Dopamine – Mastering the Chemical that Drives Behavior

If you’ve been around the ad buying and marketing block a few times, then dopamine is likely a familiar concept. But most people might think dopamine just deals with pleasure and reward, but there’s a deeper story…

Dopamine is literally the currency that drives human behavior and a richer bottom line. We’re in the game of ethically influencing behavior, and that STARTS with dopamine my friend.

Since dopamine is the underlying driver behind every ad, marketing creative, funnel… you name it, I think it deserves a depth refresh and update. More importantly, giving you a much deeper yet concise understanding of the science of dopamine and how to leverage it to grow.

Enough hype. Let’s jump in

The (Quick) Science of Dopamine

Frankly, there’s no shortage of information about dopamine and good chances this isn’t a new term for you so, I’ve condensed the science down to a couple of core points.

  • Dopamine is the chemical released in the brain that is closely associated with reward and pleasure.
  • It’s essentially a cycle of motivation, reward, and reinforcement. Dopamine releases are how we learn and create repeat behaviors.

Basically, dopamine is released whenever you’re anticipating a reward or a pleasurable goal (like eating, drugs, socializing, etc). Your brain then associates that release of pleasurable feelings with the reward, and encourages you to repeat that behavior (to get that next dopamine hit).

And that my friend is why dopamine drives nearly all of your behavior.

The dark side is that this positive release doesn’t always mean the behavior is always good for you. For example, we might chow down on a tub of Häagen-Dazs and get our dopamine fix, yet it’s super unhealthy for us. It’s the same for any addiction like gambling.

So remember this cycle: You can think of dopamine as the brain’s way of teaching you that something is good – and to do more of it – by rewarding you with positive feelings.

Dopamine in Advertising

Now let’s bring this back to business and media buying.

Again, dopamine is the underlying driver behind every ad and funnel. And this is what leads to long-lasting, great relationships with customers.  As a business or media buyer, you can leverage dopamine in two main ways:

  • Create anticipation of something (a goal or reward)
  • Reinforce a desired behavior

Every time someone comes in contact with your business, it’s an opportunity to trigger a dopamine release to drive an action or instigate repeat behavior. Whether it involves opting in, clicking an ad, booking a call, or even buying – if you trigger that dopamine hit, they will be influenced to come back.

How Dopamine Shapes Behavior

As we know, driving a particular behavior or action starts with dopamine. There is a common misconception that dopamine is released when our brain obtains a reward, but this is NOT true.

Dopamine does not get released after the reward, it’s released in the anticipation of the reward. If you don’t create this spike, you don’t get the goal-directed behavior. See below.

And when you add an element of uncertainty and unpredictability, there is a significantly greater dopamine spike. Dopamine is centered around anticipation and unpredictability. The graph below shows what happens to dopamine levels when you introduce a “maybe” into the equation.

This is exactly what what slot machines rely on. Psychologists have found that people will work like hell to obtain a reward if it’s uncertain, and not work nearly as hard if the result is certain. And that’s why when someone continuously repeats the same action and gets the reward, dopamine spikes decrease since the reward is more predictable.

This is what’s known as intermittent reinforcement. It states that the most effective way to get a particular behavior out of an organism is to incorporate uncertainty. This is the essence of how Las Vegas operates.

Alright before moving on, let us recap:

  • Dopamine drives nearly all behavior, particularly pleasurable goals
  • Dopamine instigates repeat behavior
  • Anticipation is the heart of when dopamine is triggered
  • Adding elements of unpredictability and uncertainty of reward attainment spikes increased dopamine (i.e anticipation)

Triggering Dopamine

First, this all comes with EXTREME ethical conditions. If you have a crap product or business, do yourself a favor and find or create a badass offer to use this stuff on

Ethics aside 😅, there are countless ways to trigger that juicy dopamine spike. Just look around you – nearly every action on social media or your smartphone is hyper optimized to be a dopamine pumping machine.

Some of the more effective marketing activities that trigger dopamine revolve around creating personalized customer experiences. Here are some examples…

➜ Irresistible offer: We cannot skip this fundamental. The classic way of triggering dopamine is to help people imagine what their life would look like if they had your badass offer. Whether it is a product, newsletter, e-book, etc, an irresistible offer provides the perfect result or reward to a particular person, exactly when they need it. And again, it all ties back to anticipation and creating that personalized experience.

