Saturday, December 2, 2017

The Dopamine Narrative Begins: Just Say No to Dopamine Theft


Over the last several years, my husband Randy and I have been building up a set of concepts and models that collectively we call the Dopamine Narrative.

The goal is to craft and offer up to others a framework with which to live a better, more fulfilling, more loving life that acknowledges and works in loving partnership with human nature.

The Dopamine Narrative itself is a set of lenses and a toolbox with which to view the world, interpret underlying forces, make predictions, and relate to ourselves and others.  We constructed it bit by bit though the process of trying to debug various issues and anomalous observations about our feelings, our experiences and what we saw happening around us in the world.  It's been crafted over countless conversations between ourselves and others and through recognizing resonant ideas in books, podcasts, and other media.

It leans heavily on and borrows concepts from various writers and traditions, while rejecting much of the mainstream default narratives of the culture we inhabit.

It resonates with aspects of ancient faith traditions but does not require belief in or allegiance to any of them.

It resonates with the sort of scientific work typified by researchers like Jonathan Haidt, Robert Sapolsky, Bessel van der Kolk, and Oliver Sacks, but is not itself a scientific endeavor.

Please interpret the following as models and narratives offered up for your consideration, not as scientific claims.  Please feel free to ask in the comments for more specific stories of where particular aspects came from, but please do not demand journal references or use the lack of such references as a reason to reject and abuse the what we're trying to do here.

Expository Approach

I've struggled for years to figure out how to address the Dopamine Narrative in writing.  I love using it as a tool to spin particular conversations inspired by the active interest of particular individuals.  However, it has been hard to imagine how to communicate it to a nebulous audience of readers.

A particular challenge is that it built from a set of custom and/or likely unfamiliar concepts which build on each other and are not easy to compactly define.

My plan is to do a set of compact partial definitions here, just enough to respond to the motivating question:  Why do people sometimes seem to go out of their way to be be mean to each other and what can be done about it?

I recently wrote up a couple of extended comments on AskReddit threads asking versions of this question:
I think that addressing these questions through the lens of the Dopamine Narrative makes for a pretty good tour through the concepts and a pretty good example of how they can be used.


Elephant and Rider

The idea is that the impetus for behavior like being mean to each other mostly comes from the limbic, social mammal part of ourselves, what the author Jonathan Haidt calls "the Elephant".  It does things like model an individual's status, ranking, and security of position within social groups.  It affects our feelings and behavior, but operates largely beneath the level of conscious awareness.

The other part in Haidt's model, "the Rider", is the part that handles the verbal, cognitive sorts of tasks and (unknown to it) in large part acts as the press secretary for the Elephant.

If you want to look at this concept in more detail, I'd recommend reading the first half of Jonathan Haidt's book The Righteous Mind.

Dopamine Level 

In our model, the Elephant maintains a moment-to-moment assessment of how well we're doing on its succeed-as-a-social-mammal agenda.  We call this parameter a person's "Dopamine Level".

It's not literally the amount of the neurotransmitter dopamine, but we believe that it is related -- dopamine is a major neurotransmitter used in parts of the limbic system involved in motivation and reward, and drugs that affect dopamine signaling (like Wellbutrin, L-Dopa, and cocaine) do seem to affect the feelings we associate with Dopamine Level.

Imagine how it feels when you get a major unexpected compliment, or succeed at some task that will impress your friends and family.  That's what the "High Dopamine" end of the scale feels like.

Now imagine how it feels when you've done something you figured was innocent and somebody jumps all over you for it and says you're a bad person.  That's what the "Low Dopamine" end of the scale feels like.

All sorts of interactions, perceptions, and thoughts affect Dopamine Level up and down.  The sorts of things that increase Dopamine Level include indicators of increased status or security within a group, such as receiving praise, positive attention, successfully helping someone, etc., as well as fulfilling more concrete social mammal needs, such as food and comfort.   The Elephant will perk up and dish up motivation and energy at the prospect of pursuing actions it deems to have a high degree of likelihood of such a positive outcome.

On the other hand, the sorts of things that decrease Dopamine Level include indicators of decreased status or security in the group, such as receiving signs of disapproval, derision, or rejection, as well as more concrete social mammal suckage like failing in efforts to find adequate food or shelter.  The Elephant will generally react with feelings of unease and resistance at the prospect of pursuing actions it deems to likely have such a bad outcome.

