Ever feel like a puppy dog begging for a treat? Like all your behavior and mannerisms have been conditioned by some kind of cosmic reward system, the ins and outs of which you can’t even begin to understand? Well, the bad news is, you’re probably right…about the conditioning, I mean. The good news is that it’s really not that complicated.
If you’ve ever wondered why you always seem to attract the same kind of guy, wind up in the same kind of job or find yourself on the same old hamster wheel of losing weight only to gain it back again, read on.
Back in my early twenties, a doctor friend of mine told me about a study done by some smarty-pants researchers to find out what motivates behavior. Unfortunately, I don’t have a direct link to the study (this was B.G. – before Google), but the gist of it stuck with me.
Basically, the men in the white coats had three groups of mice. They gave them a bar to push. For one group, when the mice pushed the bar, they never got any result. The second group got a mouse cookie every time they pushed the bar. The third group got a mouse cookie sometimes, and sometimes they got nothing at all, and it was totally random.
The researchers discovered that of all the groups, the mice who got the random reward would continue to push the bar over and over and over once the delicious snacks were cut off. The other two groups just gave up pretty quickly because they weren’t seeing results.
This explains why we keep on doing the same insane actions while expecting different results. People aren’t consistent. If you always date the same kind of guy, sure there are good moments, maybe even moments that give you an emotional high, but they happen at random. If you’re always chasing the promotion in your job – even though you’d really like to be doing something else entirely with your life – you’re looking for that elusive reward.
This is why video games are so darned addictive. They give you randomly spaced rewards for the actions that you take that get you addicted to a brief dopamine high (dopamine is a neurotransmitter secreted by the brain that is directly linked to reward-driven learning). Dopamine is the same neurotransmitter affected by highly addictive stimulant drugs such as cocaine and methamphetamines.
Basically, we’re all crack heads, in search of an emotional high. We keep pressing the “pretty please love me” bar like mice in a cage, hoping the reward pellet will fall once more into our waiting little hands.
So, how do you break the cycle? It takes a tremendous amount of self awareness, but it can be done. First and foremost, ask yourself why you’re doing what you’re doing and what you hope to gain from it. Are you dating this guy because you’re terrified of being alone? Are you working in this job because you don’t think you can get the one you really want? Are you losing weight because you think you should or because you want to have more energy and better health?
Then, keep your attention on the present moment. Our brains love to future cast. If I do this, then this will happen and that will happen and then I’ll ultimately wind up here. This is setting yourself up for the sugar crash that eventually follows false dopamine highs. Keep your attention on the present moment and be truthful about your actions. Do they resonate with you? Are you living someone else’s dream? Are you doing this for someone else’s approval or because it’s truly what you desire?
Keeping your attention on what you want is the surefire way to keep your actions in line with your deepest desires and kick the mouse-in-a-cage reward system for good.