“Even a year or two before the scene about persuasive tech grew up, dopamine was a molecule that had a certain edge and sexiness to it in the cultural zeitgeist,” explains Ramsay Brown, the 28-year-old cofounder of Dopamine Labs, a controversial California startup that promises to significantly increase the rate at which people use any running, diet or game app. “It is the sex, drugs and rock’n’roll molecule. While there are many important and fascinating questions that sit at the base of this molecule, when you say ‘dopamine’, people’s ears prick up in a way they don’t when you say ‘encephalin’ or ‘glutamate’. It’s the known fun transmitter.”
Fun, perhaps, but as with Kardashian, dopamine’s press is not entirely favourable. In a 2017 article titled “How evil is tech?”, the New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote: “Tech companies understand what causes dopamine surges in the brain and they lace their products with ‘hijacking techniques’ that lure us in and create ‘compulsion loops’.” Most social media sites create irregularly timed rewards, Brooks wrote, a technique long employed by the makers of slot machines, based on the work of the American psychologist BF Skinner, who found that the strongest way to reinforce a learned behaviour in rats is to reward it on a random schedule. “When a gambler feels favoured by luck, dopamine is released,” says Natasha Schüll, a professor at New York University and author of Addiction By Design: Machine Gambling in Las Vegas. This is the secret to Facebook’s era-defining success: we compulsively check the site because we never know when the delicious ting of social affirmation may sound.
Randomness is at the heart of Dopamine Labs’ service, a system that can be implemented into any app designed to build habitual behaviour. In a running app, for example, this means only issuing encouragement – a high-five badge, or a shower of digital confetti – at random intervals, rather than every time the user completes a run. “When you finish a run, the app communicates with our system and asks whether it would be surprising to him if we congratulated him a little more enthusiastically,” explains Brown. Dopamine Labs’ proprietary AI uses machine learning to tailor the schedule of rewards to an individual. “It might say: actually, right now he’d see it coming, so don’t give it to him now. Or it might say: GO!”
While the sell seems preposterously flimsy (with a slot machine, for example, at least the random reward is money, a much more compelling prize than any digital badge), Brown says that the running app company has seen significant positive results. “If you do this properly, we see an average 30% improvement in the frequency of how often a person goes for a run.” Dopamine Labs, which currently has 10 clients, has seen similar positive results with many other kinds of app. In one dieting service, which encourages people to track the food they eat, the company saw an 11% increase in food-tracking after integrating Dopamine Labs’ system. A microloan service saw a 14% improvement in how frequently people would pay back their loans on time or early. “An anti-cyberbullying app saw a 167% improvement in how often young people sent encouraging messages to one another by controlling when and how often and when we sent them an animated gif reward,” claims Brown.
The capacity for so-called “persuasive technology” to influence behaviour in this way is only just becoming understood, but the power of the dopamine system to alter habits is already familiar to drug addicts and smokers. Every habit-forming drug, from amphetamines to cocaine, from nicotine to alcohol, affects the dopamine system by dispersing many times more dopamine than usual. The use of these drugs overruns the neural pathways connecting the reward circuit to the prefrontal cortex, which helps people to tame impulses. The more an addict uses a drug, the harder it becomes to stop.
– illustration and excerpt from ‘Has dopamine got us hooked on tech?’, Simon Parkin, The Observer, 4 Mar 2018