When you're feeling sufficiently High Dopamine, life is good.  If you slide (or worse, plummet) towards the Low Dopamine end, at some point you feel miserable enough that the Elephant will cast around with increasing desperation for ways to go back up to a tolerable level.

If you have a nice convenient wholesome Dopamine increasing action available, that's great.  Do that.

Unfortunately, there are other, less savory ways of increasing Dopamine that the Elephant will tend to grab for in such moments.

Dopamine Theft

One of these unsavory ways of increasing Dopamine is pulling a successful social dominance maneuver, like chewing out someone, calling them names, fault finding, intimidation, etc.  This is what we call "Dopamine Theft".

We call it Dopamine Theft because such actions, when successful, simultaneously increase the Dopamine Level of the attacker, and decrease the Dopamine Level of the victim.

When talking to the neighborhood kids, I describe this as "making yourself feel big by making someone else feel small."

If you're just here to understand the terms for another post, here is a good place to return.  The rest is an in depth discussion of Dopamine Theft.

Dopamine Theft Deep Dive

The Elephant is pretty savvy at predicting whether or not a given potential social dominance maneuver would be successful in a given environment with a given potential target.  It's not going to perk up for this strategy unless you're likely to both succeed at dominating the potential victim and receive social approval, or at least not receive disapproval, from whoever else is around.

This pattern is pretty clear when you watch group behavior of non-human social mammals, like dogs or baboons.  Something sucky happens to one animal in a group.  It starts looking around, then attacks or threatens or steals food from a lower ranking animal.  The attacker wanders off looking smug and satisfied with its ears and tail in the air.  The victim gets upset and either finds another even lower ranking member to abuse or slinks off with its ears and tail low to try to recover.

Robert Sapolsky, a neuroendocrinologist at Stanford who studied baboons in the wild for many years, talks about these sorts of interactions among his study group using the terminology "displacement aggression."  Chapter 4 of his book Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst is a good example of his work on this.

Humans tend to be less straightforward.  The Rider, which is what handles the conscious framing -- the words to think and say -- isn't likely be aware of this sort of thing going on under the hood.  Instead, it'll put together some kind of scenario like "that person is in the wrong; I'd better set them straight", or "what a little dweeb; I'd better put them in their place" that casts the instigator on the side of righteousness.

These sorts of thoughts flit through all the time.  What makes it Dopamine Theft is that when such a thought flits through:

  1. The Elephant perks up and provides energy and motivation to do it but only in the case that the potential target is vulnerable to being dominated and any potential audience in the area would approve (or at least not disapprove), and
  2. The tone and body language with which its delivered tear the target down rather than lovingly correct them.

It's certainly possible, and desirable, to work on instead acting on such thoughts in a constructive way that primarily focuses on preserving the welfare of the target while helping them improve.  Mr. Rogers and good kindergarten teachers provide models for what that could ideally look like.

It seems to me that in most contexts, at least in America, we tend to be too ready to accept the Rider's efforts at righteous framing, discount the tone and body language, and allow Dopamine Theft to be a successful strategy more often than we should.

There's typically some threshold above which we'll condemn aspects of such behavior as "verbal abuse" or "bullying", but we largely don't recognize the harm caused by giving lower intensity or sneakier Dopamine Theft.

Dopamine Theft, Social Pressure, and Reinforcement Learning

The biggest issue, I think, is that our culture is too accepting of dopamine theft directed from people higher in the pecking order towards those lower down. If the bystanders or, in the case of kids, the parents and other adults, would be more frequent and consistent about defending the target and giving the perpetrator sufficient social disapproval, then the option of dopamine theft would be negatively reinforced.

Instead, so long as people learn early on how to identify socially acceptable targets and justifications, and exist in an environment containing such socially acceptable targets, it's likely to be positively reinforced and turn into a habit.

According to my best understanding, this process involves the same pathways as addictive drugs -- reinforcement learning driven by dopamine release to the brain's reward centers.

These mechanisms, I believe, can lead to opportunities for likely-to-be-successful dopamine theft to feel tempting and motivating -- like an opportunity to use feels to an addicted drug user.  In the absence of internal or external restraint that would spoil the fun, acting on it generates a neurochemical reward and increases Dopamine Level -- like a hit would for the drug user.

