing to try with humans.14 At Tulane University, Robert Heath implanted electrodes into his patients’ brains, and gave them a control box to self-stimulate the newly discovered pleasure center. Heath’s patients behaved remarkably like Olds and Milner’s rats. When given permission to self-stimulate at any rate they liked, they averaged forty shocks per minute. When a food tray was brought in for a break, the patients—who admitted they were hungry—didn’t want to stop the self-stimulation to eat. One patient put up vigorous protests whenever the experimenter tried to end the session and disconnect the electrodes. Another participant continued to press the button over two hundred times after the current was turned off, until the experimenter finally demanded that he stop.15 Somehow these results convinced Heath that self-stimulation of the brain was a viable therapeutic technique for a wide range of mental disorders (heck, they seemed to like it), and he decided it would be a good idea to leave the electrodes in his patients’ brains and give them small portable self-stimulators they could wear on their belts and use whenever they wanted.

At this point, we should consider the context of this research. The dominant scientific paradigm at the time was behaviorism. Behaviorists believed the only thing worth measuring—in animals or humans—was behavior. Thoughts? Feelings? Waste of time. If an objective observer couldn’t see it, it wasn’t science, and it wasn’t important. This may be why early reports of Heath’s work lack any detailed firsthand reports from his patients about what the self-stimulation felt like. Heath, like Olds and Milner, assumed that because his subjects continuously self-stimulated, and ignored food for the opportunity to keep shocking themselves, they were being “rewarded” for it with euphoric pleasure. And it’s true that the patients said the shocks felt good. But their near-constant rates of self-stimulation, combined with anxiety about having the current turned off, suggested something other than true satisfaction. What few details we have about his patients’ thoughts and feelings reveal another side to this seemingly blissful experience. One patient, who suffered from narcolepsy and was given the portable implant to help him stay awake, described the feeling of self-stimulation as intensely frustrating. Despite his “frequent, sometimes frantic pushing of the button,” he was never able to achieve the sense of satisfaction he felt he was close to experiencing. The self-stimulation left him anxious, not happy. His behavior looked more like compulsion than a man experiencing pleasure.

What if Olds and Milner’s rats weren’t self-stimulating to exhaustion because it felt so good that they didn’t want to stop? What if the area of the brain they were stimulating wasn’t rewarding them with the experience of profound pleasure, but simply promising them the experience of pleasure? Is it possible the rats were self-stimulating because their brains were telling them that if they just pressed that lever one more time, something wonderful was going to happen?

Olds and Milner hadn’t discovered the pleasure center—they had discovered what neuroscientists now call the reward system. The area they were stimulating was part of the brain’s most primitive motivational system, one that evolved to propel us toward action and consumption. That’s why Olds and Milner’s first rat kept hanging around the corner where he was first stimulated, and why the rats were willing to forgo food and electrocute their feet for the chance at another brain jolt. Each time the area was activated, the rat’s brain said, “Do this again! This will make you feel good!” Every stimulation encouraged the rat to seek more stimulation, but the stimulation itself never brought satisfaction.

As you will see, it’s not just electrodes in the brain that can trigger this system. Our whole world is full of stimuli—from restaurant menus and catalogs to lottery tickets and television ads—that can turn us into the human version of Olds and Milner’s rat chasing the promise of happiness. When that happens, our brains become obsessed with “I want,” and it gets harder to say, “I won’t.”

“Promise of Reward” System of Midbrain

THE NEUROBIOLOGY OF “I WANT”

How does the reward system compel us to act? When the brain recognizes an opportunity for reward, it releases a neurotransmitter called dopamine. Dopamine tells the rest of the brain what to pay attention to and what to get our greedy little hands on. A dopamine rush doesn’t create happiness itself—the feeling is more like arousal. We feel alert, awake, and captivated. We recognize the possibility of feeling good and are willing to work for that feeling.

In the last few years, neuroscientists have given the effect of dopamine release many names, including seeking, wanting, craving, and desire. But one thing is clear: It is not the experience of liking, satisfaction, pleasure, or actual reward. Studies show that you can annihilate the entire dopamine system in a rat’s brain, and it will still get a goofy grin on its face if you feed it sugar. What it won’t do is work for the treat. It likes the sugar; it just doesn’t want it before it has it.

In 2001, Stanford neuroscientist Brian Knutson published the definitive experiment demonstrating dopamine’s role in anticipating, but not experiencing, reward. He borrowed his method from a famous study in behavioral psychology, Ivan Pavlov’s classical conditioning of dogs. In 1927, Pavlov observed that if he rang a bell before feeding his dogs, they started to salivate as soon as they heard the bell ring, even if food was nowhere in sight. They had learned to associate the sound of the bell with the promise of dinner. Knutson had a hunch that the brain does its own kind of salivation when it expects a reward—and, critically, that this brain response is not the same as the brain’s response when the reward is received.

