Why are so many people willing to stand for hours outside an Apple store in the cold and rain, waiting for a new iPhone? One obvious reason is that for weeks in advance the Internet generates an avalanche of hype about the upcoming release. Apple has created one of the most powerful marketing machines in history#, but there is something else at work here—something at the core of what makes human beings tick.
If you train a monkey to push a lever to get food, the monkey’s brain produces a dopamine spike—which produces feelings of pleasure—before it gets the food. Dopamine drops back to normal when the food arrives. In the monkey’s experience, this suggests that anticipation of a reward is better than actually getting the reward.
The rewards that a human being can anticipate are far more complex than those of a laboratory monkey, but we are still seeking the dopamine hit of anticipation. Whether you put in endless hours in college in order to someday land a good job, hit the gym incessantly with an eye toward slimming your summer waistline, or even deny yourself earthly pleasures in hopes of a heavenly reward, you are behaving like the monkey with his lever—happier before you get the reward than when it actually arrives.
And then there’s a twist. Dopamine rises each time before you get the reward, and dopamine level settles normally if receiving the reward is predictable. In the monkey experiment, if they got the food only 50 percent of the time they pressed the lever, the rise in dopamine doubled. Add uncertainty to anticipation and you’ve got a massive pleasure blast in the brain. So standing on line not knowing if the iPhones will last until you get inside the store can make you crazy with joy.
Here’s Robert Sapolsky on the matter:
Apple games your brain’s dopamine system well. We know a new iPhone is inevitable, but Apple plays coy about exactly when it will happen. They do the same thing with the feature set of a new iPhone. Any other company would hammer us with the list of new options and the release date. Not Apple. In the months before launch, zillions of websites spin stories about what the new features might be and when the phone might hit the stores. Apple plays with our brains just like the lab researchers play with the monkeys who don’t know whether they’ll get food or not. And we go crazy with speculation.
And then you finally get your iPhone 5. A day or two later, when dopamine levels settle, it feels boring and old. There’s nothing you can do about that. You’re wired this way.
Does anticipation actually feel better than receiving? Share your stories.
photo by Richard Masoner - www.cyclelicio.us