Business Psychology - Latest Findings

Article No. 256
Supervision Findings, by James Larsen, Ph.D.

Explaining Disappointment

New research points to a physiological explanation for the disappointment that follows rewards.

Deep in a primitive part of our brains lies a place called the limbic system. It's the place where emotions, sexual desires, aggression, and violence originate. The swelling emotions that drive this system would destroy us if left unchecked, but they are checked. This control mission is the job of another part of our brains called the frontal cortex.

The frontal cortex accomplishes this control by flooding the limbic system with chemicals that keep impulses that arise there under control. Nevertheless, the limbic system succeeds in this chemical warfare with one neurotransmitter called dopamine.

A small pathway from the limbic system pumps dopamine into the frontal cortex following rules researchers are only now beginning to understand. When dopamine reaches the frontal cortex, we experience it as pleasure.

Christopher Fiorillo, from the University of Cambridge, is one of these researchers, and he recently made a discovery with profound implications.

Logic suggests that dopamine would be released into the frontal cortex following this sequence: perform a task, receive a reward, and then experience the pleasure of a dose of dopamine. It's compelling logic, but it's not what happens.

Fiorillo implanted electrodes into the brains of two baboons. The electrodes could measure both the timing and the strength of dopamine secretions. Then he trained the baboons to perform a task and get a reward. He found that dopamine was released twice into the frontal cortex. First, just before the baboons preformed the task, and second, just before they received the reward. The experience of pleasure peaked before the reward was received, not after.

Next, Fiorillo manipulated the reward. Sometimes the baboons received the reward and sometimes they didn't. Remarkably, the strength of the dopamine secretion into the frontal cortex increased substantially. If the reward wasn't a sure thing but only a maybe, then the pleasure that preceded the reward was greatest.

Assuming that these findings apply to humans, and Fiorillo believes they do, they explain what happens next. They explain what happens to us after we receive this peak dose of dopamine.

During the Christmas season or any holiday season, there is great anticipation. This year everyone will get along. This year we'll all love and accept and forgive each other. This year there will be peace in the family. This year everyone will like their gifts. Unfortunately, following Christmas, most people feel a let down. We call it the holiday blues, and we blame it on unfulfilled expectations. Fiorillo's work offers another explanation.

Dopamine secretions into the frontal cortex peak just before Christmas, just before holiday gatherings, and just before opening gifts. It peaks when anticipation is the greatest, and when this peak passes, we feel the decline. We call it the blues and search for explanations, but we need search no further than Fiorillo's experiments.

This decline in pleasure following an anticipated reward also occurs in business settings. Sales people call it buyers' regret and try to follow the rule of not being present when customers actually receive their purchases. New employees feel most excited the day before they start their new jobs. The day after usually finds them struggling with a let down. Any big project that engenders hopeful anticipation will result in a let down once it's completed. We can blame it all on dopamine.

What to do?

It seems that manipulating anticipation is a key. If we can curb our excitement, focus our attention beyond anticipated rewards, and focus outside ourselves, then, logically, the amount of dopamine released into the frontal cortex just before we receive rewards should decline. This lower peak should relieve the let down that plagues us, and if we can teach our people this lesson, then we can relieve their disappointment as well.

Reference: Fiorillo, Christopher D., Philippe N. Tobler, and Wolfram Schultz (2003) Discrete Coding of Reward Probability and Uncertainty by Dopamine Neurons. Science, 21 March, 299, 1898-1902.

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