In his study, Knutson put human participants in a brain scanner and conditioned them to expect the opportunity to win money when they saw a special symbol appear on a screen. To win the money, they’d have to press a button to get the reward. As soon as the symbol appeared, the brain’s dopamine-releasing reward center lit up, and the participants pressed the button to get their reward. When the participants actually won money, however, this area of the brain quieted down. The joy of winning was registered in different areas of the brain. Knutson had proven that dopamine is for action, not happiness. The promise of reward guaranteed that participants wouldn’t miss out on the reward by failing to act. What they were feeling when the reward system lit up was anticipation, not pleasure.

Anything we think is going to make us feel good will trigger the reward system—the sight of tempting food, the smell of coffee brewing, the 50-percent-off sign in a store window, a smile from a s@xy stranger, the infomercial that promises to make you rich. The flood of dopamine marks this new object of desire as critical to your survival. When dopamine hijacks your attention, the mind becomes fixated on obtaining or repeating whatever triggered it. This is nature’s trick to make sure you don’t starve because you can’t be bothered to pick a berry, and that you don’t hasten human extinction because seducing a potential mate seems like too much of a hassle. Evolution doesn’t give a damn about happiness itself, but will use the promise of happiness to keep us struggling to stay alive. And so the promise of happiness—not the direct experience of happiness—is the brain’s strategy to keep you hunting, gathering, working, and wooing.

Of course, as with many of our primitive instincts, we find ourselves in a very different environment now than the one the human brain evolved in. Take, for example, the flood of dopamine we experience whenever we see, smell, or taste high-fat or high-sugar food. That dopamine release guarantees we will want to stuff ourselves silly. This is a great instinct if you live in an environment where food is scarce. But when you live in a world where food is not only widely available but also specifically engineered to maximize your dopamine response, following every burst of dopamine is a recipe for obesity, not longevity.

Or consider the effects of s@xually graphic images on our reward system. For much of human history, you weren’t going to see a naked person posing seductively for you unless the opportunity for mating was real. Certainly a little motivation to act in this scenario would be smart if you wanted to keep your DNA in the gene pool. Fast-forward a few hundred thousand years, and we find ourselves in a world where Internet @@@ is always available, not to mention constant exposure to s@xual images in advertisements and entertainment. The instinct to pursue every one of these s@xual “opportunities” is how people end up addicted to X-rated websites—and victims of advertising campaigns that use s@x to sell everything from deodorant to designer jeans.

DOPAMINE ON DEMAND

When we add the instant gratification of modern technology to this primitive motivation system, we end up with dopamine-delivery devices that are damn near impossible to put down. Some of us are old enough to remember the thrill of pressing a button on an answering machine to find out if we had any new messages. Then there was the anticipation of connecting by modem to AOL, hoping the computer would tell us, “You’ve got mail!” Well, now we have Facebook, Twitter, e-mail, and text messaging—the modern equivalent of psychiatrist Robert Heath’s self-stimulating devices.

Because we know there’s a chance we’ll have a new message, or because the very next You Tube video may be the one that makes us laugh, we keep hitting refresh, clicking the next link, and checking our devices compulsively. It’s as if our cell phones, BlackBerrys, and laptops have a direct line into our brains, giving us constant jolts of dopamine. There are few things ever dreamed of, smoked, or injected that have as addictive an effect on our brains as technology. This is how our devices keep us captive and always coming back for more. The definitive Internet act of our times is a perfect metaphor for the promise of reward: We search. And we search. And we search some more, clicking that mouse like—well, like a rat in a cage seeking another “hit,” looking for the elusive reward that will finally feel like enough.

Cell phones, the Internet, and other social media may have accidentally exploited our reward system, but computer and video game designers intentionally manipulate the reward system to keep players hooked. The promise that the next level or big win could happen at any time is what makes a game compelling. It’s also what makes a game hard to quit. One study found that playing a video game led to dopamine increases equivalent to amphetamine use—and it’s this dopamine rush that makes both so addictive. The unpredictability of scoring or advancing keeps your dopamine neurons firing, and you glued to your seat. Depending on your point of view, this makes for either incredible entertainment or unethical exploitation of gamers. While not everyone who picks up an Xbox controller gets hooked, for those who are vulnerable, games can be as addictive as any drug. In 2005, a twenty-eight-year-old Korean boiler repairman, Lee Seung Seop, died from cardiovascular failure after playing the game Star-Craft for fifty hours straight. He had refused to eat or sleep, wanting only to continue. It’s impossible to hear this story and not think about Olds and Milner’s rats pressing the lever to exhaustion.

UNDER THE MICROSCOPE: WHAT GETS YOUR DOPAMINE NEURONS FIRING?