Through this lens, the Golden Rule, Jesus' teachings in the gospels, the teachings of the Buddha, etc. can be seen as efforts by our ancestors to counteract these mechanisms and instill the internal and external constraints on both the individual and societal levels that would spoil the fun and negatively reinforce the pattern of dopamine theft.

Unfortunately, at our current cultural moment, that aspect mostly seems to have gotten lost. Instead, such traditional restraint mechanisms often get either ignored or co-opted to justify and exacerbate dopamine theft (Westboro Baptist Church's activities being an extreme example).

The Dopamine Theft model is an attempt to make a distinction between truly loving correction (like Mr. Rogers) and giving in to the inner baboon while our brain acts like a press secretary to make it seem righteous (like the stereotypical dopamine theft addicted asshole).

That distinction, plus striving towards the goal of recognizing and negatively reinforcing dopamine theft both within and externally, could potentially help move us in the right direction and reduce the meanness.  Jesus' behavior in the Gospels provides numerous examples of this, such how he intervened when a crowd tried to stone a woman for adultery.

Trying to ramp up calling out Dopamine Thieves by bystanders while failing to make that distinction risks further exacerbating the culture of Dopamine Theft.  Again, looking at you Westboro as the poster child for this risk.

Three corollaries of all this are:

  1. That the responsibility for appropriate intervention to thwart attempted dopamine theft is highest on any bystanders who outrank the perpetrator or who at least have people in their corner who outrank the perpetrator and will plausibly come to their defense.  If a popular football star is trying to commit dopamine theft on a skinny outcast kid at recess, the Coach has a much better chance of successfully intervening than the victim's equally skinny and outcast friend, so his responsibility to step up and do so is greater.  However, in the likely case someone like the Coach isn't around or (worse),  is around and won't intervene,
  2. That any defender would work so long as they can trust enough of the strangers around to back them, which is why it would make such a difference to have a sufficient cultural shift in this direction.
  3. That the highest ranking members of any group are the ones who are most likely to get away with Dopamine Theft.  If you're typically the highest ranking person around, particularly while growing up, opportunities to commit Dopamine Theft and get social approval for doing so are high, and the chances of negative reinforcement are low.  You see this pattern over and over again: Harvey Weinstein taking sexual advantage of subordinates and getting away with it for decades, Donald Trump apparently getting away with anything he feels like doing, etc.

    At some level we understand this effect and portray it in our fiction: the behavior of John Lithgow's character in the movie Beatriz at Dinner, how often the football quarterback, son of the richest family in town, or corporate CEO are portrayed as entitled assholes, etc.   However, it seems to me like these situations are too often portrayed in terms of good and evil, hero and villain dichotomies, as "bad apples", and/or in terms of identity categories -- religious vs non-religious, this religion vs that one, this nationality vs that one, this race vs that one, etc. -- and too much underplay the dynamics of how reinforcement learning and Elephant/Rider effects play into it.

    We recognize that power corrupts, but don't seem to usefully understand or counterbalance the processes by which it happens, such as how social acceptance of top-down Dopamine Theft and toadying to power contribute to the problem.  This is something we really need to work on.
At a personal level, a good first step for moving in that direction is to practice watching for such interactions and learning to recognize Dopamine Theft.

I find it's actually easier to recognize if the participants are speaking a language I don't know.  That way I can hear the tone and observe the body language without being distracted by the meaning of the words.

Another harder step is to start to recognize that internal burst of enthusiasm at the idea of doing something like correcting someone as a sign that the Elephant might be trying for Dopamine Theft and overrule it.  A compact slogan could be "Just say no to Dopamine Theft".


I hope this is a useful starting point on understanding and employing the Dopamine Narrative.  I also hope that having this post to point to for defining the terms will help in being able to address other aspects and applications of this tool set.  If you have any questions or types of situation you're interested in exploring through the Dopamine Narrative lens, please let me know.

Thanks for reading.  :)


  1. Anne, I love your work.
    My mother is a dopamine theif. I have a CIS, A-TYPICAL BuChE and I'm under a lot of stress and have developed multi food intolerances. I am looking for ways to increase dopamine. Curious if you are still taking Bupropion?