Neuroscience and behavioral science joined forces and released a new study revealing the truth about the gap between setting one’s goal and the ability to pursue that goal. The brain is a simple organ in its complexity: it functions on reward grounds. A goal becomes a goal due to the reward it promises. We work or steal to make money and be rich, and we eat to feed ourselves, or for the pleasure of taste, we go to the gym to look good and attract other people, we read so we’d be cultivated people that differentiate from the rest, and so on.
But why does the brain give up on pursuing a goal?
The answer is one word: dopamine. Dopamine functions both as a hormone and a neurotransmitter, and plays several essential roles in the brain and body.
One of the dopamine pathways of the brain plays a significant role in the motivational component of reward-motivated behavior. The anticipation of most types of rewards increases the level of dopamine in the brain. In popular culture and media, dopamine is usually seen as the main chemical of pleasure. But dopamine cannot be equated with pleasure, as reflected in the consummatory behavioral response.
While all pleasurable stimuli are rewarding, not all rewarding stimuli are pleasurable. Money is an extrinsic reward, but it doesn’t give pleasure. Dopamine confers motivational salience. It signals the desirability or aversiveness of an outcome. This turns the organism’s behavior toward or away from achieving that outcome.
Within the brain, dopamine functions partly as a global reward signal. An initial dopamine response to a rewarding stimulus encodes information about the salience, value, and context of a reward. In the context of reward-related learning, dopamine also functions as a reward prediction error signal, that is, the degree to which the value of a reward is unexpected.
An expected value, no matter how valuable, doesn’t produce a second phasic dopamine response. Rewards that are unexpected produce a short-lasting increase in synaptic dopamine.
Published in the journal Behavioral Brain Research the study focused on finding what changes on the way to achieving a goal. There isn’t something new about the study, but more of a confirmation of things supposed before. Effort stands in the way of pursuing a goal. Money is not a big enough stimulus when you have to make an effort for them. Dopamine already explained why, but maybe there is something about our behavior that could be changed.
The study used an extrinsic reward: money. And it discovered that even though it is believed that large sums of money can motivate a significant effort, it doesn’t feel that way once you start making an effort. The urge for motivation drops, and money doesn’t feel rewarding anymore. “We found that there isn’t a direct relationship between the amount of reward that is at stake and the amount of effort people actually put in,” said Dr. Agata Ludwiczak, the lead study author.
The new study brings behavioral science to give another explanation for it. We do it wrong, they say. Because once we start working to achieve our goal, the motivational reward that first convinced us to do it for is not as appealing as it was. Behaviorists say that is because we change our mindset from the award to the effort, and we shouldn’t. There is a choice they say, to continue focusing on the reward once the effort begins.
It is not clear if they say that this choice could change dopamine’s behavior in our brains, but they sure say that we should change our behavior. But our behavior is a result of dopamine behavior.
That’s a tricky one. Maybe if we could consider the reward significant enough, it is worth making an effort.