Do you know what your own dopamine triggers are? Food? Alcohol? Shopping? Facebook? Something else? This week, pay attention to what captures your attention. What unleashes that promise of reward that compels you to seek satisfaction? What gets you salivating like Pavlov’s dogs or obsessed like Olds and Milner’s rats?

A PRESCRIPTION FOR ADDICTION

Perhaps the most striking evidence of dopamine’s role in addiction comes from patients being treated for Parkinson’s disease, a common neurodegenerative disorder caused by the loss of dopamine-producing brain cells. The main symptoms reflect dopamine’s role in motivating action: slow or impaired movement, depression, and occasionally complete catatonia. The standard treatment for Parkinson’s disease is a two-drug combo: L-dopa, which helps the brain make dopamine, and a dopamine agonist, which stimulates dopamine receptors in the brain to mimic the action of dopamine. When patients begin drug therapy, their brains are flooded with way more dopamine than they’ve seen in a long time. This relieves the main symptoms of the disease, but also creates new problems that no one expected.

Medical journals are full of case studies documenting the unintended side effects of these drugs. There is the fifty-four-year-old woman who developed insatiable cravings for cookies, crackers, and pasta, and would stay up late into the night binge-eating. Or the fifty-two-year-old man who developed a daily gambling habit, staying at the casino for thirty-six hours straight and running through his life’s savings.16 Or the forty-nine-year-old man who all of a sudden found himself afflicted with an increased appetite, a taste for alcohol, and what his wife called “an excessive s@x urge” that required calling the cops to get him to leave her alone. All of these cases were completely resolved by taking the patients off the dopamine-enhancing drug. But in many cases, confused loved ones and doctors first sent patients to psychotherapy and Alcoholics or Gamblers Anonymous. They were unable to see that the new addictions were a brain glitch, not a deep-seated emotional problem that required psychological and spiritual counseling.

While these cases are extreme, they aren’t so different from what happens in your brain whenever you get hooked by the promise of reward. The drugs that the Parkinson’s patients were on simply exaggerated the natural effect that all these things—food, s@x, alcohol, gambling, work—have on the reward system. We are driven to chase pleasure, but often at the cost of our well-being. When dopamine puts our brains on a reward-seeking mission, we become the most risk-taking, impulsive, and out-of-control version of ourselves.

Importantly, even if the reward never arrives, the promise of reward—combined with a growing sense of anxiety when we think about stopping—is enough to keep us hooked. If you’re a lab rat, you press a lever again and again until you collapse or starve to death. If you’re a human, this leaves you with a lighter wallet and a fuller stomach, at best. At worst, you may find yourself spiraling into obsession and compulsion.

THIS IS YOUR BRAIN ON DOPAMINE: THE RISE OF NEUROMARKETING

When dopamine is released by one promise of reward, it also makes you more susceptible to any other kind of temptation. For example, erotic images make men more likely to take financial risks, and fantasizing about winning the lottery leads people to overeat—two ways daydreaming about unattainable rewards can get you into trouble. High levels of dopamine amplify the lure of immediate gratification, while making you less concerned about long-term consequences.

Do you know who has figured this out? People who want your money. Many aspects of our retail environment have been designed to keep us always wanting more, from big food companies packing their recipes with just the right combination of sugar, salt, and fat to drive your dopamine neurons crazy to lotto commercials that encourage you to imagine what you would do with a million dollars if you hit the jackpot.

Grocery stores are no fools, either. They want you shopping under the influence of maximum dopamine, so they put their most tempting merchandise front and center. When I walk into my neighborhood store, the very first thing I’m hit with is the free samples in the bakery section. This is no accident. Marketing researchers at Stanford University have shown that food and drink samples make shoppers hungrier and thirstier, and put shoppers in a reward-seeking state of mind. Why? Because samples combine two of the biggest promises of reward: Free and Food. (If there’s an attractive spokesperson handing out the samples, you can throw in a third F, and then you’re really in trouble.) In one study, participants who sampled something sweet were more likely to purchase indulgent foods such as a steak or cake, as well as items that were on sale. The food and drink samples amplified the appeal of products that would typically activate the reward system. (Nothing triggers a budget-minded mom’s promise of reward more than the opportunity to save money!) There was no effect, however, on utilitarian items like oatmeal and dishwasher liquid, demonstrating that even a hit of dopamine cannot make toilet paper irresistible to the average consumer (sorry, Charmin).17 But take a bite of the store’s new cinnamon strudel, and you may find yourself with a few more items in your cart than you planned. And even if you resist the temptation of the sample, your brain—hopped up on dopamine—will be looking for something to satisfy the promise of reward.

The Stanford researchers who ran this study asked twenty-one food and nutrition experts to predict the results, and shockingly, 81 percent believed that the opposite would be true—that samples would decrease a shopper’s hunger and thirst, and satiate their reward seeking. This just goes to show how unaware most of us—experts included—are of the many environmental factors that influence our inner desires and behavior. For example, most people also believe that they are immune to advertisements, despite ample evidence that TV ads for snack foods make you more likely to hit the fridge—especially if you’re a dieter trying to cut back on snacks.

