How marketing uses dopamine to control your mind… and what you can do to defend yourself!
Have you ever felt dissatisfied and empty just after buying something you believed you really wanted? Or maybe regret having eaten an entire portion of the dessert you thought you couldn’t live without? And have you ever, even for a moment, had thoughts such as “if I had a house like that I would be really happy”, or “if I drove a car like that I would feel fulfilled”?
Well, don’t worry, it’s all very common. People like you, me, and a lot of others live with this constant temptation every day because the media constantly trains us to chase material goods and money in a subliminal, and sometimes manipulative, way.
We are constantly exposed to false myths through the media, but how does marketing inject these into our minds?
It’s not actual techniques or strategies that I want to dwell on today, though.
Beyond any theory, technique or methodology, there’s an essential element that every advertising expert refers to, an element without which no persuasive and marketing system could ever work: that element is a tiny neurotransmitter located in our brain and it’s called “Dopamine”.
What is dopamine used for?
Dopamine is the chemical that mediates pleasure in the brain. It’s released during satisfying situations and, as well as giving a feeling of great well-being, it stimulates us to continually seek out more of what’s given us pleasure. Things such as food, sex, alcohol and, sadly, drugs, are real dopamine generators.
A dopamine release is a natural reward system produced by our bodies that influences our thoughts and actions more than you can ever imagine.
Marketers, like me, use the effect of dopamine to manipulate your attention and divert your natural reward system towards spending money.
And please, don’t feel you’re so clever that you don’t fall for this deception: it’s a biological reaction over which we have no control.
Believing that you’re not suggestible actually makes you the perfect target!
It has never been so easy to trigger a dopamine response
Thanks to the rapid development of technology and social media, for marketers to take advantage of the dopamine effect, it is now easier than ever.
Smartphones, laptops, PCs, gaming consoles, Facebook, Twitter, etc. provide us with what we are biologically programmed to incorporate into our lives…. chasing good feelings.
Social connection with others is something deeply ingrained in humans and our brains release dopamine every time we use these tools for human contact.
A taste of amazing food at the entrance of a supermarket is another example. It can excite our dopaminergic neurons, attract our attention and leave us vulnerable to temptation and compulsive buying tendencies.
Interestingly, dopaminergic neurons develop a kind of reduced sensitivity as rewards become more familiar, which is why McDonald’s, for example, constantly puts new products on its menu besides the usual. Releasing a burger of the month, or even including a toy in a kid’s meal, stimulates our neurons to the max!
There are also examples of this feel-good chemical in play that aren’t harmful: have you ever heard a wonderful song on the radio and wanted to hear it played again? Music is a great dopamine activator!
In this case, maybe you end up purchasing the single, or adding it to your Spotify playlist, and listening to it dozens and dozens of times, feeling a great cerebral pleasure every time you hear it.
Then something happens, and you may not even notice it: with each listening, the pleasure diminishes until one day you get tired of that song and replace it with a new one that you’ve heard and that gives you the same initial sensations as the previous one once did.
As you can see, this is how the mechanism of loss of sensitivity to rewards works. And there are many examples across a range of industries.
Most food products that are manufactured and distributed on a large scale are well planned: they have the right combination of sugars, salts, and fats to activate our natural ‘feel-good addiction’.
Scent marketing relies on the release of dopamine in people’s brains to influence their purchasing decisions. If you take 2 groups of people and show them the same product but scented differently, the group subjected to the “right scent” will perceive the same item as being of higher quality or deserving of a higher price.
Lotteries exploit dopamine by making you imagine “what you could do with millions of dollars in your pocket”. They encourage the use of your imagination to paint a picture of wealth that does not yet exist.
Ringing bells, flashing lights, waitresses in tight clothes, cheap alcohol, and all-you-can-eat buffets make your dopamine levels soar. There’s an absolute science behind it.
