Did the dopamine reward-system kill the American Dream?


“Video killed the radio star,” goes the song, did the dopamine reward-system kill the American Dream?

Over at Wired Brandon Kiem writes about the neuroscientist Peter Whybrow’s claim of the biological impossibility of the American Dream.

This ties in with several pieces I have previously written so I decided I should post some quotes and give a few comments.

Dr. Whybrow (from the Wired article):

“We’ve been taught, especially in America, that happiness will be at the end of some sort of material road, where we have lots and lots of things that we want,”

This excessive consumerism ties in with my piece yesterday about happiness and what type of spender are you, and a previous piece on ideas vs consumerism.

Our built-in dopamine-reward system makes instant gratification highly desirable, and the future difficult to balance with the present. This worked fine on the savanna, said Whybrow, but not the suburbs: We gorge on fatty foods and use credit cards to buy luxuries we can’t actually afford. And then, overworked, underslept and overdrawn, we find ourselves anxious and depressed.

I have written about dopamine previously and in particular the Dopamine D2 system and how it might relate to ‘hope’ (the neuroscience of hope). Polymorphisms in this system can play a role in future discounting. A person who discounts the future at a high level tends to care mainly about immediate rewards and conveniently ignore the future, which can lead to obesity, drug addiction, gambling, debt, etc. While a person who has a lower level of discounting the future (therefore thinks about the future) is more likely able to delay immediate satisfaction for long term gain (e.g saving money instead of going into excessive debt). So your genetic makeup can influence your ‘future thinking’ ability – though you can’t just blame your genes.

Next Whybrow goes beyond the individual to American society at large:

That individual weakness is reflected at the social level, in markets that have outgrown their agrarian roots and no longer constrain our excesses — resulting in the current economic crisis, in which America’s unpaid bills came due with shocking speed.

But with this crisis, said Whybrow, comes the opportunity to rethink how Americans live, as individuals and as a nation, and build a country that works.

“We’re primed for doing things immediately. We’re poor at planning for the future, unless we get into circumstances like these, where we’re forced to think cleverly about what to do next,” he said. “In a way, this financial meltdown is a healthy thing for us. We’ll think intuitively again.”

Is America and the American dream perfect, or is it a dream?

“America has always believed that it was the perfect society. When you have that mythology driving your culture, it’s hard to look around and say, ‘Is someone else doing it better than us?’” said Whybrow. “But you can trace the situation we’re in to our evolutionary origins. Now that we find ourselves in the middle of this pseudo-abundance, we’re in trouble. And the fantasy that we can restart the American dream just isn’t true.”

Sobering thoughts. Not sure if he is making an overstatement but I am interested in how our evolution heritage might produce certain behavorial effects that do not suit the current environment. I have several theories regarding this subject complete with the potential neurobiology behind them. I plan on trying to find time to write them up and share them with you – which I hope don’t bore you to death.

Will the American Dream be killed by our brain which evolved to be ruthlessly efficient in the environment of our past but currently causes to overconsume (food, resources, money, drugs, etc) in the time of plenty ?

(of course the biological reality is it is not just the dopamine reward-system, but many other system that influence our decision making including going for immediate rewards rather than delayed rewards – but the dopamine reward-system may be one important culprit)