The reward system of the brain also responds to novelty and variety. Your dopamine neurons eventually become less responsive to familiar rewards, even ones you really enjoy, whether it’s a daily mocha latte or the same old lunch special. It’s not a coincidence that places like Starbucks and Jack in the Box are constantly introducing new variations of the standard fare, and clothing retailers roll out new color choices for their wardrobe basics. Regular cup of joe? Been there, done that. Ah, but what’s this on the menu—a white chocolate latte? The thrill is back! Cable-knit sweater in your favorite clothing catalog? Boring. But wait, it’s now available in salted-caramel brown and melted-butter yellow? Dopamine days are here again!

Then there are the price tricks guaranteed to make the primitive part of your brain want to hoard scarce resources. Anything that makes you feel like you’re getting a bargain is going to open the dopamine floodgates, from “Buy 1 Get 1 Free!” deals to signs that shout “60 Percent Off!” Especially potent are the price tags at discount retailers that list some ridiculously high “suggested retail price” next to the retailer’s lower price. As Amazon.com knows and ruthlessly exploits, your brain quickly calculates the savings and (illogically) treats the difference as money earned. $999 marked down to $44.99? What a steal! I don’t even know what it’s for, but add to cart immediately! Throw in any kind of time pressure or scarcity cue (door-busters savings that end at noon, one-day sales, the ominous-sounding “while supplies last”), and you’ll be hunting and gathering like you’ve found the last dwindling food supply on the savannah.

Businesses also use smells to manufacture desire where none existed. An appetizing odor is one of the fastest ways to trigger the promise of reward, and as soon as the scented molecules land on your olfactory receptors, the brain will begin searching for the source. The next time you walk by a fast-food restaurant and are tempted by the smell of french fries and burgers, it’s a safe bet you’re not smelling the food inside, but a carefully manufactured Eau de Eat More being piped onto the sidewalk through special vents. The website of Scent Air, a leader in the field of scent marketing,18 brags about how it lured visitors into an ice cream parlor on the lower level of a hotel. With a strategically placed aroma-delivery system, they released the scent of sugar cookies to the top of the stairs and waffle cones to the bottom. The average passerby will think she is inhaling the authentic smell of the sweet treats. Instead, she is breathing in enhanced chemicals designed to maximize the firing of her dopamine neurons and lead her—and her wallet—straight down the stairs.19 For Bloomingdale’s, the company varied the scents by department: Baby Powder to trigger warm and fuzzy feelings in the maternity department, Coconut in the swimsuit department to inspire fantasies of cocktails on the beach, and the “soothing scent of Lilac” for the intimate apparel department, presumably to calm down women standing naked under fluorescent lighting in front of a three-way dressing-room mirror. You may not even consciously notice these scents, but they can influence your brain and your shopping all the same.

Of course, science can be used for good as well as profit, and to be fair, the field of scent marketing has done more for the world than sell ice cream cones and bikinis. A Florida hospital’s MRI department reduced its last-minute appointment-cancellation rates by introducing Coconut Beach and Ocean fragrances into the waiting areas. A little promise of reward can be a powerful antidote to anxiety, and help people approach things they would rather avoid. Other industries and service providers might benefit from a similar strategy—perhaps dentists could infuse their offices with the scent of Halloween Candy, and tax advisers might choose Stiff Martini.

BECOME A DOPAMINE DETECTIVE

Once I introduce these neuromarketing and sales tricks to my students, it ignites a hunt for evidence. They start to see how many of their willpower failures are hastened by dopamine triggers in their everyday environments. Students return the next week with stories of how their favorite stores are manipulating them, from the scented candles burning in the cookware store to the scratch-and-win discount cards handed out to shoppers at the mall. They recognize why a clothing store company has pictures of naked models on its walls, and why auctioneers open the bidding at bargain prices. Once you start looking, it’s impossible not to see the many traps that have been laid to ensnare you, your dopamine neurons, and your money.

Almost universally, students report feeling empowered by these observations. They have fun spotting the tricks. It also helps make sense of some shopping mysteries, like why something that seemed irresistible in the store seems so disappointing at home, far away from the dopamine that clouded your judgment. One woman finally understood why she always heads to the gourmet grocery store when she’s bored—not for food, but just to wander around looking at things. Her brain is directing her to a reliable trigger of a dopamine rush. Another student canceled her catalog subscriptions when she recognized that she was essentially getting a dopamine delivery in the mail, each colorful page creating desires that could only be filled by that company’s products. A student at a professional conference in Las Vegas was able to hold on to more of his money because he saw through the casino’s strategies to overstimulate his dopamine neurons: nearly naked showgirls, all-you-can-eat buffets, lights and buzzers signaling every win in the house.

