Dopamine-Driven Feedback Loops: What Are They?

Do you ever close an app on your phone just to open it again two seconds later? Or rather, do you find yourself going through the same systematic motions throughout your phone’s different screens over and over again? You’ve likely fallen into a dopamine feedback loop.

A dopamine-driven feedback loop is a “self-perpetuating circuit fueled by the way the neurotransmitter works with the brain’s reward system. Feedback loops, in general, are circuits that return output as input to a given system to drive future operations and, in this case, behaviors,” according to

Chasing after dopamine involves completing tasks that we suspect will bring us some type of rush, even if on a very small level. The pull wheel on social media timelines like Twitter and Instagram is reminiscent of a slot machine where you pull down the lever out of the expectation of receiving something back. Whether the result is good or bad, at least on social media it’s free. Pulling it as much as you want means it becomes normalized, and searching for that piece of content you were afraid you’d miss out on is an endless journey.

For months and months on end, you could be stuck in a particular loop where you open Instagram, pull the refresh tab, open Direct Messages, pull that refresh tab, then close the app. After about a half hour or so, you feel the sensation to open the app and complete the loop again.

You know well that you didn’t have any new messages. If you did, you’d receive a buzz from your phone and a notification from the homescreen, yet for whatever reason you’re stuck committing this loop over and over, constantly throughout the day.

I personally broke a dopamine-feedback loop while it was time for me to update my phone and I received the new one in a different size. It felt funny in my hand, and I noticed my thumb was in a slightly different position when I tried to complete the loop. My apps were also completely jumbled and mismatched compared to their old locations on my previous phone.

This lit a spark in me, and I vowed to resist the urge to complete the loop. After consulting back and forth with the brain and resisting the urge to satisfy the temptation, I was able to break the loop.

Chamath Palihapitiya, former Vice President of User Growth at Facebook, admitted to an audience of Stanford students that they felt “tremendous guilt” for their role in affecting users’ brains and thought patterns. “The short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops that we have created are destroying how society works.”

“Tech companies understand what causes dopamine surges in the brain and they lace their products with ‘hijacking techniques’ that lure us in and create ‘compulsion loops’,” The New York Times’ columnist David Brooks wrote.

“Snapchat has Snapstreak, which rewards friends who snap each other every single day, thus encouraging addictive behavior,” Brooks continued. “News feeds are structured as ‘bottomless bowls’ so that one page view leads down to another and another and so on forever. Most social media sites create irregularly timed rewards; you have to check your device compulsively because you never know when a burst of social affirmation from a Facebook like may come.”

It seems these issues will only persist as social media growth continues. All once can hope for is that real life will simply get in the way, slowly removing people from the services. Eliminating social media use, the root of these feedback loops, piece by piece is necessary to take full control of your cognitive temptations.