Keeping a Dopamine Diary, Part 2: Dopamine and Expectations

by Charles Lyell on February 18, 2013

"If you have a goal, write it down. If you do not write it down, you do not have a goal – you have a wish."  – Steve Maraboli

Part 2 of keeping a Dopamine Diary involves learning how dopamine-induced expectations influence choices, decisions, and behaviors.

Dopamine-induced expectations are “wants” (as opposed to likes) that evolved to help “dumb” animals survive and procreate. In natural environments, the dopaminergic system that rewards expectations works because logical expectations ensure that fitter animals pass on their genetic programing while illogical expectations ensure that unfit animals remove their flawed DNA from the gene pool. In man-made environments, Homo sapiens who are easily seduced by illogical expectations get to bequeath their flawed genetic programming to offspring.

To complicate matters, because expectations are “wants” and not “likes,” humans get hooked on harmful substances, beliefs, and behaviors that they don’t necessarily enjoy or like.

Illogical dopamine-induced expectations keep:

  • gambling addicts pouring hard earned money into slot machines. 
  • acceptance addicts seeking the approval of strangers.
  • food addicts stuffing their faces, not to taste the food but to score the dopamine triggered by expectations.
  • junkies using opiates to dull the withdrawal pains caused by the opiates.
  • esteem addicts assuaging feelings of inferiority by artificially inflating their esteem with status symbols.
  • money and power addicts lying, cheating, stealing, corrupting, plundering, and destroying to acquire more money and power than they will ever need.
  • safety, peer-approval, and esteem addicts ignoring, avoiding, and dismissing information about a neurotransmitter that is doing their thinking for them.

Learning to identify dopamine-induced expectations makes it possible to resist and eliminate illogical, unhealthy, disappointing, counterproductive behaviors. Instead of wasting time scrambling to score a neurotransmitter that doesn't care if it makes you happy or miserable, you'll know how to make dopamine work for you. 

All you have to do is stop wishing and start writing.

For the Next 7 Days

"A person usually has two reasons for doing something: a good reason and the real reason."
    – Thomas Carlyle

Every day, for the next week, add at least one dopamine-triggering expectation to your diary. Try to link each expectation to food, sex, safety, power, acceptance, approval, attention, esteem, status, drugs, gambling, beliefs, or money. You don't have to be "right" to gain valuable insights from this simple exercise, but you do have to be honest and you do have to write.

As part of your conclusion, label the expectation logical or illogical, benign or malignant, weak or powerful.

Always keep the following in mind: Most people would sooner squander their lives away scoring dopamine hits than risk a few moments of discomfort associated with a reduction in dopamine flow. If you’re ready, willing, and able to experience a little discomfort, you’ll find that the (unconscious) expectation is far worse than the actual dopamine withdrawal. Meet this challenge and you’ll be on your way to changing your life for the better.

I’m including sample entries to demonstrate how little time keeping a diary takes.

Example A
Expectation: Eating a junk food burger for lunch.

Evaluation:  The expectations of stimulating taste buds with meat treats loaded with salts, fats, and sweets flooded brain with so much dopamine that it was difficult to be rational.

Conclusion: Illogical/malignant/powerful. If dopamine can make it that difficult to pass up an unhealthy cheeseburger, imagine what junkies are up against.

Example B
Expectation: Drinking that first cup of coffee in the morning.

Evaluation: Caffeine is a stimulating alkaloid. Like most drugs, caffeine offers a double hit of dopamine. The first stimulated by the expectation of ingesting caffeine; the second stimulated by an alkaloid. 

Conclusion: Illogical/benign/powerful. Wow! Everything really does come back to protecting or triggering dopamine.

Example C
Expectation: Winning a tennis match.

Evaluation: Triggering dopamine with expectations of raising peer approval, self-esteem, and status.

Conclusion: Logical/benign/somewhat powerful. Felt good. Makes sense. Or does it?

Example D
Expectation: Volunteering at soup kitchen.

Evaluation: Triggering dopamine with expectation of winning approval, raising self-esteem from knowing I’m helping and giving.

Conclusion: Logical/benign/powerful. Felt great.

For the Following 7 Days

“To know a species, look at its fears. To know yourself, look at your fears. Fear in itself is not important, but fear stands there and points you in the direction of things that are important. Don't be afraid of your fears, they're not there to scare you; they're there to let you know that something is worth it.”
― C. JoyBell C.

The need to protect dopamine flow makes it impossible for self-deceptive humans to admit to fears because honesty triggers expectations that threaten safety, peer approval, and/or esteem. Conversely, self-deceptions are rampant because they include expectations of increasing dopamine flow by artificially inflating safety, peer approval, and status.

For the next week, focus on dopamine-triggering expectations you can link to fear, safety, and/or power.

Example A
Expectation: Fear of feeling sluggish and disgusted after finishing gooey junk food burger.

Evaluation: Thinking about harming my health with fattening sugars, artery clogging fats, and overdosing on salts = threat to safety = dopamine flow off. Flow turned back on with expectations of stimulating taste buds with meat treats. Dopamine overflow made it difficult to be rational.

Conclusion: Confusing. Scary! Took everything I had to resist a burger. Dopamine awareness can be good thing. A little work, but worth it.

Example B
Expectation: Losing tennis match.

Evaluation: Unpleasant "feelings" associated with threats to peer approval, self-esteem, and status.

Conclusion: Illogical/malignant/powerful. Is that how dopamine withdrawal feels? Why do I care so much about what people think? What am I afraid of? Is it about being rejected or is it the expectation of experiencing dopamine withdrawal that comes with rejection?

Example C
Expectation: Relief at passing on leasing luxury car.

Evaluation: Concerns about monthly payments, insurance, theft = fear = stress = dopamine withdrawal.

Conclusion: Logical/benign. Vacillates between weak and strong. Protecting dopamine flow can be a good thing. Illogical cravings to trigger dopamine (expensive car = increase peer approval, attention, esteem = dopamine overflow) is foolish.

Example D
Expectation: Being dismissed for trying to explain what I know about dopamine to friends.

Evaluation: Fear of being rejected, dismissed, mocked = threat to approval, status = dopamine withdrawal.

Conclusion: Illogical/malignant/powerful. Why do I let a neurotransmitter make me care so much about what others think? Glad I started keeping a dopamine diary.


Dopamine is a chemical that can’t and doesn’t care if you:

  • let it make you happy or miserable.
  • allow it to be your master.
  • employ it to make you happier.
  • permit it to do your thinking for you.
  • take back your life by thinking for yourself.

Now that you know what you know, what will you do?

Keep a dopamine diary that will change your life by teaching you how dopamine-fueled expectations manipulate behavior?

Protect your dopamine flow by letting dopamine convince you that spending a few minutes a day writing in a dopamine diary is a waste of time?




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