Although we live in a world engineered to make us want, we can—just by paying attention—start to see through some of it. Knowing what’s going on won’t eliminate all your wants, but it will give you at least a fighting chance to exercise your “I won’t” power.

UNDER THE MICROSCOPE: WHO’S MANIPULATING YOUR DOPAMINE NEURONS?

Look for how retailers and marketers try to trigger the promise of reward. Make it a game when you go to the grocery store or watch advertisements. What do you smell? What do you see? What do you hear? Knowing that cues have been carefully chosen to tempt you can help you see them for what they are and resist them.

PUTTING DOPAMINE TO WORK

When I discuss neuromarketing in class, some student will inevitably propose that we make certain kinds of advertising and undisclosed retail manipulation illegal. This impulse is understandable, but almost certainly impossible. The number of restrictions that would have to be put in place to create a “safe” environment is not only implausible, but to the vast majority of people, unappealing. We want to feel our desires, and—for better or worse—we delight in a world that puts them on constant display for us to dream about. That’s why people love window-shopping, flipping through luxury magazines, and touring open houses. It’s difficult to imagine a world where our dopamine neurons aren’t being constantly courted. And even if we were “protected” from dopamine stimulants, we’d most likely start looking for something to stimulate our desires.

Since it’s unlikely we’ll ever outlaw the promise of reward, we might as well put it to good use. We can take a lesson from neuromarketers and try to “dopaminize” our least favorite tasks. An unpleasant chore can be made more appealing by introducing a reward. And when the rewards of our actions are far off in the future, we can try to squeeze a little extra dopamine out of neurons by fantasizing about the eventual payoff (not unlike those lotto commercials).

Some economists have even proposed dopaminizing “boring” things like saving for retirement and filing your taxes on time. For example, imagine a savings account where your money is protected, and you can take it out whenever you want—but instead of getting a guaranteed low interest rate, you are entered in lotteries for large cash prizes. People who buy lottery tickets but don’t have a dollar in the bank might be much more enthusiastic about saving their money if every deposit they made gave them another chance to win $100,000. Or imagine if by filing your taxes on time and honestly reporting all income and deductions, you had a shot at winning back the entire year’s taxes. Wouldn’t this motivate you to beat the April 15 deadline? While the IRS may be a little slow to move on this proposal, it’s something that a business could easily implement to motivate on-time expense reports.

The promise of reward has even been used to help people overcome addiction. One of the most effective intervention strategies in alcohol and drug recovery is something called the fish bowl. Patients who pass their drug tests win the opportunity to draw a slip of paper out of a bowl. About half of these slips have a prize listed on them, ranging in value from $1 to $20. Only one slip has a big prize, worth $100. Half of the slips have no prize value at all—instead, they say, “Keep up the good work.” This means that when you reach your hand into the fish bowl, the odds are you’re going to end up with a prize worth $1 or a few kind words. This shouldn’t be motivating—but it is. In one study, 83 percent of patients who had access to fish bowl rewards stayed in treatment for the whole twelve weeks, compared with only 20 percent of patients receiving standard treatment without the promise of reward. Eighty percent of the fish bowl patients passed all their drug tests, compared with only 40 percent of the standard treatment group. When the intervention was over, the fish bowl group was also far less likely to relapse than patients who received standard treatment—even without the continued promise of reward.

Amazingly, the fish bowl technique works even better than paying patients for passing their drug tests—despite the fact that patients end up with far less “reward” from the fish bowl than they would from guaranteed payments. This highlights the power of an unpredictable reward. Our reward system gets much more excited about a possible big win than a guaranteed smaller reward, and it will motivate us to do whatever provides the chance to win. This is why people would rather play the lottery than earn a guaranteed 2 percent interest in a savings account, and why even the lowest employee in a company should be made to believe he could someday be the CEO.

WILLPOWER EXPERIMENT: DOPAMINIZE YOUR “I WILL” POWER CHALLENGE

My students have dopaminized tasks they typically put off by using music, fashion magazines, and television to help them work out; bringing dreaded paperwork to a favorite café and finishing it over hot chocolate; and, in a truly creative gesture, buying a bunch of scratch-off lottery tickets and placing them next to procrastinated projects around the house. Others visualize the best-possible outcome of their hard work, to make the faraway rewards seem more real. If there’s something you’ve been putting off because it’s so unpleasant, can you motivate yourself by linking it to something that gets your dopamine neurons firing?

