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The good, the bad the dopamine

Peter Smittenaar


Why businesses can learn a lot from the neuroscience and psychology of habit

Habits free us and kill us. ‘Good habits’ automate mundane routines like making breakfast or locking the door to free up mental space for more important tasks like deciding which house to purchase. On the other end of the scale, ‘bad habits’ are responsible for our most pressing health problems, including overeating, smoking and drugs.

Dopamine – the brain’s reward chemical – drives our habits. It’s produced in one of the most ancient parts of our brain, and it helps us learn what’s good in the world, as well as motivating us to want it. You can think of habit-learning as repeatedly stamping in associations between situations and actions: every time something good happens, dopamine tightens the link between the situation and action that made you feel this way. Cigarettes, drugs and some foods are designed to cause a flood of dopamine in the brain, such that next time you find yourself in a similar place, the dopamine fires up again and makes you crave those products.

Businesses can learn a lot from the neuroscience and psychology of habit. And if we’re being optimistic, the most relevant topic is how to build good rather than bad habits! So here are three fundamental principles for encouraging good habits in clients and customers.

1. Incentivisation 

All habits start their life as goal-directed, intentional behaviours. So the first rule of habit club is to give your customer a reason to engage with your product. Fortunately, most marketing departments are already experts at this. Attract attention, provide information, and nudge consumers into trying your product. Neuroscience has taught us that the transition from goal-directed to habitual action is far from linear. Instead, goal-directed and habitual systems race forward in parallel. Habits are the tortoise in this race: slowly gaining the edge and eventually winning as the goal-directed system tires out with redundant time and effort.

2. Persistence 

The gradual ‘stamping in’ of habits by dopamine happens over time in the striatum, a structure deep under the surface of the brain. Remarkably, almost all areas of the brain send information to the striatum: it combines information about what we see, smell, hear, feel and think. So whenever something good happens to us, our striatum takes a detailed snapshot. Habits are strengthened by making the most of this machinery, and the keyword here is multi-dimensionality. Product packaging should look and feel good, the temperature, music and smell in the store should be perfect, and everything should feel cool. We have far more than the traditional five human senses, and our senses of temperature and ‘cool’ are just two of these. Good and, most importantly, consistent feelings are prime breeding ground for strong habits. It’s easy to be surprised by people who stick with companies they’re unhappy with, but the truth is that consistency and familiarity are often valued higher than any potential advantages of new products.

3. Commitment

Let’s assume you’ve successfully overcome the hurdles of incentivisation and persistence. Your customer is now a regular. But how do you keep them a regular? Perhaps the most important answer is social sharing. Once someone tells their friends about their great new product or routine, it suddenly becomes a lot more difficult to back out. Nobody wants to look fickle or unreliable. Quitting your gym membership is much easier if you don’t have colleagues asking, “How was the gym session this morning?” every time you walk into the office. So keep your customers engaged by encouraging them to share their experiences with friends. The medial prefrontal cortex is a key part of the brain responsible for processing social information and considering other people’s minds. It’s conveniently located right by action and decision circuits in the brain, and social status drives many of our behaviours. Unlock this treasure chest of sociality, and sail into the calm seas of consumer loyalty.