Are we addicted to anticipation not reward?

My recent Research Highlight about “dopamine addiction“, raises a few intriguing points about how all addictive behaviour might be to do with the reward mechanism derived from rising dopamine levels in the brain that stimulate various pleasure centres. However, there is another way of looking at it: addiction is not about the reward of dopamine but the anticipation of that reward. US neurologist Robert Sapolsky explains the difference. It’s the uncertainty of the reward that drives behaviour and for humans that reward anticipation can last on the short timescale of slot machines at Las Vegas to the decades long anticipation of heaven’s unearthly estate for many.

Dopamine Jackpot! Sapolsky on the Science of…
This is a subtle shift in emphasis. We’re perhaps not addicted to the rewarding feelings of dopamine but to the anticipation of dopamine and thus to anything that sustains dopamine levels through that anticipation whether gambling, drugs, sex, or the pursuit of money, power and the religious endpoint. My original article asked whether dopamine is the most evil chemical in the world. In the light of Sapolsky’s argument, dopamine itself is not the evil chemical, just the possibility of dopamine…we’re not addicted to the chemical, we’re addicted to the possibility of the chemical.

Thanks to ToddStarkfor pointing me to David Dobbs item in Wired displaying the Sapolsky video.

And speaking of anticipation – In the moments before you “stop and smell the roses,” your brain seems to create predictive olfactory templates for specific smells that set up your mental expectations of the scent before the first odour molecules even reach your nostrils – Christina Zelano, Aprajita Mohanty, Jay A. Gottfried. Olfactory Predictive Codes and Stimulus Templates in Piriform Cortex. Neuron, 2011; 72 (1): 178-187 DOI: 10.1016/j.neuron.2011.08.010

6 thoughts on “Are we addicted to anticipation not reward?”

  1. David, thanks for posting this. Unpopular ideas can have a lot of value in stimulating thought.
    To me personally, it’s the fundamental significance of of expectancy in shaping behavior that is the important take away, rather than whether dopamine is “completely” about anticipation or reward. I have the sense from my own reading so far that it engages both, but I’m not a neuroscientist. Turning this into a question of “anticipation vs. reward” seems to me to be a false dilemma. The idea that behavior is driven directly by pain and pleasure stimuli is unfortunately deeply embedded in much of our thinking and I think it is hard to seriously imagine any role that expectancy plays at this low level even while we appreciate it psychologically. So I appreciate a little rhetorical excess here in counter-balance. Just my thinking, fwiw.

    kind regards,


  2. I don’t think it is *everything*. I think he’s wrong. I just wanted to show that there are opposing points of view to that which I reported in my original post on dopamine.

  3. I’ve always been aware of anticipation being a component, but I have a very hard time believing it is everything.

  4. Hi,

    This is in response to David, the post’s author. If I understand the video correctly, the release of dopamine is, in fact, rewarding in itself. The rest of the behavior can also lead to reward (food) but it’s the dopamine release that trains the animal to engage in the behavior.

    The dopamine release happens regardless of whether or not the original result is achieved. So I would have to say that dopamine is the really powerful element here – not the anticipation of it. As the guy in the video pointed out, dopamine suppression extinguishes the work behavior.

    What seems to be different about us human animals is the ability to tie dopamine release to abstract goals including those that are delayed.

    My own experience as a recovering addict tends to bear that out. If there was no real dopamine release (pleasure), I stopped using for a time.

  5. Hi,

    Interestingly enough I can offer another data point – a fear of something really being the anticipation of it.

    I have always been afraid of needles, but not in the same way as others appear to be – I know people who run at the sight of one or feint after being stabbed with one by a doctor. I, however, hate the build up to the event of having a needle inserted into me, once it’s in I don’t care about it. It’s just the *knowledge* that it’s going to hurt that gets me riled up and puts me into a fear response. Even watching someone else being injected causes me to think about the pain involved, forcing me to look the other way so I don’t build those same templates of pain in my mind.

    Likewise, I have identified my fear of heights as being caused by flashes of mental images simulating what it might be like to fall off whatever it is.

    The longer I live, the more I notice that everything I am afraid of is related to either involuntarily simulating the outcomes or recalling past sensations as a result of experience or similar experiences and extrapolating the outcome to the new situation.

    Oftentimes I wonder if my consciousness controls my brain, or if it controls my consciousness >.<


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