A PROCRASTINATOR DOPAMINIZES HER “ I WILL” POWER CHALLENGE

Nancy, whose youngest son had graduated from college nearly a decade earlier, had a problem with her empty nest. It wasn’t empty. She had turned her son’s old bedroom into the “spare” room, and over the years, it had become more like a salvage yard. Anytime she didn’t know where to put something, into the spare room it went. She wanted to clean it out and turn it into a guest room, not a room she had to hide from visitors. And yet every time she opened the door, she was overwhelmed. Cleaning out the room became her class willpower challenge, but it wasn’t until we hit on the promise of reward that Nancy found her way in. She was inspired by a study that combined Christmas music with holiday scents to increase shoppers’ enjoyment and desire to stay in a store. For many people, a little Ho-Ho-Ho plus the smell of fresh fir trees brings up memories of the most wonderful “promise of reward” we have ever experienced: waking up on Christmas morning to a pile of presents. Nancy decided to bring out her holiday music and candles (conveniently enough, stored in the spare room!) to get her through the task of cleaning. Though she’d been dreading it, she actually enjoyed working on the room in small bursts. The overwhelm was worse than the actual process, and the holly, jolly dopamine helped her find the motivation to get started.

THE DARK SIDE OF DOPAMINE

Dopamine can be a great motivator, and even when it’s tempting us to order dessert or max out our credit cards, it’s hard to describe this tiny neurotransmitter as evil. But dopamine does have a dark side, one that’s not hard to see if we pay close attention. If we pause and notice what’s really going on in our brains and bodies when we’re in that state of wanting, we will find that the promise of reward can be as stressful as it is delightful. Desire doesn’t always make us feel good—sometimes it makes us feel downright rotten. That’s because dopamine’s primary function is to make us pursue happiness, not to make us happy. It doesn’t mind putting a little pressure on us—even if that means making us unhappy in the process.

To motivate you to seek the object of your craving, the reward system actually has two weapons: a carrot and a stick. The first weapon is, of course, the promise of reward. Dopamine-releasing neurons create this feeling by talking to the areas of your brain that anticipate pleasure and plan action. When these areas are bathed in dopamine, the result is desire—the carrot that makes the horse run forward. But the reward system has a second weapon that functions more like the proverbial stick. When your reward center releases dopamine, it also sends a message to the brain’s stress center. In this area of the brain, dopamine triggers the release of stress hormones. The result: You feel anxious as you anticipate your object of desire. The need to get what you want starts to feel like a life-or-death emergency, a matter of survival.

Researchers have observed this mixed inner experience of desire and stress in women who crave chocolate. When they see images of chocolate, the women show a startle response—a physiological reflex associated with alarm and arousal, as if spotting a predator in the wild. When asked what they were feeling, the women reported both pleasure and anxiety, along with the feeling of being out of control. When we find ourselves in a similar state, we attribute the pleasure to whatever triggered the response, and the stress to not yet having it. We fail to recognize that the object of our desire is causing both the anticipated pleasure and the stress.

UNDER THE MICROSCOPE: THE STRESS OF DESIRE

Most of us pay far more attention to the promise of feeling good than the actual feeling bad that accompanies dopamine-drive desire. This week, see if you can notice when wanting triggers stress and anxiety. If you give in to temptation, do you feel like you are responding to the promise of reward? Or are you trying to relieve the anxiety?

A SHOPPER FEELS THE ANXIETY, BUT KEEPS THE PROMISE

Whenever Yvonne wanted to feel good, she hit the mall. She was sure that shopping made her happy, because whenever she was bored or upset, it’s what she wanted to do. She had never really noticed the complex feelings that went along with shopping, but took the assignment of paying closer attention. She discovered that she was most happy on the way to the mall. Driving there, she felt hopeful and excited. Once she arrived, as long as she was window-shopping from the center of the mall, she felt good. But when she was in a store, the feelings shifted. She felt tense, especially if the store was crowded. She felt an urge to get all the way through the store, and a sense of time pressure. When she waited in line to buy something, she noticed that she felt impatient and anxious. If the customer in front of her had too many things or was making a return, she found herself getting angry. Getting to the register and handing over her credit card felt like a relief, not like the happiness she had felt before the purchase. Yvonne realized that the hope and excitement she felt while driving to the mall was the carrot to get her there; the anxiety and anger was the stick keeping her in line. She never felt as good going home as she did driving over.

For many people, this kind of realization leads to turning away from the unsatisfying reward. The potato chip junkie eyes the bag of chips with newfound suspicion, and the late-night TV addict turns the tube off. But Yvonne settled on a different strategy: window-shopping for maximum happiness. The feeling of being in the mall produced the feeling that she liked best; spending was stressful. Surprisingly, when she went with the mind-set of not buying, and left her credit cards at home so she couldn’t overspend, she went home happier than if she had spent a lot of money.

When you really understand how a so-called reward makes you feel, you will be best able to make smart decisions about whether and how to “reward” yourself.

