Part of the brains of almost all animals is concerned with habit formation, a biological system that rests on the chemical dopamine. There is, of course, a gene for this. But like any such gene, it simply provides a tool for the organism – it does not dictate how that tool will be used. We may form good habits, in which dopamine is released regularly, or we may fall into addiction of many kinds, where the pursuit of a bigger hit of this reward chemical comes to dominate our behaviour. Many of these kinds of addiction are well recognised, but some are not. The biggest dopamine hit of all comes from attaining victory in a struggle, and even imagining a winning outcome provides a small release of the reward chemical, helping to motivate perseverance.
I work in the videogames industry, and the question of the addictiveness of this medium is something of a hot button topic. It is true that certain games can be compulsive, and indeed that certain players become addicted to the pursuit of victory within them. But it is important to keep perspective here: soap operas, gossip and sports are also addictive. The issue is not whether certain pursuits are addictive so much as it is whether individuals are able to incorporate them into their lives in a healthy manner. Watching professional sports is tremendously habit-forming, but we are not likely to ban this vicarious enjoyment of winning any time soon.
We need to recognise that the pursuit of victory can present a damaging addiction in many contexts far outside of our usual assumptions in this regard. In particular, it will be helpful to recognise that partisans of any kind (political, scientific, metaphysical or ethical) are especially at risk to a peculiar kind of addiction. When truth is seen as a battleground, as it is in Western culture, then being right is winning, and as David Brin has noted, the excessive demand for partisan victory in politics is an addiction like any other. This addiction to winning obscures moral judgement, and combined with the various cognitive biases it renders politics impotent.
Part 22 of 23 in the Pentenary series.