This type of personalized dopamine hit instigates the purchase.

Example: Need insurance? Lemonade can get you signed up for insurance literally in under a minute. Think about that: any person that desires insurance and goes to their site can get signed up at a great price nearly instantly!

While this isn’t an endorsement for them (though I enjoy their product), that rush of dopamine people get after signing up is why people feel compelled to share their experience… not to mention it’s insurance which has most folks yawning.

➜ Entertainment: Laughing, humor, entertainment, anything for the lols… it’s all the same good feeling stuff that triggers dopamine. Purple Mattress is one of my favorite examples in regards to this.

When you think about it, Purple took mattresses (boring, not sexy, etc) and they made it fun and humorous. Watch any of their advertisements and it barely feels like an ad – even the comment section of their ads has people drooling in awe. Even their partner testimonial videos! Everything they release to the world is backed up by humor and is one of the bigger reasons they’ve blown up.

Can you feel the dopamine hit just watching this…

The lesson here is to incorporate humor and genuine “good vibes” to say the least, into your marketing and ads. Keep in mind you can attempt to infuse this at nearly any touchpoint. Meme marketing is another area we’ll cover in the future that deals with this very phenomenon.

At Hyros we and the community literally create our memes and use them in retargeting ads. This enables us to stay top of mind, non-intrusive, and a good vibe to drive people back (dopamine) 😄

Please, don’t go overboard and become the person no one takes seriously…

➜ Creation & Novelty: The activity of creating, learning, discovering, or doing something new spikes dopamine too. More practical examples include drawing/painting, building, design, learning something new, building a website, customizing something, etc.

A great example is Beefree, an online email editor to build HTML emails. They encourage people to easily try out their HTML email editor without any signing up.

And when people quickly create a great-looking email within minutes, it releases dopamine and vastly increases the chance they’ll come back. So encourage people to do stuff and create – we’re biologically wired to do so. Once again, this all ties back to creating that personalized customer experience.

➜ Gamification: Hopefully you’re starting to see a pattern. Gamification also works because dopamine is activated whenever you anticipate a pleasurable goal. Incorporating elements of point scoring, leaderboards, and winning are traditional ways to achieve this, but really, you can gamify nearly anything if you put some thought in it…

Things like opting in, purchasing, joining a group, and learning can ALL be gamified.

Going even deeper, gamification is one of the most effective ways we learn. It goes like this: Do something well > you feel good (dopamine) > repeat behavior again. As the Nestler Lab at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine puts it, “activation of the pathway tells the individual to repeat what it just did to get that reward.”

I personally think of gamification as a great way to encourage a desired behavior. Figure out what action/behavior you want, then find a way to encourage it by making a game out of it.

Take Robinhood – gamification is one of the contributing factors to their uber growth for retail investors. They made stock trading a dopamine dreamland! Even going as far as confetti and a jingle when you buy a stock on their app. Basically the same thing as slot machines.

Perhaps that’s why they’re nearly getting in trouble… not to discourage you, but you show you how powerful this stuff is. Gamification is really a whole nother conversation in of itself but hey, you get the gist.

Final Thoughts…

Alright, let’s review and figure out some practical takeaways.

  1. Put simply, you create anticipation of a pleasurable reward (ie something the person values), then reinforce the behavior with the attainment of the reward.
  2. Adding an element of uncertainty to obtaining the pleasurable goal can spike significantly more dopamine. This is called intermittent reinforcement and is proven to be the most effective way to drive an organism’s behavior.
  3. As a media buyer or business, consider the key online behaviors or actions that lead people to the sale – like clicking an ad, booking a call, purchasing etc. Then seriously think about ways to incorporate dopamine triggers to further instigate that desired behavior (and drive a richer bottom line 💰).

If you want more examples to get some ideas churning, then check out the bonus section beloow.

This brings us back to the main point: you can use dopamine at nearly any online interaction to drive and reinforce a behavior – dopamine is the underlying driver behind human behavior. Additionally, remember your ads and funnels must align and tailor to the types of pleasurable goals that we are biologically wired for. (covered above)

The masters of influence are keenly aware of the biological drivers behind human behavior, to predict people’s thoughts, and dopamine is one of those fundamental pieces you cannot ignore.