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What Pringles, Netflix, and Substance Addiction Have in Common

Brooke Thomson

Jan 5, 2022

“If we were designed by engineers, as we consumed more, we’d desire less. But our frequent human tragedy is that the more we consume the hungrier we get. More and faster and stronger. What was an unexpected pleasure yesterday is what we feel entitled to today, and what won’t be enough tomorrow.”
Robert M. Sapolsky in his book “Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst”

Why does setting healthy habits or giving up bad habits feel so un-pleasurable? The previous article covered the neurology that creates, changes, and breaks habits. Part 1 covers that habits are triggered by environmental cues; and that habits become subconsciously ingrained with repetition.


In Part 2 we’ll look at the role dopamine (a neurochemical) plays in the habit process. Dopamine explains why detrimental habits can get out of an individual’s control even when they try to stop. A lot of the research around habit formation and specifically substance abuse puts emphasis on dopamine as why some bad habits are so hard to change even when we know better. Repeated habits (even complex series of actions like driving to work) live in the subconscious which often resists the intentions of the conscious mind. Habits are formed exponentially faster when dopamine shows up to the party.


The Reward Response:

Instead of conditioning by sheer repetition, dopamine is conditioning the brain by reward. A lot of the research on dopamine has been in addiction because substances elicit a big dopamine surge but also processed foods that spike blood sugar (with extremely high sugar and salt) are intentionally designed to elicit an addictive dopamine response. Online gaming, “Netflix binging”, and social media apps are all engineered to leverage dopamine’s addictive streak. Studies show that dopamine can visibly change the brain and its processing ability in scans.


At first it was thought that dopamine released in response to pleasure and that it was released consistently with pleasurable experiences. Today dopamine is considered more versatile and actually more of a “novelty response” than “pleasure response”. It is highest when encountering a new treat, and it diminishes through repetition. Dopamine is a response that occurs only seconds with the inciting event. A special treat or indulgence quickly becomes habit, and then as it becomes expected dopamine decreases. One would hope that as dopamine decreases the human brain would move onto the next thing instead of revisiting the same experience again and again. Unfortunately, studies show the opposite is more true. A 2016 John Hopkins study showed that once subjects associated one color to a reward (releasing dopamine); when the reward was removed and they were instructed to focus on a new color – they were still distracted by the first color from when there had previously been a reward. A study with mice found that once they associated a red light with reward, they would work to be near the red light even when there were no treats.


So as a behavior becomes habitual dopamine decreases; but we repeat the action looking for the dopamine response we got the first time. This is one someone might get one more piece of pizza, realize it’s not as good as they anticipated, and then eat it anyways.




Our world is engineered by dopamine stimulants that would never exist in the natural world. Our entertainment, flavors, and manufactured experiences elevate dopamine levels so high that a plateau or coming down from that high feel like a massive fall. That’s why an apple will never be as appealing as a cookie. Even though there’s no longer as much of a dopamine response to the cookie, previous dopamine wiring tells us to eat three more cookies instead of an apple. A total bummer.


This concept is key to understanding addiction, but our environment is filled with addictive signaling. We are incredibly acclimated and desensitized to it. Pringles in the ‘90s for example had a very “dopamine-abusive” marketing campaign with the slogan “Once You Pop You Can’t Stop”. This campaign was complete with the visuals and sounds to trigger a Pringles craving. And for anyone who knows that once you pop you can’t stop by accidentally eating a whole can of Pringles and not be full, Pringles are engineered for you to buy another can and endlessly consume. This 2017 spoof on the Pringles campaign sums it up.





Anticipation:

There is one more thing with dopamine – and that is that it’s more about anticipation than reward. This makes it very pertinent to addiction. Once an association or cue has been set; dopamine surges higher during the wait than it does when satiated. There is always “one more”. Once a cue is set in place dopamine rising during anticipation makes it incredibly difficult to ignore.


One gambling addiction study in 2010 found a significant neurological difference between gambling addicts vs those who gambled casually. Participants watched a slot machine inside an MRI. When the slot machine showed an “almost win” dopamine for the addicts lit up as if it was a win. The casual gamblers showed a disappointment and translated the “almost win” as a loss. Casinos take advantage of this by programming as many “almost wins” in their machines as possible. A 2016 Cambridge study with chimpanzees showed dopamine surged highest when there was a 50/50 chance of reward. Cell phones, news headlines, binge watching shows, and online games all take advantage of that mechanism.







Dopamine surges in anticipation and/or uncertainty; and drops when it’s fulfilled. This mechanism works to wire us to be hunters. We are wired to enjoy the chase, whether it’s climbing the corporate ladder or a romantic interest and then feel unfulfilled when the chase is done. Knowing this we can be equipped to face cravings knowing that dopamine will make the anticipation of acting on a craving is more powerful than fulfilling the craving.



Lastly:

Dopamine surges within seconds of a trigger or cue. Long term rewards like “after a month of daily exercise I’ll buy myself something nice” or “I’ll be so happy once I lose 5lbs” don’t hack the dopamine cycle. The reward to condition desired behavior has to instant. One psychologist only listened to Harry Potter at the gym so there was a reward at the gym.


White-knuckling through a craving also does not hack the cycle. Because dopamine responds to uncertainty, intermittently withholding from a craving just makes dopamine want it more. Identifying the triggers/cues and planning in advance (like changing a daily routine and setting new triggers) can help. Withholding from the desired habit for a length of time but thinking about the restraint fetishizes the habit. Experts suggest “Urge Surfing” through a craving.


When it comes to the dopamine aspect of habit formation, consciousness and awareness itself can help. A meditation or spiritual practice can help build awareness to observe the urge rather than act on it. Even just understanding that a craving is neurological response to a trigger can help detach from the urge. Every time the conscious mind overrides the subconscious wants is re-wiring towards the desired habit.


Taking time to authentically celebrate wanted habits instead can help install a new behavior. Instead of “I went to the gym today, but I should have started going three years ago” let dopamine celebrate the accomplishment no matter how small.


Coaches and experts often advise making a 10% change at a time, or just making 1 small change a month. With gradual change dopamine doesn't feel deprived (otherwise it’ll fixate on the object until it wins), but it can be distracted slowly towards new habits.


Repeat, repeat, repeat. Building and deconstructing habits is all in repeating a small series of actions.