In supermarkets, the tastiest products are randomly placed at the entrance and at eye level in every department to raise your dopamine levels as soon as you set foot inside. Usually these are also the products with the highest profit margins too, and I’m sure you are now seeing how this all works.
What in technical jargon is called ‘Gamification’ is the dopaminergic effect that certain game elements stimulate by showing your scores, rankings, records to beat. It is a typical online marketing technique to create an addiction to a product or service and for years, loyalty programmes have used the principles of ‘gamification’ to encourage repeat usage and increase engagement.
But then, beyond the scientific definition, what exactly does dopamine do?
Dopamine causes us to seek a reward, but the truth is that it does NOT satisfy us, and then often causes frustration and anxiety.
Communicative marketers know how to trigger these moods… ever heard of ‘on sale while stocks last’ or ‘limited offer’?
The most extreme example is the American “Black Friday” where millions of people crowd in front of the entrance of stores, in a state of extreme nervousness and excitement. They’re often believing if they don’t manage to grab the object of their desire on that one advantageous day, they’ll be miserable for the rest of their lives!
It’s a mix of stimuli that’s difficult for anyone to control: the primal human instinct to hunt combined with the dopaminergic effect of imagining “what would it be like…”. Crazy powerful, hey?
Here’s how it works:
First, bear in mind that these are not theories or hypotheses – this information comes directly from scientific research into the human brain’s chemistry.
Dopamine is primarily responsible for the social malaise in capitalist countries.
As soon as you realise the relationship between dopamine and the false promise of rewards induced by marketing campaigns, you will also be able to realise how useless it is to pursue pleasure, happiness and satisfaction through the constant search for rewards.
In practice, it is like watching a dog trying in vain to bite its own tail… you are the dog, the tail is your misconception of happiness as promoted by marketers.
The Rise of Neuromarketing
The study of neuroscience applied to marketing (called neuromarketing) is nothing new, but in recent times, it’s become increasingly clear which mechanisms we need to trigger to best control the emotional responses of consumers.
Again, it’s all about the ‘promise of reward’, linked to the release of dopamine in the brain.
It’s not only possible to be fooled into falsely wanting something, but because of the chemistry involved, it’s very possible to crave things you don’t like or that are completely unnecessary. I promise you that your behaviour would be quite different if your brain weren’t flooded with dopamine.
I’ll let you in on a secret: you are deceived by yourself because, in reality, your brain DOESN’T CARE IF YOU’RE HAPPY… (and yes, I can hear your “ohhhh” of astonishment from here).
Your brain is actually busy preserving your basic survival instincts, like passing on your genes, finding plenty of food, and taking in as many calories as possible whenever the opportunity arises to prevent future famines or food shortages.
Besides being a reward mechanism, dopamine also drives us to ‘survive’ and ‘excel’.
As a kind of sadistic game, the brain uses ‘carrots and sticks’ to achieve its primary goal: the survival of the species.
Confusing the “promise of reward” with HAPPINESS
In our society, consumerism has taken over so much that we mistake rewards for happiness.
‘WANTING’ something is viewed by many as a guarantee of happiness as it is equated with getting it.
For example, have you ever wanted to buy a new car?
In such cases, most people make sacrifices at work or take out loans to satisfy that need and be ‘happy’.
The problem is that once they have bought the car and got their “reward” they don’t really feel any happier… and the cycle starts again (and again) with something else.
We have the misperception that owning the objects we want will make us happy. It is virtually impossible to separate the “promise of reward” from whatever pleasure or satisfaction we are seeking.
The “promise of reward” is so powerful that we continue to chase after things that do NOT make us happy and we keep consuming goods that bring us more torment than satisfaction; isn’t it ironic?
The evolutionary survival mechanism that was so successful in our primitive ancestors is insidiously destroying the existence of mankind today.
For example, I can point to many temptations we are subjected to on a daily basis, such as online shopping, gambling, sex and drugs on demand, supermarkets open on Sundays or 24 hours, fast food specially cooked with the right combination of salt, sugar, saturated fat, and chemical additives – everything seems very well designed to hijack your brain’s reward circuitry.