WE MISTAKE THE PROMISE OF REWARD FOR HAPPINESS

When Olds and Milner watched their rats refuse food and run back and forth across an electrified grid, they made the same mistake each of us makes when we interpret our own dopamine-driven behavior. We observe our intense focus, the consistent seeking of what we crave, and the willingness to work—even suffer—for what we want as evidence that the object of our desire must make us happy. We watch ourselves buy the one thousandth candy bar, the new kitchen gadget, the next drink; we wear ourselves out chasing the new partner, the better job, the highest stock return. We mistake the experience of wanting for a guarantee of happiness. It’s no wonder Olds and Milner looked at those rats shocking themselves to exhaustion and assumed that they were happy. We humans find it nearly impossible to distinguish the promise of reward from whatever pleasure or payoff we are seeking.

The promise of reward is so powerful that we continue to pursue things that don’t make us happy, and consume things that bring us more misery than satisfaction. Because the pursuit of reward is dopamine’s main goal, it is never going to give you a “stop” signal—even when the experience does not live up to the promise. Brian Wansink, director of the Cornell University Food and Brand Laboratory, demonstrated this with a trick he played on moviegoers at a Philadelphia theater. The sight and smell of movie theater popcorn is a reliable way to get most people’s dopamine neurons dancing—customers stand in line like Pavlov’s dogs, tongues hanging out and drooling in anticipation of the first mouthful. Wansink arranged to have the theater’s concession stand sell fourteen-day-old popcorn to the moviegoers. He wanted to find out whether the moviegoers would keep eating, listening to the brain’s belief that movie theater popcorn is always delicious, or whether they would notice the actual taste of the treat, and refuse to eat it.

After the film, the moviegoers confirmed that the two-week-old popcorn was indeed nasty stuff: stale, soggy, verging on disgusting. But did they storm the popcorn stand demanding refunds? No, they ate it up. They even ate 60 percent as much popcorn as moviegoers who received a fresh batch! They believed their dopamine neurons, not their taste buds.

We may scratch our heads and wonder how this is possible, but it’s something few of us are immune to. Just think of your own biggest “I won’t” power challenge. Chances are this is something you believe makes you happy—or would make you happy, if you could just get enough of it. But a careful analysis of the experience and its consequences often reveals the opposite. At best, giving in takes away the anxiety that the promise of reward produces to make you want it more. But ultimately, you’re left frustrated, unsatisfied, disappointed, ashamed, tired, sick, or simply no happier than when you started. There is growing evidence that when people pay close attention to the experience of their false rewards, the magical spell wears off. If you force your brain to reconcile what it expects from a reward—happiness, bliss, satisfaction, an end to sadness or stress—with what it actually experiences, your brain will eventually adjust its expectations. For example, when overeaters slow down and really experience a food that usually triggers cravings and bingeing, they typically notice that the food looks and smells better than it tastes; even with the mouth and stomach full, the brain begs for more; their feelings of anxiety only increase as they eat more; sometimes they don’t even taste the food when they’re bingeing, because they’re eating so fast; and they feel worse physically and emotionally afterward than they did before. At first, this can be disturbing—after all, they had really believed that food was a source of happiness. However, the research shows that people who practice this mindful-eating exercise develop greater self-control around food and have fewer episodes of binge-eating. Over time, they not only lose weight, but they also experience less stress, anxiety, and depression. When we free ourselves from the false promise of reward, we often find that the thing we were seeking happiness from was the main source of our misery.

WILLPOWER EXPERIMENT: TEST THE PROMISE OF REWARD

Test the promise of reward with a temptation that you regularly indulge in because your brain tells you it will make you happy. The most common choices in my class are snack foods, shopping, television, and online time-wasters from e-mail to poker. Mindfully indulge, but don’t rush through the experience. Notice what the promise of reward feels like: the anticipation, the hope, the excitement, the anxiety, the salivation—whatever is going on in your brain and body. Then give yourself permission to give in. How does the experience compare with the expectation? Does the feeling of the promise of reward ever go away—or does it continue to drive you to eat more, spend more, or stay longer? When, if ever, do you become satisfied? Or do you simply reach the point of being unable to continue, because you’re stuffed, exhausted, frustrated, out of time, or out of the “reward”?

People who try this exercise commonly have one of two results. Some people find that when they really pay attention to the experience of indulging, they need far less than they thought they would to feel satisfied. Others find that the experience is completely unsatisfying, revealing a huge gap between the promise of reward and the reality of their experience. Both observations can give you greater control over what has felt like an out-of-control behavior.

THE IMPORTANCE OF DESIRE

Before you ask your doctor for dopamine-suppressing drugs, it’s worth contemplating the upside of the promise of reward. While we get into trouble when we mistake wanting for happiness, the solution is not to eliminate wanting. A life without wants may not require as much self-control—but it’s also not a life worth living.

