Not this kind of doping.
Our brains are miracles of electricity and chemistry. Each electrical and chemical reaction is a way of communicating from one part to the other. And there’s hardly a more fun chemical in the brain that dopamine.
Dopamine is what’s called a neurotransmitter. It is released by nerve cells (neurons) to send messages to other nerve cells. And it moves through special dopamine pathways. One of these is called the mesolimbic pathway, aka the reward pathway. There will not be a test on this.
Think of the classic rat-pushes-a-level-and-gets-a-reward-experiment. That’s what dopamine does. Do good. Get a dopamine reward. Most addictive drugs work through dopamine and most anti-addictive medicinal treatments repress dopamine. In fact, there are case studies, including this very readable one from The Atlantic, of people who are addicted to giving because of their neural pathways.
Dopamine dulls pain, arouses, causes pleasure, and dilates the eyes. I mention this last one so I can give you a good tip for reading people by way of Sherlock.
Sherlock: because I took your pulse: elevated; your pupils: dilated. I imagine John Watson thinks love’s a mystery to me, but the chemistry is incredibly simple and very destructive.
As a result, it’s a pretty nice thing to have on your side in nonprofit direct marketing. The “warm glow” of giving is largely a dopamine reward (mediated by oxytocin, which we’ll talk about tomorrow). When researchers look at fMRI data, they found that when someone gives to charity, the nucleus accumbens (which is usually associated with unexpected rewards) lights up and produces dopamine.
So how do you build dopamine and how do you use it?
The first is obvious and we’ve talked about it ad nauseum: thank your donors well. Part of why dopamine is addictive is that the brain tends to anticipate it. And you don’t want to deny someone that hit of dopamine for their good deeds. Conversely, an unexpected reward can have the same impact that unexpected flowers or a gift can have for a spouse or loved one. No, not the wondering what you did wrong one — the good one.
Beyond that, it’s something you can stimulate in your copy and storytelling.
Seeing other people happy releases dopamine and makes the person who observes them happy. While I’m on the record not to sugarcoat our issues, when you can show the after and the impact you are having, you can do so in a way that makes your donor happy as a result.
Affirmations. On online buttons, you’ll notice a lot of conversion buttons are now starting with “Yes,” or its excitable cousin “Yes!”. This is because a positive affirmation can release dopamine and excite the person seeing it. We become the rat pushing the lever.
Exclusivity can also give a dopamine hit. We’ve talked about its power in persuasion; dopamine is part of why. Here there’s a double shot; once when you know things that no one else knows and once when you share it with them.
And finally, use lists. Our brains love to complete things, thanks to the reward it gives itself every time. Bullet points tend to work better than comma’ed lists with each one making a nice mental check every time it’s read.
So that’s dopamine in a nutshell (or a skull). Please check back tomorrow to learn about oxytocin, or sign up for our newsletter and never miss a post!