But at this point, you may be asking yourself: do we have the divine right as human beings to pursue and experience true happiness?
Of course, we do! We are ‘designed’ to experience pleasure and satisfaction (which contribute to achieving happiness), but only when we ‘consume in moderation’ and adopt a less superficial lifestyle.
This is also the famous ‘carrot-and-stick technique’ that the brain uses to get you out of bed every morning. When you exceed your brain’s ‘pleasure budget’, the pursuit of happiness backfires.
Practical example? Let’s assume that you’re a big shopaholic and that you fight against the constant desire to remake your wardrobe. If you burn your paycheck by buying clothes, you will probably satisfy your unconscious demand for reward, but you will eventually feel great discomfort and frustration at having spent all your money on something so futile.
If, on the other hand, you manage to force yourself to buy 2 or 3 of the clothes you like the most, then you will see that satisfaction and happiness will coexist, you will reward yourself but you will not feel that you have wasted all your resources on useless things.
The “pleasure balance” of your brain can be controlled by your lifestyle and habits, and this basically means that you can be happy with fewer things if you give them a deeper meaning.
“Happy with less?” Sounds good, but it depends on you in order to be true!
The most striking example: the increase in obese people in civilised countries.
Before giving you advice on how to develop your lifestyle, you should be clear about the obvious destructive signs that this kind of stimulus is leaving on our society.
There is no better example of the relationship between dopamine and the false promise of reward and happiness than that of food.
The ever-increasing percentage of obese people in the western world is linked to this relationship: unlimited choice of food and the constant temptation we are subjected to every day.
This situation has allowed our primal survival instincts to develop an unhealthy relationship with food, leading us to consume more than we need and to eat ‘food’ that contains no ‘nutrients’ whatsoever.
Unfortunately, these ‘foods’, which in terms of their molecular composition are unsuitable to provide us with energy and replace natural, real foods, hijack the brain’s reward circuitry, flooding our neurons with dopamine and giving us an unmistakable feeling of euphoria.
The same feeling is also obtained from many other ‘modern’ temptations, such as gambling, drugs, shopping, alcohol, sex addiction, and the compulsive collection of material stuff.
The only problem is that it is short-lived!
And do you know why? Check this out:
Every chemical messenger, whether it be dopamine, or insulin, or leptin, or serotonin, has a receptor waiting to receive the message and thus triggers a command.
Over time, however, the receptors become less receptive and develop a kind of tolerance to previously known stimuli.
At this point, we feel the need to go for higher levels of dopamine to achieve the same effect as before.
The result is that we no longer get the same pleasurable feeling of reward that we got the first time we ate our favourite cake, for example, and this triggers a continuous increase in its consumption over time, only to unconsciously return to the same initial euphoria – that probably it’s not going to happen.
Let’s now return to the example I gave a few paragraphs above of buying a new car: Have you ever decided to change your car and thought that if you could get that particular model, you would feel really happy and satisfied? And what happened once you had managed to buy it once you had “rewarded” yourself with that car?
I bet a few months later you were already thinking about the next model to buy and replace it with another one…
It’s hard to accept, I know, but we’re not that far from the addiction mechanisms of drug addicts and alcoholics. Each time they take a hit or have a drink, their receptors become less sensitive to the stimulus and force them to increase the amount and frequency of intakes, to fulfil their brain with rewards. Biologically it’s the same.
Is there any hope then for us, mere mortals?
Finally, I have some good news: there is hope!
In fact, we have an area at the front of the brain called the prefrontal cortex, which was developed in human biological evolution in order to help us overcome the challenges of modern life.
The prefrontal cortex provides us with the ability to exert willpower when we need to make important decisions, and it protects us from mistakes or helps us stay on track and achieve our long-term goals.
What’s another practical example? When you are overweight, you resist the temptation of chocolate cake in order to lose weight and live a longer, healthier, and happier life.
