On Dopamine & Status

Two fundamental principles of my design philosophy is that dopamine and status are the core components to realizing your legend. Too much or too little or too high or too low of either can hinder your behavior and throw you out of allostasis. Social status directly affects how your emotions are regulated, thus control the amount of dopamine being excreted. Dopamine however, can be standalone, examples being listening to music or consuming drugs. Low levels of dopamine makes it hard to do the hard things that make life worth living, leading to pain and even depression. High levels however can lead to impulsivity and addiction.

At the same time, in order to attract partners, we need to advertise our own traits—the same ones we’re looking for in others. By displaying, accentuating, and even exaggerating these desirable traits, we raise our own value, helping to ensure that we’ll be chosen by more and/ or higher-quality mates, more and/ or higher-status friends, and better coalitions. All of these competitions thereby result in arms races. Just as the redwoods are competing for light from the sun, we’re competing for the “light” of attention and affection from potential mates, friends, and allies. And in each game, the way to win is to stand out over one’s rivals. In this context, the advice in Matthew 7: 1—” Judge not, lest you be judged”—is difficult to follow. It goes against the grain of every evolved instinct we have, which is to judge others readily, while at the same time advertising ourselves so that we may be judged by others. To understand the competitive side of human nature, we would do well to turn Matthew 7: 1 on its head: “Judge freely, and accept that you too will be judged.”

Simler, K. (2017). The Elephant in the Brain: Hidden Motives in Everyday Life. [online] Oxford University Press, p38. Available at: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/28820444-the-elephant-in-the-brain [Accessed 01 May. 2022].

Those who claim to have no interest in social status do not have a firm grasp on the evolution of hierarchies. We are always signaling our status through the brands we purchase, the size of our house, the speed of our car, how we attract others and what company we work for. Hierarchies evolved through the combination of tribal reciprocation and living in a world lacking of resources. A primal component of our brain, the amygdala is unconsciously keeping track of our social status. Where we belong in the hierarchy determines how much positive emotion we experience and being irrationally emotional beings, it has a huge influence on how we behave. Compared to the animal world, we humans have a unique ability to belong to multiple hierarchies in our society, between our coworkers and within our families.

Of all the signals sent and received by our bodies, the ones we seem least aware of are those related to social status. And yet, we’re all downright obsessed with our status, taking great pains to earn it, gauge it, guard it, and flaunt it. This is a source of great dramatic irony in human life. Because of their privileged position, high-status individuals have less to worry about in social situations. 43 They’re less likely to be attacked, for example, and if they are attacked, others are likely to come to their aid. This allows them to maintain more relaxed body language. They speak clearly, move smoothly, and are willing to adopt a more open posture. Lower-status individuals, however, must constantly monitor the environment for threats and be prepared to defer to higher-status individuals. As a result, they glance around, speak hesitantly, move warily, and maintain a more defensive posture. High-status individuals are also willing to call more attention to themselves. When you’re feeling meek, you generally want to be a wallflower. But when you’re feeling confident, you want the whole world to notice. In the animal kingdom, this “Look at me!” strategy is known as aposematism. 44 It’s a quintessentially honest signal. Those who call attention to themselves are more likely to get attacked—unless they’re strong enough to defend themselves. If you’re the biggest male lion on the savanna, go ahead, roar your heart out. The same principle explains why poisonous animals, like coral reef snakes and poison dart frogs, wear bright warning colors. They may not look too tough, but they’re packing heat.

Simler, K. (2017). The Elephant in the Brain: Hidden Motives in Everyday Life. [online] Oxford University Press, p121. Available at: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/28820444-the-elephant-in-the-brain [Accessed 01 May. 2022].

Our dopamine levels and social ranking influence our worldview, how we see others, how others see us and how we treat each other. These factors combined determine our quality of life. In the modern age, big tech, sugar, social media and other superstimuli have gamed our behavior using their synthetic algorithms, thus distorting our worldview. Superstimuli deceptively depletes our dopamine reservoir through bottomless feeds, abundance of triggered headlines and exaggerated porn. Our social status is gamed through comparative highlight reels, broadcasting manufactured luxury and polarizing news stories.

From the time we wake up to the time our head hits the pillow at night, we are bombarded with messages and expectations about every aspect of our lives. From magazine ads and TV commercials to movies and music, we’re told exactly what we should look like, how much we should weigh, how often we should have sex, how we should parent, how we should decorate our houses, and which car we should drive. It’s absolutely overwhelming, and, in my opinion, no one is immune. Trying to avoid media messages is like holding your breath to avoid air pollution—it’s not going to happen. It’s in our biology to trust what we see with our eyes. This makes living in a carefully edited, overproduced, and Photoshopped world very dangerous. If we want to cultivate a resilient spirit and stop falling prey to comparing our ordinary lives with manufactured images, we need to know how to reality-check what we see. We need to be able to ask and answer these questions: Is what I’m seeing real? Do these images convey real life or fantasy? Do these images reflect healthy, Wholehearted living, or do they turn my life, my body, my family, and my relationships into objects and commodities? Who benefits by my seeing these images and feeling bad about myself? Hint: This is ALWAYS about money and/or control.

Brown, B. (2010). The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are. [online] Hazelden Publishing, p67. Available at: https://www.goodreads.com/en/book/show/7015403-the-gifts-of-imperfection [Accessed 12 Feb 2021].

If we can become aware of the imperative need for protecting our dopamine reserves and social ranking, we become one step closer to realizing our legend.

In many instances, though, dopamine and H& N get thrown out of balance, especially on the dopaminergic side. The modern world drives us to be all dopamine, all the time. Too much dopamine can lead to productive misery, while too much H& N can lead to happy indolence: the workaholic executive versus the pot-smoking basement dweller. Neither one is living a truly happy life or growing as a person. To live a good life, we need to bring them back into balance.

Lieberman, D. (2018). The Molecule of More: How a Single Chemical in Your Brain Drives Love, Sex, and Creativity—and Will Determine the Fate of the Human Race. [online] BenBella Books, p212. Available at: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/38728977-the-molecule-of-more [Accessed 10 Jul. 22].

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