Whether you’re waiting for a train, a friend or the kettle to boil, the likelihood is that you’ll kill those brief moments by mindlessly scrolling or swiping across your phone screen.
And as soon as your phone pings or buzzes, do you immediately check it to see what exciting form of attention you’ve just been paid?
Does it annoy you when you’re in a meeting, feel your phone vibrate in your pocket, but know you can’t check it?
It’s a compulsive urge that many of us find hard to resist.
But according to Sharon Begley, author of Can’t Just Stop: An Investigation of Compulsions, there’s a psychological reason behind this.
Research from the 50s seemed to suggest that because dopamine is pleasurable, it’s pleasure to which people become addicted. But now we know better.
“What’s emerged in the last few years is that the dopamine circuitry actually predicts how much you will like something and how much pleasure it will give you. Then it calculates how much reality corresponds to the prediction or falls short.
“The emerging idea seems to be that when reality falls short, we feel a dopamine plunge. That feels bad, so we keep trying to do something that will make reality live up to expectations.
“That, to me, fits in with compulsions because these things we’re doing really aren’t that pleasurable. Rather, it’s the dopamine fuel, pleasure, and reward circuit that’s making us feel bad.”
So what we get addicted to is not the actual rush of, say the comment you just received on your latest Instagram, but rather the anticipation of it – most of the time, actually reading that comment doesn’t live up to our expectations.
According to Begley, this means “we feel driven and compelled to keep trying, like one of these days it’s going to feel great. If it never does, then you’re in this essentially infinite dopamine loop.”
Gaming is one of the prime examples of how such an addiction works, and there’s an ethical debate in the industry about whether it’s right to consciously get people hooked.
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Pass it on: Popular Science