This part of you is able to recognise that the cake is a threat to your long-term goals and so will do everything it can to overcome the negative impulse, helping you to control your unhealthy emotions.
This is your willpower instinct.
The problem is precisely modern life; alcohol, temptation, stress, sleep deprivation actually impair this sensitive part of the brain, inhibiting it to the extent of actual brain damage.
The ‘damage’ is temporary and reversible, but it alters your ability to think rationally and make the right decisions to achieve your long-term goals, allowing marketers to persist in their manipulative actions.
The paradox of reward
There’s nothing wrong with feeling desire or pleasure, at least as long as we don’t misinterpret its relationship with happiness; a life without desires might be easy to live and would never test our self-control, but it would be a life not worth living, don’t you agree?
The ‘promise of reward’ does not guarantee happiness, but not giving the ‘promise of reward’ can lead to unhappiness.
Give the “promise of reward” and you will fall into temptation.
Inhibit the “promise of reward” and you will have no motivation to live.
It’s quite a dilemma… and there is no easy answer for what’s right or not!
It’s clear we need the “promise of reward” to keep us interested and engaged in life.
But we live in a world of technology, constant advertising and are bombarded 24 hours a day with opportunities that, once exploited, rarely leave us satisfied.
If you hope to develop a little bit of self-control, you must learn to separate the real rewards, which give your life meaning, from the false rewards, which keep you distracted and addicted. Assimilating this distinction is the best you can do for yourself and the world around you.
I know it’s not easy, but understanding what is going on in your brain can help your decision-making process by giving you, in certain moments of temptation, the bit of clarity you need to avoid falling into the “big lie” your mind is telling you.
Desire is the strategy used by the brain to make you act. As we have seen, it can be a threat to self-control, but it can also be the source of your willpower.
When dopamine leads you into temptation, try to rationalise and think, “Is this desire an end in itself, or will it lead me to happiness in the long run?”.
Because if you think about it, desire is neither good nor bad. What matters is where you are letting yourself be carried away by it and whether you have the wisdom to sense when it is time to stop. You own your decisions:
How to beat the system
For you, for me and all the poor souls who are caught up in this mass consumerism, there is a way, though!
The best way to achieve a stable level of happiness is to balance the amount of dopamine and its receptors.
It sounds difficult, but it is actually easily achieved with a combination of daily habits combined with a healthy lifestyle.
1. Eat clean
Limit sugars and saturated fats, eat good fats, meat, olive oil, fish, plenty of green leafy vegetables, berries, nuts, seeds, minimise or eliminate junk food and ‘processed’ foods, including pre-packaged foods and ready meals. You’ll be surprised how, after a short ‘detox’ period, natural and truly nutritious foods will give you a great sense of satiety and pleasure!
Do sport – both high-intensity training and simple leisurely walks in the countryside release dopamine, improve your mood, willpower and even stimulate your immune system!
Make sure you get enough sleep. If you consistently go to bed late and get up too early, you lose rationality and concentration and are automatically susceptible to the unconscious mechanisms of false rewards.
4. Focus on what is really important
Value and pursue all your interests, hobbies, relationships with your best friends, family, yourself, and of course, spirituality.
This will ensure that you have a balance of dopamine and dopamine receptors, along with other hormones and neurotransmitters that can restore the right harmony of body and mind.
5. Be rational
Whenever you are faced with a temptation triggered by media marketing mechanisms, take a second to think. Think carefully about what you have read here and ask yourself whether the desire you have is healthy, true, or just manipulated. It will be easier to get your willpower instincts to kick in.
Now that you are more aware of the biology and chemical mechanisms, I bet it is easier for you to take charge of your own life and make better and informed decisions.
If you found this article interesting and it’s opened your eyes at least a little bit, I kindly ask you to share it with everyone you know who might need this information.
I’d love to hear your opinion on the topic and to raise awareness of it among as many people as possible.