The Dopamine of Politics: The Reward and Liking Systems

If we haven’t learned anything over the past five years of blogging, it is that psychology and the brain are complicated. There are tons of findings from various studies, some of them not replicated, some of them contradictory. Then there is the brain and its 100 billion neurons and 100 trillion neural connections. So, man, some times it takes several posts to not only adequately explain some psychology bit, but apply it to some interesting situation.

To solve this, we’ve tried using a title and tag, like The Dopamine of Politics — our latest — and like The Great Civics Lesson. When the topics are more closely related, we use multiple parts.

This post is the foundation of The Dopamine of Politics series. It follows along The Dopamine of Social Media where many years ago, we explained how dopamine drives our social media “addictions.” Since the US is so cleanly split along partisan lines, I thought it a useful way of looking at some of our more troubling behaviors.

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This post will go over the basics of the reward and liking systems and how they interact to affect our behavior. The Dopamine of Politics: Trump’s Rallies will go over how dopamine drives Trump to hold his rallies and his followers attend them in spite of the clear and present danger they pose to everyone’s health vis-a-vis #COVID19. And, in The Dopamine of Politics: The Partisan Divide we’ll look at how dopamine has contributed to our political discourse devolving to sports-like trash talking than discussing policy and political decisions.

Dopamine and the Reward Circuit

Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that is found in a part of the brain called the reward system of the brain. It is triggered whenever we feel that a behavior has resulted in a benefit, like posting a tweet and seeing it liked or re-tweeted. Rewards are reinforce behavior making it more likely for that behavior to be repeated.

Dopamine is known as the love molecule because it seemed to drive compulsive behavior. In the experiments it seemed that the rats loved what they were doing — pressing a bar that stimulated an area of the brain. Why do that unless you loved the reaction? But, the brain is extremely complex, it turns out there was more to the story.

One of the main structures involved is called the mesolimbic dopamine reward circuit! If the phrase seems familiar, it is because of the seminal blog post, The Dopamine of Social Media.

If you read through the side bar over there, you’ll realize just how complex the mesolimbic reward circuit is, but it isn’t complicated enough to account for the rats pressing their bar or Trump’s rallies. Those behaviors need help from the liking system.

The two systems are closely linked, but can operate independently meaning that you can like something that isn’t a reward, but you pretty much have to like something that is a reward, right? Also, they are sequential meaning that the reward circuit is triggered before the liking system, or, the reward system recruits the liking system to reward a behavior. If you’re interested, follow the links in the post to the supporting website articles.

What is the mesolimbic dopamine system?

FROM THE DOPAMINE OF SOCIAL MEDIA: It is a series of brain structures located in the midbrain. The nucleus accumbens is the primary dopaminergic area with signaling beginning in the ventral tegmental neurons something something nucleus accumbens playing a role in motivation something something the substania nigra and striatum something nucleus accumbens disentanglement dopamine aversive motivation impairment something something… there ya see? It’s simple.

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The Reward and Liking Systems Work Together

The reward and liking systems are interactive. Together they produce a powerful reason to repeat behaviors the behaviors that triggered them. In the original research that led to their discovery, Olds and Milner way back in the 1950’s stuck teeny tiny wires into different parts of lab rats. At one point in a maze, the rats would have that area of the brain stimulated electronically. They would zap that sucker with a small jolt of electric juice! They wanted to determine if it would help the rats learn the maze faster. As often happens in science, they got lucky. They found that the rats would hang out in the area of the maze where the zapping took place when the wires were stuck into the frontal lobe. Instead of learning the maze faster, these rats didn’t learn it all!

Well, if that ain’t intriguing, I don’t know what is. We all know that there’s nothing lab rats like better than learning mazes. Naturally, the scientists wanted to know more, so they set up other studies. In one, rats could press a bar to stimulate this certain spot. One rat pressed the bar 7,500 times in a twelve-hour period — that’s ten times in a minute for those who don’t have a calculator handy)! The effect was so powerful that the rats preferred the preternatural pressing of a bar to eating or having sex! Can you imagine? Conclusion: the rats really really liked the stimulation of this area of the brain! They didn’t just like it, they LOVED LOVED LOVED it! Presto ergo sum cum loud, this area of the brain regulates loving to do stuff. See how that worked?

Of course, they were wrong because the brain is complicated. However, without these rat studies, we’d never understand the Ol’ Pussy Grabber, MAGAs, and their affinity for superspreader events in pandemics! Isn’t science wonderful?

Science Lesson: Don’t Jump to Conclusions

But, as so often happens in science, we need to revise our conclusions when new information is found. This is frustrating for the average non-sciencey person because people don’t like uncertainty. We want to jump to an ironclad conclusion based on the findings of one small study. It’s why MAGAs are so confused by masking wearing and can’t get over Fauci once having said don’t wear an N95 mask because of the shortages for doctors and nurses back in February and March. See? It changed and now we is all confused. NOT.

