Rehighjacking the dopamine system

One of the contentions of The Willpower Instinct is that a lot of things (hyperpalatable foods, lottery tickets, facebook…) are hijacking the system that incentivizes you to be productive*, making you think feel that if you do this one more thing, you will achieve an important goal (nutrition, money, social connection). You can try to stare it down, but what you are really fighting is not the specific action, but the goal, and everything in you believes that goal is good, so it’s an expensive battle you will ultimately lose.

Recently I’ve been experimenting with hijacking back.  Let’s use food as an example.  I noticed that I would feel a very strong drive to eat candy, but eating it alleviated the urge for less than a second.  There was no amount of candy that would move me to a not-wanting-candy state.  Once I had that perspective, I could use higher brain powers to figure out what would  actually scratch that itch.  Moreover, I could use the urgency generated by the proximity of candy to power making real food with actual nutritional value.   And the dopamine system couldn’t really do anything about it, because it had sold candy to my body as a means to an end.

It works for video games too.  Sometimes I play video games because they are fun.  Sometimes I play them because I need the feeling of Doing a Thing, and doing actual things will involve an unpleasant intermediate steps.  Of course video games can’t actually make me feel productive, but the reward system tells me that means I need to play harder.


This is a difficult urge to fight.  But if I pull back and notice doing the thing is not making the urge to do the thing lessen, it becomes obvious I need to do the unpleasant intermediate steps in order to get what I want.

*This is identified only as “dopamine”, but dopamine is a neurotransmitter, so she must mean dopamine in a particular part of the brain.  For simplicity I’ll keep referring to it as the dopamine system.