Tuesday 31st of January, 2023.
Written by Psychologist, James Blaze.


Evolutionary Explanation of Reward System

Like many species, we (human beings) evolved to ensure the continuation of our species through reproducing. In order to do this, we needed to survive, meaning having our basic human needs met, like seeking food to eat, shelter to safely live and mates to reproduce with. This was often effortful and involved high risks, like leaving behind loved ones for a long time, facing dangerous weather conditions, possible starvation and exposure to predators.

When we obtained what we were looking for, we felt great because we overcame adversity to have our needs were met. As a result, our dopamine levels rose, which was our bodies way of telling us that our effortful pursuit of resources paid off and we should do this again in order to feel good and ultimately stay alive. Sometime after our dopamine levels rose, they returned to baseline, because if they did not, then we would never need motivation to seek resources again. In summary, we are hard wired to perform behaviours that release dopamine to make us feel that we are surviving.

Current Day Reward System

Fast-forward to present day and modern luxuries have streamlined our survival behaviours, making them more accessible than ever before. If we need to be entertained, we can choose from an enormous library of entertainment options over various streaming platforms and devices from the comfort of our beds. If we need to eat, we can choose from numerous dishes, from numerous restaurants from numerous cuisines by ordering food delivery over an app directly to our homes or workplace. If we are feeling lonely and need to feel connected with others, we can instantaneously message and socialise via social media. If we need to feel accomplished, we can play video games online with friends or strangers instantly. If we are struggling to engage romantically or sexually, we can use dating apps or browse virtually unlimited pornography online.

Current Day Problem

Naturally, our brain prefers the easiest access to options that not only increase, but skyrocket our dopamine levels higher than ever before. As a result, the need for effortful pursuit of food, friends, sex and entertainment decreases. We still experience dopamine from our new modern-day luxuries, however as a result of streamlined access and over indulgence in these luxuries, we have grown less sensitive to the dopamine we do receive from them and must chronically spike dopamine levels to feel the same amount of pleasure. The higher the dopamine spike, the steeper the rebound below baseline levels. In fact, when we are below baseline levels of dopamine, our body releases a chemical associated with dysphoria, pain, dissatisfaction and unease, leading us to seek drastic spiking of dopamine to escape this feeling. For this reason, such behavioural patterns have been described as a survival behaviour.

Recognising Emerging Behavioural Addiction

Research suggests key signs someone could be addicted to a behaviour:

  • The behaviour is a central part of your life, you have difficulty controlling how often you think about it and how much you engage in it.
  • You receive a “high” from engaging in the behaviour.
  • You feel you need to engage in greater amounts of the behaviour to get the same high that you’re used to.
  • When you go without engaging in the behaviour, you feel uncomfortable in your mood or body.
  • The behaviour leads to conflicts within yourself or with others.
  • After disengaging from the activity for an extended period, you find yourself re-engaging with the same intensity as before.
  • You find that important aspects of your life are being ignored or negatively impacted as a result of your behaviour (work, socialising, eating, exercise, sleep).

Common Types of Addictive Behaviours

  • Pornography use
  • Video game use
  • Social media use
  • Online dating use
  • Media entertainment use
  • Eating
  • Shopping
  • Gambling
  • Exercising and dieting

Tips for managing emerging behavioural addiction:

  • Be aware of how the reward system works in your brain.
  • Notice whether you are engaging in the behaviour for genuine leisure or to escape and relieve underlying psychological distress.
  • Seek psychological treatment for the risk factors to developing and maintaining behavioural addiction (stress, loneliness, low self-esteem, anxiety).
  • Diversify your options for pleasurable activities in your routine.


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Grant, Jon E, MD,J.D., M.P.H., Schreiber, L. R. N., B.A., & Odlaug, B. L., M.P.H. (2013). Phenomenology and treatment of behavioural addictions. Canadian Journal of Psychiatry, 58(5), 252-9. Retrieved from https://www.proquest.com/scholarly-journals/phenomenology-treatment-behavioural-addictions/docview/1367064794/se-2

Alavi SS, Ferdosi M, Jannatifard F, Eslami M, Alaghemandan H, Setare M. Behavioral Addiction versus Substance Addiction: Correspondence of Psychiatric and Psychological Views. Int J Prev Med. 2012 Apr;3(4):290-4. PMID: 22624087; PMCID: PMC3354400.