Digital dopamine

Shannon explores the digital interactions that are set up to get our brains to produce dopamine, which keeps us spending time on apps and websites, from Facebook reaction buttons to stock level indicators.

“The thought process was: ‘How do we consume as much of your time and conscious attention as possible?’

We… give you a little dopamine hit.”

– Sean Parker, founding President of Facebook until 2005

What does dopamine do?

“It can make a person feel good.”

– Simple English Wikipedia

“Within the brain, dopamine functions partly as a global reward signal.”

– Wikipedia

A (very) rough outline:

Dopamine is one of the important mechanisms in human brains that keep us interested in actions that keep us, and our offspring, alive. Dopamine is the reward for seeking out things that promote our interests, and we’ve evolved to seek out things that elicit a dopamine response in our brains.

It’s not confined to basic survival stuff. We get dopamine hits from apps and websites, most notably social media and games, and even a simple Google search. When we have a rewarding experience, we get a dopamine hit, and our brains are set up to want more of the same, which is why you keep playing one more level or scrolling yesterday’s posts.

‘I just couldn’t help myself’

Impulsive behaviour is closely related to neurotransmitters – especially dopamine. We all have some impulsive behaviours. These are sometimes referred to as impulse control disorders and, in their more extreme manifestations, are increasingly recognised as treatable forms of addiction.

Behavioural addiction is a form of addiction that involves a compulsion to engage in a rewarding, non-drug-related behaviour – sometimes called a natural reward.

What’s this got to do with digital technology?

Just like a virus will exploit vulnerabilities in computer systems, digital companies use persuasive technology to exploit the dopamine system in our brains to their advantage. It can be used for positive behavioural changes (like gamifying fitness or using social proof to get you to do your tax return)…or abused to sell us (more) stuff we don’t want and influence us to take action we wouldn’t otherwise.


This term covers the design, research, ethics and analysis of interactive computing products created to change people’s attitudes or behaviours. BJ Fogg came up with the term captology in 1996 from an acronym: Computers As Persuasive Technologies.

Among many different and subtle tactics, there are two that stand out really clearly.


Fear of missing out – or FOMO – is a feeling that other people might be having rewarding experiences that you’re excluded or absent from. FOMO gives us the fear of making the wrong decision, worrying about how things will or won’t be different.

Social proof

Social proof is a psychological phenomenon where people look to others for a clue on how to behave in a situation where the right behaviour is ambiguous. In our digital lives, it usually translates into a suggestion that mentions what other people did, or bought, or looked at, before we know ourselves whether we’re uncertain about what to do next.


Knowingly or not, we have all been exposed to persuasive tech, been subject to captology and other tricks used in behavioural science to persuade us into something:


In commerce, you’ll see:

  • FOMO techniques like “N of these left in stock” and limited time offers
  • Social proof in the form of “most popular X”, how many people are watching or viewing, how many have been sold in the last week, or celebrity endorsements.

These sound like small things, but they cause serious behaviour change over time:

“Of 1,045 U.S. consumers studied in 2018 nearly 40% of millennials spent money they didn’t have to keep up with their friends due to FOMO (fear of missing out).”

– CreditKarma study

Social media

Social media is full of things that give us FOMO, from time-limited stories to “trending” updates. Social proof crops up in labels that tell you how many people are talking about something, verified users, and counters for likes, reactions, comments and upvotes.


Games use cookie ad tracking to remind you to play through online ads, and the levels themselves are usually designed to keep you hooked in. Beyond those pretty fundamental elements, on the social proof front you’ve got an entire industry of gaming influencers built up around platforms like YouTube and Twitch. Meanwhile in FOMO, there’s the number of your friends who are playing, unlockable elements like skins and powerups, and one-time events encouraging you to concentrate play over a specific period.

Aside from being a buzzword maybe 3-4 years ago, it’s no wonder gamification became a big deal, exploiting our impulse to seek that sweet sweet nectar aka dopamine.


Macrosuasion – products designed for an overall persuasive outcome.
Microsuasion – incorporate smaller elements of influence to achieve other goals.

Social media platforms apply various methods to give you that sweet dopamine hit and fight to win your attention from competitors. They compete with each other to incorporate ‘microsuasions’, ‘micro interactions’ and FOMO to keep us coming back for more.

Micro interactions

Interfaces that are designed to encourage engagement and sharing, like social media apps, will have considered every detail of that experience, including these small bursts of ‘reward’ when you use them.

Micro interactions are trigger-feedback pairs in which (1) the trigger can be a user action or an alteration in the system’s state; (2) the feedback is a narrowly targeted response to the trigger and is communicated through small, highly contextual (usually visual) changes in the user interface.

– Neilsen Norman Group

Sean Parker, the founding president of Facebook who resigned from the company in 2005 admitted:

“The thought process was: ‘How do we consume as much of your time and conscious attention as possible?’” Whenever someone likes or comments on a post or photograph, he said, “we… give you a little dopamine hit.”

The Facebook ‘react’ icons are classic examples.

So is the Twitter ‘like’ heart.


Gaming opens up whole new worlds of possibility for the dopamine-seeking gamers among us. The World Health Organisation has controversially recognised gaming disorder as a medical condition – it was added to International Classification of Diseases 11th Revision.

Whether we know it or not, we’re at the mercy of the reward system otherwise known as ‘gettin that sweet loot’ and continually trying our luck, praying to ‘RNGesus’.


“The deity responsible for situations that are determined largely by luck, chance, or randomness in online games. Derived from RNG, which means “random number generator.”

– Urban Dictionary

I can say with some degree of uncertainty that I have never truly been ‘addicted’ to a game. I’ve had my vices, clocking up over 2,300 hours or almost 96 days of game time in Diablo 3 which was released in 2012, and before that, countless hours playing World of Warcraft.

Addiction to gaming

Not picking on Fortnite, but… yeah, I’m going to pick on Fortnite.

Eleven-year-old Riley Holzinger plays Fortnite every day and says he wouldn’t cope if it was taken away:

“I’d probably game rage, like smash stuff and then get sad, If Mum and Dad weren’t around, I’d play Fortnite 24/7.”

“Games like Fortnite are designed to exploit the brain’s vulnerabilities in the same way poker machines do. Victories trigger a dopamine burst in the brain’s reward system that trigger the habit system. It will say you should keep going because there’s mastery, social status or winning to be gained.”

– Professor Yucel, Clinical Neuropsychologist at Monash University, specialising in addictions.

Even when kids browse away from Fortnite to learn something new – for example on the self-directed web learning site* – they get targeted with gaming ads, tempted away with the promise of another dopamine hit.

* Dev note: Don’t use W3schools, use MDN.

Watching other people play

Every day, more than 200 million people view gaming content on YouTube. That’s like the entire country of Brazil heading to YouTube every day. And in the past year, people watched more than 50 billion hours of gaming videos on YouTube.

Perhaps watching others game gives us a less intense, passive hit, like the excitement of watching sport or the thrill of an action movie: we’re not doing the actions ourselves, but we’re invested enough for emotional responses to go off in our brains.

To sum up

The dopamine system in your brain is open to exploitation in your digital life, and the tech industry shows no sign of slowing in inventing new ways to get you to do stuff by tempting you with another hit.

It’s a mechanism that can be used for good as well as evil. As ethics become a more significant consideration in technology, hopefully, I’ll be able to report back next time with a load of examples of apps using their powers for good.

Further reading for the super-interested:

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