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Hackernoon logoSwipe right for dopamine by@JonFletcher

Swipe right for dopamine

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@JonFletcherJon

Content editor at Marfeel. Optimizing digital publishing through data-backed strategies.

How
smartphone
navigation feeds our reward receptors

It’s why Instagram will withhold notifications to make you think your picture fell flat before sending them all, as a ‘group’. It’s why Tetris grows in difficulty and rewards you for crunching more lines than ever. Certain behaviours trigger the release of dopamine, the ‘pleasure’ chemical in our brains.

With technology exceeding the limits of physical evolution, we’re able to synthesize these triggers and use them to make our everyday world more appealing. Dopamine is used by marketers and product designers to form consumer habits, to make things stick.

The purpose of pleasure

The release of dopamine used to be an evolutionary imperative. It created positive reinforcements for behaviour that was key to the survival of the species. The drive created by dopamine is a major differentiating factor in human evolution.

In a study comparing the brain activity of humans, tufted capuchins, pig-tailed macaques, olive baboons, gorillas, and chimpanzees, humans had dramatically more dopamine than their simian counterparts.

Dopamine fuelled the know-how for making tools and eventually, the development of language by rewarding positive social interactions. The brain became able to apply an almost-instantaneous process of pattern recognition. Causal patterns were moved to long-term storage which enabled attention to be devoted to learning new things, triggering more pleasure from new actions. This resulted in positive feedback loops, all fuelled by surging levels of dopamine. Dopamine became the drive to discover.

Why ‘swipe’ became the perfect delivery system

Action and reaction

The instant link between mobile content and small, almost instinctive hand movements is the perfect environment to create strong dopamine signals.

Our brains contain four principal dopamine pathways that deliver neurotransmitters. Each pathway then has its own cognitive and motor processes. It’s the connection between the cognitive pleasure and the motor function, the swipe, that makes the feedback loop of swiping so appealing.

The muscle memory of the action is the starter pistol for a chemical cascade through anticipation, motivation, and finally the chemical release.

The need for novelty

The same process that drove human ancestors to explore and develop happens when we use swipe navigation. Rather than the being cause of pleasure, dopamine causes you to want, desire, seek out and search.

The reason we don’t just repeat pleasurable behaviour is that the release of dopamine is split into two complementary systems, one that rewards satisfying behaviour and one that seeks out similar experiences. The system responsible for ‘liking’ certain behaviours is meant to satisfy the ‘seeking’ system, but there there are diminishing rewards the more we repeat an action. The brain is familiar with the pattern so less dopamine is released. This causes us to be curious, seek out new information, and explore ideas. 

The urge to find more is more powerful than the urge to enjoy.  This is the motivation that feeds so directly into the appeal of swipe navigation.

The ‘seeking’ system is responsive when it senses signals that reward is forthcoming. Writing in Psychology Today, Susan Weinschenk explains, ‘If there is a small, specific cue that signifies that something is going to happen, that sets off our dopamine system’. UI/UX cues that more content is available become a dinner bell that connects to a Pavlovian response inside us. 

Expectation vs. reality

A major difference in what swipe offers us, compared with clicking new content, changing pages, or switching apps is that we’re unsure of risk/reward ratio, which actually can deliver higher rewards than evaluating decisions. 

Dopamine levels peak as we discover reward but plummet after we receive it. Rather than clicking a link, that comes built-in to a signifier of what we can expect, swipe navigation is the gateway to an unexplored possibility. Possibility contains unlimited rewards. It’s not the content that delivers for readers, it’s that moment of loaded anticipation. 

When swiping through digital content we undergo a very quick evaluation and analysis process. If the content fails to match the anticipated reward, the initial flood of dopamine from the ‘seeking’ of new content fades back below the baseline threshold, giving us a ‘negative prediction error’.

Swipe navigation gives us access to unspoiled potential and another trip through the dopamine cycle.  The reaction to the value of the content will then trigger another divergence point, dipping or spiking depending on how rewarding we find the content. 

If this new reality is not better, or even not improved upon enough, we have almost infinite rolls of the dice to try again.

Suspending reality

Swipe navigation is also far more effective at suspending reality than links or new pages.

The dopamine rush from booking a vacation doesn’t consider the Queues for the airport transfer, no umbrellas in your daquiris. The cognitive process of anticipation doesn’t account for the multitudes of existence. The same whitewashing happens in the micro-moments of swiping away old content and in the delicious wait for new.

Pagination of static content brings back multitudes and disappointments. Links and new stories give us some form of expectation, some baseline information either through titles, images. They force us to break the loop.

We have to be more active in the process and use deduction to work out the expenditure to calculate risk and reward. Humans experience greater disappointment when a given outcome turns out worse than expected so making an informed decision brings with it a higher risk of disappointment.

Swipe removes the onus from us and places back on the content. If the content doesn’t deliver, it’s not bad judgment, it’s a bad algorithm.

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