AN ADDICT LOSES HIS CRAVINGS

Adam was not a man of self-restraint. At age thirty-three, a typical day included up to ten drinks, a hit of crack cocaine, and sometimes a bonus round of Ecstasy. His substance abuse had a long history, starting with alcohol at age nine and cocaine at thirteen, and by the time he was an adult, he was hooked on marijuana, cocaine, opiates, and Ecstasy.

All that changed the day he was taken from a party to the emergency room, where he promptly ingested all the drugs in his possession to avoid being caught with illegal substances (not a smart move, but to be fair, he wasn’t in the clearest state of mind). The dangerous drug combination of cocaine, Ecstasy, oxycodone, and methadone led to a near-fatal drop in blood pressure and reduced oxygen to his brain.

Although he was resuscitated and eventually released from intensive care, the temporary oxygen deprivation would prove to have profound consequences. Adam lost all of his cravings for drugs and alcohol. His daily drug use dropped to complete abstinence, confirmed by drug tests over the following six months. This miraculous change was not a spiritual revelation or some kind of wake-up call inspired by his brush with death. According to Adam, he simply had no desire to consume the substances.

This might sound like a positive turn of events, but the loss of desire went beyond cocaine and alcohol. Adam lost desire, period. He could not imagine that anything would make him happy. His physical energy and ability to concentrate disappeared, and he became increasingly isolated from others. Without the ability to expect pleasure, he lost hope and spiraled into a severe depression.

What triggered this loss of desire? The psychiatrists at Columbia University who treated Adam discovered the answer in scans of his brain. The oxygen deprivation during his drug overdose had left Adam with lesions in the brain’s reward system.

Adam’s case, reported in the American Journal of Psychiatry, is extraordinary because of the dramatic change from addict to absolute loss of “I want.” But there are many other cases of people who lose desire and the ability to expect happiness. Psychologists call it anhedonia—literally, “without pleasure.” People with anhedonia describe life as a series of habits with no expectation of satisfaction. They may eat, shop, socialize, and have s@x, but they don’t anticipate pleasure from these activities. Without the possibility of pleasure, they lose motivation. It’s hard to get out of bed when you can’t imagine that anything you do will make you feel good. This complete disconnect from desire drains hope and, for many, the will to live.

When our reward system is quiet, the result isn’t so much total contentment as it is apathy. It’s why many Parkinson’s patients—whose brains aren’t producing enough dopamine—are depressed, not peaceful. In fact, neuroscientists now suspect that an underactive reward system contributes to the biological basis of depression. When scientists have watched the activity of depressed people’s brains, they’ve seen that the reward system can’t sustain activation, even in the face of immediate reward. There’s a little burst of activity, but not enough to create the full feeling of “I want” and “I’m willing to work for it.” This produces the loss of desire and motivation that many people who are depressed experience.

THE PARADOX OF REWARD

If you’re like most of my students, you’re probably wondering where all this leaves us. The promise of reward doesn’t guarantee happiness, but no promise of reward guarantees unhappiness. Listen to the promise of reward, and we give in to temptation. Without the promise of reward, we have no motivation.

To this dilemma, there’s no easy answer. It’s clear that we need the promise of reward to keep us interested and engaged in life. If we’re lucky, our reward systems won’t stop serving us in this way—but hopefully, they also won’t turn against us either. We live in a world of technology, advertisements, and twenty-four-hour opportunities that leave us always wanting and rarely satisfied. If we are to have any self-control, we need to separate the real rewards that give our lives meaning from the false rewards that keep us distracted and addicted. Learning to make this distinction may be the best we can do. This isn’t always easy, but understanding what’s happening in the brain can make it a little easier. If we can remember Olds and Milner’s rat pressing that lever, we may find just enough clarity in moments of temptation to not believe the brain’s big lie.

THE LAST WORD

Desire is the brain’s strategy for action. As we’ve seen, it can be both a threat to self-control and a source of willpower. When dopamine points us to temptation, we must distinguish wanting from happiness. But we can also recruit dopamine and the promise of reward to motivate ourselves and others. In the end, desire is neither good nor bad—what matters is where we let it point us, and whether we have the wisdom to know when to follow.

CHAPTER SUMMARY

The Idea: Our brains mistake the promise of reward for a guarantee of happiness, so we chase satisfaction from things that do not deliver.

Under the Microscope

• What gets your dopamine neurons firing? What unleashes that promise of reward that compels you to seek satisfaction?

• Neuromarketing and environmental triggers. Look for how retailers and marketers try to trigger the promise of reward.

• The stress of desire. Notice when wanting triggers stress and anxiety.

Willpower Experiments

• Dopaminize your “I will” power challenge. If there’s something you’ve been putting off, motivate yourself by linking it with something that gets your dopamine neurons firing.

• Test the promise of reward. Mindfully indulge in something your brain tells you will make you happy but that never seems to satisfy (e.g., snack food, shopping, television, and online time-wasters). Does reality match the brain’s promises?

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