Dopamine Dialogues: Dopamine & Golf

February 13, 2016

From: Colin Cromack     
To: Charles@DopamineProject.org

Charles, a question for you regarding Sapolsky’s theory that it’s the anticipation of pleasure rather than the reward that motivates somebody into action.

If you’ve ever walked around a golf course with golfers and heard the amount of cursing and swearing that goes on when people hit golf balls into water, trees or OOB’s etc, Sapolosky’s theory would suggest that it shouldn’t matter to them how good their golf shot was for them to get their dopamine fix. It clearly does.

When golfers hit great shots, they feel fantastic. When they hit poor shots, they can feel angry and frustrated. Sapolsky’s theory suggests they would both be anticipating the reward but they certainly don’t feel the same way after the event.

I believe dopamine is a key factor in addiction but if it’s only the anticipation of it which drives people to want to hit little balls around a big field, surely every golfer would come off the course feeling great regardless of how they played. After all, if its only the anticipation that drives them on every one should be having a great time. This is clearly not the case.

What do you think is happening here, if dopamine is not being released AFTER a successful event? Why aren’t all golfers getting high just from doing the work?

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Colin can be reached at targetorientedgolf.com

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From: Charles@DopamineProject.org    
To: Colin Cromack

Colin,

Great question. And while I’m not sure I can provide a definitive (or even acceptable) answer, I’ll give it a shot. (Pun intended.)

As Sapolsky noted, the dopamine triggered by expectations keeps students studying subjects they hate and going into hock in the hopes of landing high-paying jobs (they’ll probably hate), gamblers losing life savings in the hopes of hitting jackpots, and jihadists dying in suicide missions in the hopes of hitting afterlife jackpots.

Golf offers an interesting opportunity to speculate on how dopamine manipulates behavior. Long before anyone knew about neurotransmitters I noticed how much energy some people put into talking/bragging about being golfers. Now that we know what we do about brain chemicals I’d say the dopamine triggered by expectations of winning acceptance/approval and elevating status (“look at me I’m a golfer”) keeps quite a few duffers playing, regardless of scores, aggravation, and/or lack of actual enjoyment. Then there are the expectations of being outdoors (as in, “Golf is a good walk spoiled”) and of shooting a great game (the rush, attention, bragging rights, status). Even if they never have a great game.

Dopamine is responsible for an array of illogical behaviors. Food addicts gorge themselves knowing they’ll end up feeling sick while ignoring obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and shame. Cancer warnings on cigarette packs make nicotine addicts want to light up. The examples are endless. My point is dopamine doesn’t only explain normal, healthy, life-sustaining behaviors, it helps explain abnormal, unhealthy, and illogical behaviors.

I hope the above makes sense. If not, let me know. Meanwhile, I really do appreciate the question and the chance to put on my thinking cap.

Charles

From: Colin Cromack     
To: Charles@DopamineProject.org

Thanks for your response Charles. I believe dopamine plays a significant role in the ‘immediate’ reward we feel as well as driving potential delayed gratification. It is that immediate flush like cocaine users experience by inhibiting the re-uptake of the neurotransmitter which humans love. If more golfers appreciated what was driving them to play they would understand how destructive their outcome orientation was on their ability to perform consistently. It’s impossible to be present on a golf shot if you are always thinking about the outcome and that is where most are playing. It’s interesting that Sapolsky reveals that dopamine levels go UP when the chance of reward is halved. This certainly fits with the ‘hit and miss’ addictive nature of playing a golf shot where nothing is guaranteed, regardless of how well the ball is struck. Dopamine drives our lives in more ways than many care to appreciate and unfortunately it can inhibit human behaviors as much as it rewards them.

From: Charles@DopamineProject.org
To: Colin Cromack

I agree about dopamine’s dual role (immediate and expectations of rewards). The dopamine-induced expectations of rewards that helped our ancestors survive are currently doing our species in. Expectations kept primitive hunters heading out, day after day, even when they came home empty handed for long stretches. Today, dopamine keeps food addicts wolfing down mouthfuls of  junk foods they don’t taste because they’re addicted to the dopamine triggered by expectations of the next mouthful and the mouthful after that. I recently read a teaching story about a champion archer who explained to a disgruntled rival why he always lost. His advice came down to how the champion always aimed at the target while the opponent kept aiming for the prize. As you point out, many golfers screw up because their eyes aren’t on the ball.

From: Colin Cromack     
To: Charles@DopamineProject.org

Their eyes may be on the ball Charles but their attention is often on other things and it is this which determines the success of the shot. Golfers aren’t as fortunate as archers – when golfers look away from the target to execute they often think about something else like their desired outcome, ball, swing or any number of hazards. The target is rarely the focus of their attention and many wonder why they can not play golf consistently. Of course, many choose to think it is poor technique which creates the poor outcomes. Until they get taught how to control their attention, golf is rather like playing “pin the tail on the donkey” whilst wearing a mental blindfold. It’s quite hit and miss for many but the dopamine will keep them going back!

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