The Science of UX, Part 3: The Biochemistry of Motivation

A blog series by Drory Ben-Menachem, Creative Director

There is a common belief in the gaming industry around designing experiences intended to give players (users) “shots of dopamine” – referring to the pleasure they experience with the game, and their desire to continue playing. The release of dopamine in the brain is traditionally associated with feelings of pleasure and reward, and therefore is relevant to gameplay. But recent research has discovered dopamine’s deeper and more meaningful role in the brain: including motivation and mindset, behavior and cognition, attention and retention.

Studies of dopamine’s affects on the brain began with pleasure until researchers began noticing a peculiar phenomena. They saw spikes in dopamine during moments of high stress. Dopamine levels rose in the case of soldiers with PTSD who heard gunfire. Stress and gunfire are not pleasurable phenomena, yet dopamine levels rose sharply. It was clear that dopamine went beyond mere pleasure and actually performs its task before we obtain rewards, meaning that its real job is to encourage us to act and motivate us to achieve (or avoid something bad). Behavioral neuroscientist John Salamone confirmed the link in an animal study on rats who were given the choice of one pile of food or another pile of food twice the size but behind a small fence. The rats with lowered levels of dopamine almost always took the easy way out, choosing the small pile instead of jumping the fence for greater reward. As Salamone explains, “low levels of dopamine make people and other animals less likely to work for things, so it has more to do with motivation and cost/benefit analyses than pleasure itself.”

This is where Motivational Design separates itself from gamification.  As purveyors of experience, we should always explore ways to replace painful experiences with pleasurable ones, but if the focus is solely on “delight”, we may avoid experiences that are more difficult, more stressful, more challenging… and potentially more rewarding.  Some experiences are just difficult, but can also be the most valuable and rich experiences we can have.  All growth is about adaptation, and that requires struggle.  Someone struggling to learn and perform advanced skills may appear to be experiencing pain or anxiety – consider the athlete pushing themselves to the edge of their potential.

So in some contexts, our goal should not necessarily be to eliminate all frustration, but rather how to reduce all unnecessary frustration while simultaneously making the unavoidably frustrating parts more tolerable or worth the effort.  The phrase we often use to sum this mindset up is “easy to learn, hard to master”.  Just because something is hard to accomplish doesn’t mean it’s not also worthwhile.

…up next, The King is Dead, Long Live the King.

(author’s note — Part 4 was originally intended to be about Flow but I got inspired about Contextual Bias.  Flow will be covered in Part 5)
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