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dopamine-driven feedback loop

A dopamine-driven feedback loop is a self-perpetuating circuit fueled by the way the neurotransmitter works with the brain’s reward system. Feedback loops, in general, are circuits that return output as input to a given system to drive future operations and, in this case, behaviors.

Dopamine is associated with “seeking” behavior. It works to motivate people to seek out food, information and entertainment, among myriad other commodities and experiences. Once a target is achieved, the brain’s opioid system delivers a chemical reward that we experience as pleasure. Through experiencing this cycle repeatedly, people and other animals learn to anticipate pleasure from seeking, which perpetuates the loop.

Social media use provides a good model of the dopamine feedback loop. The search for information or entertainment drives people to scroll through their Facebook newsfeeds, for example, in anticipation of pleasure when something interesting pops up. It’s not necessary that there are a great number of interesting items in the feed because, as in operant conditioning, an intermittent reinforcement schedule is the most effective for maintaining target behavior. In this case, the desired behavior is keeping people scrolling as long as possible. The feedback loop also manifests through posts, as people post anticipating responses and are rewarded by Likes and other reactions.

Because the system doesn’t have a mechanism for satiety built into it, the behavior driven by the dopamine feedback loop can continue for much longer than the individual intends and, in fact, for much longer than they perceive psychological rewards.

Chamath Palihapitiya is among prominent social media experts decrying the way sites like Facebook exploit human psychology to the detriment of users. In his 2017 "View from The Top Talk" at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, the former Facebook Vice-President of User Growth said “…we have created tools now that are ripping apart the social fabric of how society works… It is eroding the core foundations of how people behave, by and between each other. And I don't have a good solution. My solution is that I just don't use these tools anymore. I haven't for years."

This was last updated in July 2019

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