I’m trying to give up eating sugary snacks. I’ve been a serial dieter/overeater for over 20 years and this new mission is part of a seemingly endless battle to get some control. To aid my attempts, someone recommended I read The Molecule of More by Daniel Z. Lieberman and Michael E. Long, a book about dopamine.

It’s been an interesting read. I’ve learned about some of the chemistry that makes it hard to say no to chocolate. But more than that. I’ve learned about why I often dream up creative ideas in my sleep, why I might quickly lose interest in something longed for soon after acquiring it and why people might cheat at games.

Guess what? It’s all because of dopamine.

Lieberman and Long explain: 

“Dopamine is the chemical of desire that always asks for more―more stuff, more stimulation, and more surprises. In pursuit of these things, it is undeterred by emotion, fear, or morality. Dopamine is the source of our every urge, that little bit of biology that makes an ambitious business professional sacrifice everything in pursuit of success, or that drives a satisfied spouse to risk it all for the thrill of someone new. Simply put, it is why we seek and succeed; it is why we discover and prosper. Yet, at the same time, it’s why we gamble and squander.”

Dopamine has nothing to do with feelings of satisfaction or contentment in the here and now. That’s the realm of serotonin, oxytocin, endorphins and endocannabinoids. It is only concerned about what will happen in the future. Dopamine wants us to always push for more. It’s pleasure seeking, rather than pleasure enjoying.

Of course, dopamine will affect different people differently and to greater or lesser extents. But people with highly dopaminergic personalities, may be driven to do things that are immoral, dangerous and risky. One person may cheat on their partner, another may cheat in a game. 

But what’s the point of cheating in a game? A game has no real world consequence. After all, we’re not talking about Squid Game here. Dopamine doesn’t care. It just knows that the future will be better if the game is won. 

The perceived reward of winning outweighs everything else. Dopamine can sabotage enjoyment of a game because of its laser focus on winning. It strives to make the future more rewarding even at the expense of enjoying the present. 

Studies have shown that people are more likely to cheat after having experienced a previous win. They know how good winning feels. The crash of losing after winning is worse than losing several times in a row. People are more likely to cheat after winning. Dopamine spurs you on to win again. It’s interesting to note that game cheaters spurred on by dopamine will often feel remorse or guilt after the win has been accomplished. It’s like eating a gorgeous gooey chocolate brownie that you’ve been dreaming about all day and then regretting it 20 seconds after you finish. (Not that I’m dreaming about brownies, honestly). 

Nobody likes playing games with people who cheat. So… what can we do about it? 

Well, this is pure speculation, but I suspect one answer is to try to make the experience of playing more rewarding than the experience of winning. A parent trying to improve the gamesmanship of their child should focus on noticing and praising great game playing behaviour, interesting strategic choices, positive communication, and stoicism in the face of bad luck. Combine this with minimising praise for the overall winner and you’re getting somewhere. It’s not a quick fix. But over time dopamine will learn and start to chase the behaviours that promise the greatest reward. 

Need more help? Here are 7 tips for dealing with cheating. 

Please do share your experience of cheating at the game table. Or how dopamine has pushed you to do things you later regret. 

Now where’s that brownie?