The Reward System

A reward makes us more likely to do something like turn in a criminal featured on Crime Stoppers, win a bet or poker hand, or clean up your room — Man, did it just get cold in here? Okay, ma! I KNOW I never cleaned up my room no matter the rewards or punishments. You happy now? I’m a bad son! It was always my fault. There I’ve said it. You can rest now restless spirit! Any time you get a reward, the mesolimbic dopamine reward system gets involved by releasing a little spritz of dopamine and just like the pinball wizard, the machine lights up and says Let’s do this again!

It is responsible for producing that all too familiar feeling of wanting just one more: one more episode when we’re binge watching a series, scrolling just a bit more when we’re going through our social media feed, playing just a bit longer when we’re playing an electronic game. It is the reason we feel just a bit of depression when the football season ends or a series finishes. It’s why we feel restless and dissatisfied right after we quit doing one of these things. Once activated, the reward circuit don’t want to stop. It just wants more dopamine. It is the dopamine of more.

The makers of social media and electronic games hijack the reward system using what is called persuasive design. Social media platforms and electronic games are designed to keep doling out rewards frequently enough to make you want to continue just a little longer to get just one more like, make just one more snarky remark, or achieve the next little goal in the game, acquire a weapon, potion, clothing, or whatever it is. Dopamine and the reward system are acting when you want just one more.

The Liking System

Dopamine is not responsible for feelings of pleasure or love. That is the domain of the liking system and is based on endogenous opioids. It is, however, intimately connected to the reward system because once you’ve arrived and gotten your reward, you LIKE it!

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Without these opiates in our brain, we would be in pain all the time. That’s right, the natural state of existence is pain! It hurts to live. We have to find ways to produce endorphins and other opioid-like neurotransmitters so that we aren’t in physical or emotional pain — Yes, that’s right, too, emotional pain is experienced in the same way as physical pain in the brain. I guess that’s why running and exercise have become so popular.

Here is the saving grace, though. We cannot experience pain and pleasure at the same time. It is an either or switch, but we can switch back and forth quite quickly. So, when you are in pain, look for something fun or pleasurable to do. When something bad happens, tell someone about it! Social interaction is usually pleasurable. Another reason we are better in groups.

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Dopamine and Opioids Working Together

Analyzing their effects can be confusing because they are so closely connected. The reward systems produces the wanna and the liking system produces the euphoria. The dopamine produces compulsive behaviors looking for that next hit of the opioids.

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Analyzing their effects can be confusing because they are so closely connected. The reward systems produces the wanna and the liking system produces the euphoria. The dopamine produces compulsive behaviors looking for that next hit of the opioids.

Even more importantly, the reward system reacts to anticipating the achievement of a reward and the resulting pleasure. If a reward is larger than anticipated, we’re excited and adjust our expectations upwards for next time. If it is smaller, though, we are disappointed and adjust downward.

As long as the reward is encountered frequently enough to produce an association,s reached, the regularity doesn’t matter. In fact, irregularly spaced rewards are the most powerful reinforcers. You’re thinking, maybe next time! And, you really really want that next dose of opiate.

In this way, the reward system creates compulsive behaviors. You keep doing something hoping for the pay off. The liking system can become sated where the payoff is no longer pleasurable. Your done. You need to rest and allow your supply of endogenous opioids to restock, but the reward system is never satisfied. You’re sure there is one more hit to be squeezed out and you want it. You can be exhausted and no longer really paying attention or enjoying what you’re doing, but you’ll keep playing, watching, scrolling, and surfing. Ain’t that just a kick in the crotch?

Believe it or not, these two systems work together to produce the Ol’ Pussy Grabber’s superspreader events, MAGAs attending them, and our deeply divided partisan politics.

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Image Attribution

This work by SITNBoston is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. It can be found in this article, Dopamine, Smartphones & You: A battle for your time by Trevor Haynes figures by Rebecca Clements.

16 replies »

  1. Speaking of rats and psychologists, some of the latter sort of critter tried to teach rats not to explore things like sewer pipes and tunnels. They constructed an array of pipes and put painful shock inducing electrodes in some of them. The plan being that the random punishment would cause the rats to lose interest in the pipes. It didn’t work. The rats actually sought out the zapping holes. It was important to them to know which were safe and which were not. Finding the bad ones was a success in the context of the rat’s compulsion to explore.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Howdy Bob!
      The rats had a reward that wasn’t pleasurable. Well, done. It also demonstrates the power of sociability and altruism. Our social connections are the strongest and bring their own compulsions, rewards, and pleasures. How many people have endured hardship and sacrificed their lives so that the group may succeed and prosper or at least have a chance? It is an intriguing thought, and it may be found in our hardwiring.


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      • It is in our hard-wiring. This is where Social Darwinism and its AynRandian Libertarian expression make their fundamental error. Darwinian selection and evolution are not about individuals, but about species and ecologies, including social systems, and lineages.

        Which brings me to a favorite quote from Robert Heinlein:

        “All societies are based on rules to protect pregnant women and young children. All else is surplusage, excrescence, adornment, luxury, or folly which can – and must – be dumped in emergency to preserve this prime function. As racial survival is the only universal morality, no other basic is possible. Attempts to formulate a “perfect society” on any foundation other than “Women and children first!” is not only witless, it is automatically genocidal. Nevertheless, starry-eyed idealists (all of them male) have tried endlessly – and no doubt will keep trying.”

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