While we might be able to explain some human behavior with intrinsic motivation, the source of this motivation is difficult to pinpoint. The New York Times reported several studies focusing on the effects of dopamine, revealing that dopamine should no longer be thought of “as our little Bacchus in the brain.” Until recently, dopamine was thought of as a provider of “pleasure and reward.”
In one study, mice with significantly less dopamine seemed satisfied to lounge around as their bodies withered away, choosing death over the hardship of staggering a few inches to the food dish. These same mice acted normal when nibbles of food were brought to them—chewing, swallowing, even “wriggling [their] nose in apparent rodent satisfaction.”
These new studies on dopamine suggest it’s more about survival—“drive and motivation” as the New York Times writes—than some kind of adrenaline counterpart. If this is the case, then social psychologists can join up with behavioral geneticists to talk about motivation. We know, for example, of the social origins of motivation, but it’s quite another approach to suggest that even the motivation for getting out of bed has origins in the brain. The next step is to determine how dopamine is affected by social life.