Willpower Day 5, Dopamine.

By Alice Boyes, PhD. | Uncategorized

Behavior is typically motivated by some type of reward/reinforcement.

What motivates people to buy scratch and win tickets?

It’s the anticipation of possible reward. Actual reward (i.e., actually winning) might never have been experienced. The behavior of buying the tickets is reinforced by the positive feeling of anticipating possible reward.

Why do advertisements for Coke feature hot, naked people? It’s partly because in our evolutionary history, the presence of a naked person likely meant sex was a possibility (unlike now when it so often means someone is trying to sell something).

When we detect a signal of possible reward, our Dopamine neurons fire very strongly, activating our attention and behavior towards seeking that reward (Saying “Yes”).

Going to a Cafe

Let’s say you are trying to reduce your consumption of certain foods and go to a cafe. Your Dopamine neurons fire in response to all the cues associated with a reward being on offer – the sight of the menu, the waiters bustling around, the other patrons getting their orders, and the cakes on display in the cabinet.

This might be a case where the feelings your experience associated with anticipation of reward are a more powerful reinforcer of cake purchasing behavior than the pleasure of actually eating a piece cake.

Anticipation of reward is a type of pleasure feeling but it’s different from the pleasure feeling associated with actually experiencing something.

(Notice that this is not quite the same as the idea that you think you’re going to enjoy the cake more than you actually do – although this could be true too.)

Which of your unwanted behaviors is motivated by the anticipation of reward?

To Try Yourself

If you have a willpower goal related to saying No to temptations, rate some situations associated with your willpower goal in terms of

– How strongly are you experiencing feelings associated with the anticipation of reward? How intensely are your Dopamine neurons firing? 0 – 10 (0 = none, 10 = intense)
– How strong are the feelings of actual reward when you do partake? 0 – 10 (0 = none, 10 = intense).

Sometimes it’s just helpful to know that your behavior is being driven by the anticipation of reward and your Dopamine surging, rather than actual reward. It can help you understand better.

Because Dopamine firing is so powerful, that’s why willpower strategies tend to work better for helping the alcoholic not go into the bar compared to helping them not drink the alcohol when it’s already sitting in front of them (I’m using this as a metaphor). In the presence of stimuli we are trying to say No to, or cues strongly associated with upcoming reward/reward being on offer, the person’s Dopamine is already surging and Dopamine turns on behavior.

What You Can Do If You Find Yourself In the Presence of Strong Anticipation of Reward Cues

– Take yourself physically away from the cues.

– Once you’ve done that, DON’T try to suppress thoughts about the reward. Often the main mechanism that creates ongoing intrusive thoughts is that the person is attempting “thought suppression.” There is a mountain of research showing that attempting thought suppression causes more of the thoughts you’re trying to suppress rather than less, and that it strongly depletes willpower reserves. (This can be where it’s useful to know some skills from mindfulness based cognitive therapy, because you can learn to observe your thoughts without getting stressed out by them and allow them to naturally dissipate on their own).

– Sensitize yourself to actual reward (e.g., mindful eating, enjoying nature) so that you get pleasure from actual reward as well as anticipating reward.

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