Dopamine Spike – Your New Friend in Goal Attainment

Dopamine Spike – Your New Friend in Goal Attainment

Our external environment has always been a distracting force but in the last 20 odd years, the external stimuli have risen to unprecedented levels. They stops us from achieving our goals and we can feel helpless.

Most of us feel the pull of social media or platforms like Netflix, and we struggle with controlling it too. 

If you look at the current environment, most of the external stimuli are artificially created and much more exaggerated than natural stimuli.

This blog post will explain the background of why external stimulus effects us.  The importance of dopamine, and how we can use dopamine spikes to our advantage. In the end, two methods are explained to help with new habits that would help you achieve goals. 

Niko Tinbergen won a Noble Prize for his experiment with herring gulls. He noticed that the newly born chicks would peck on the red spot on their parent’s beak, begging to be fed

Niko created an artificial cardboard herring head with a much bigger red spot and noticed that though the models were far from real, the chicks pecked faster.

The chicks were acting as per their genetic programming. When an exaggerated model was used with 3 red dots on the beak, the chicks went crazy with their pecking. This exaggerated stimulus is what effected the chicks to react excitedly,  you might ask whether this effects us, humans, too?  

(As an aside, some scientists have questioned the experiment but it was re-done by others and they have agreed with Niko’s results.)

Supernormal Stimuli  

This excited reaction of the herring gulls at interacting with exaggerated stimuli is called “supernormal stimuli”. No natural stimuli can match this. One might think that humans are much more evolved than animals, but the supernormal stimuli affect us too! 

The impact of the supernormal stimuli has exponentially increased with time. For thousands of years, human beings had to hunt for food and deal with long bouts of starvation. This is why salt, sugar, and fat were kept in high regard. 

With the progress in the food industry, we have an excess of food but our brain’s reward centers have not changed. If we start eating a big block of chocolate, there is a happy explosion in our brain which tells us to repeat the behavior. Alternatively, if we eat carrots, we won’t be finishing a bag of 20 carrots as it does not have exaggerated stimuli. So, comparatively the natural product is not that attractive. 

Different companies have utilized this tendency successfully by making their offerings as attractive as possible. This creates an exaggerated reality and it is habit inducing.

“Likes” on social media are an exaggerated form of acceptance and appreciation. When you experience that, you want another hit of those likes. Same with any other social media or food.

What’s making us act in these ways and making us feel good? Dopamine!

We Want Dopamine!

Dopamine is mistakenly thought of as just a pleasure chemical. This is not true as dopamine is connected to motivation, learning and it promotes action too.

Dopamine encourages us to repeat behaviors that give us pleasure. The dopamine spike happens both in anticipation and then in experiencing the reward too. Read that sentence again, we will be using this fact for our advantage!

In his book Atomic Habits, James Clear has given a brilliant idea about how to use dopamine spikes to create good habits.

Understanding Dopamine Spikes

As a kid, there was the first time when you tasted chocolate. There was no anticipation for it, you just experienced it and the dopamine spike caused you to remember the pleasure.

The second time when you thought of eating chocolate, the anticipation created a dopamine spike (reward) and then you ate the chocolate. This time the eating of chocolate would not have produced a reward as you knew what to expect.

The third time if you had not eaten the chocolate after the craving, your dopamine would drop to lower than normal levels.

If you instead delayed eating the chocolate, the dopamine would spike at that time, showing you that it’s the “right” behavior.

The reward circuit of the brain lights up 100% when anticipating the reward while only 10% is activated when you are enjoying it! As James Clear puts it, “it is the craving that leads to the response” and “desire is the engine that drives behavior”.

So, this would be the key to changing your behavior to achieve your goal. 

Temptation Bundling  

Dr. Jordan Peterson has also discussed a similar concept in this video where he suggests having a balance between obligation and reward. He mentions that you cannot have plans where you do not give yourself some reward, otherwise you will be treating yourself like a tyrant treats a slave.

If you get the reward and obligation balance right, you have a sustainable plan for the long-term.

This means you can connect something that you want to do (reward) with something that you need (obligation) to do.

This is called “temptation bundling”. Researchers combined a reward of listening to audiobooks with the need to go to the gym. So, the participants could only listen to the audiobooks if they went to the gym.

They found out that, especially for people that overindulge in rewards and under engage in obligation, this approach had great benefits. Of the 227 participants, 61% decided to pay for the gym-only iPods with audiobooks in them after the experiment was over.

You can use this research to achieve your health goals too. If you binge on Netflix, you can arrange to watch Netflix only when you are in the gym.

If you struggle with calling your parents often, but you have always blown your budget by drinking coffee at your favorite cafe, it would be a good idea to only go to the cafe when you call them. In this way, you can steer yourself towards better behavior and control your wants too.

Habit Stacking

You can also do habit stacking. This is another concept given by James Clear where you can start performing a habit after or before you have done a task.

After I am done with vacuuming my carpet and put the cleaner back in the laundry room, I will watch the show on Netflix.

After I have eaten my dinner and washed my plates, I will chat with my wife about her day at work.

This kind of information is very useful for micro habits that will lead to the completion of a long term goal. These new changes might be difficult to remember if they are stacked or bundled with a habit which is not part of your everyday routine so you need to be careful.

You do get up from your bed every morning and have meals three times a day.  You need to match these habits with the habits you want to change.

I will meditate for 5 minutes on the dinner table after I have my breakfast.

In the end, it is important to remember that along with long term goals, the micro habits play a very big part in helping us achieve our goals. If these micro habits are incorporated into our routine, we can design them in a way that would help us with goal attainment.


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