The Hacks Cashing in on Dopamine

How Get-Rich Hocus-Pocus Gets Us Every. Single. Time.

Photo by Carla Anne on Unsplash

Write a check to yourself, and stick it to your wall.

That’s what a manifestation guru told me to do.

I did this. I wrote a check to myself, tore it out and stuck it to the wall of my study.

I read that if I write an “abundance check” to myself, it will help the universe understand what I want and duly help me get it. I told the universe I wanted two extra grand.

I felt like an idiot doing it, and I felt like an idiot explaining to my girlfriend why I was doing it.

“It’s research,” I said. “I want to see if it happens.”

Yet, if I’m really honest, I was half-hopeful that I’d get the windfall. Maybe there is something to this, I thought.

I thought that because I got a good feeling from doing it. It’s the same feeling we get just pulling the handle on the slot machine… which I will get to later.

It turned out to be my worst money month of the year. The check that had been cheer-leading for me for weeks was suddenly mocking me. I had been “conned” by what I call “attention grifting”.

Attention Grifting

Self-help, entrepreneurship, productivity, positive psychology and new-age hocus-pocus. Attention grifters operate in the intersection of these fields because the jack of all trades is the master of none.

Attention grifters give themselves credentials. They went to the nightschool of “hey, I did it, and so can you!” They make it as they fake it. These are people who teach you entrepreneurship who aren’t entrepreneurs, they tell you the tricks to become a millionaire, but they aren’t millionaires.

The manifestation-entrepreneur-self-help matrix is a snake devouring its own tail. People find success advising other people how to be successful by advising other people how to be successful and so it goes on. The easiest way to get rich is by teaching other people how to get rich.

There’s nothing wrong with self-help, and there’s nothing wrong with teaching people skills with which they can find success. In fact, there’s a lot of good things to say about self-help. There are reputable authors like James Clear and Carol Dweck who put in hundreds of hours of research to help us live more fulfilling lives. They share useful, no-nonsense ideas.

But like seagulls that swarm the trawler as it hauls in the catch, the grifters get to work plagiarising the hard-won innovations of legitimate authors. A new insight, a new way of doing things becomes a feeding frenzy for self-appointed gurus trying to take a share for themselves.

None of them actually make new knowledge or new stuff that enhances people’s lives. Like my dishwasher, they seem to recycle the same filth, around and around. They peddle half-baked advice and “mental models” usually derived from a legitimate origin but mangled in the endless cycle of appropriation and plagiarism.

Let’s take the so-called “80/20 Rule”. I keep being told this universal law will unlock success for me. This spurious half-fact has some truth in it, but whatever truth laid behind this “rule” is now unrecognisable under all the hacky appropriations of its value.

The basis of the 80/20 rule is the “Pareto Principle”, a power law distribution for a given set of parameters. That this statistical principle exists is undisputed, but somehow a principle became a “rule” and is doled out as scietific-sounding advice that really amounts to nothing new.

The “takeaway” of the 80/20 Rule, attention grifters keep telling me, is that we should prioritise the 20 per cent of things we do that yield the 80 percent of results. Firstly, nothing is that clear cut. Secondly, this advice is just “prioritise”. That’s the earth-shattering revelation of the 80/20 Rule.

Joseph Juran, a consultant working on the 1940s coined this phenomenon “the vital few and the trivial many.” When said like that, the 80/20 rule loses its scientific-sounding allure, doesn’t it? It’s not a “productivity hack” anymore, it’s just plain old advice.

Then we have the ultimate attention grift: the “Law of Attraction” from Rhonda Byne’s The Secret. Confirmation bias — our tendency to be open to good luck if we have a positive mindset — is dressed up as the pseudo-scientific “law” that allows us to bend the universe to our will. If we really want to be rich, the universe will change to make it happen. It’s the ultimate vanity — Napoleon Hill for the selfie generation.

This stuff spreads like wildfire for a number of reasons.

Firstly, it exploits people’s greed, laziness, or worse: their desperation. It promises rewards, usually money. It doesn’t quite scam you though. It’s “scammy” rather than “a scam”. It’s euphemistic and slippery. Like faint praise is an insult, scammy content dresses up a grift as a favour.

Secondly, its positivity does no immediate or tangible harm (unless you part with your money). This content is usually cheery and upbeat. It’s nice, and it’s actually fun to read at first. These people cheer you on. They want what’s good for you, because you’ve already given them what they want — your attention, which is monetised.

The Dopamine Button

Then there’s dopamine. Dopamine is written about all over the internet, but it’s a misunderstood hormone. Most people believe it’s secreted as a reward, but the brain is more complicated than that.

Dopamine brings the pleasure of promise, not reward. People experience a rush of dopamine when they look at pornography because they anticipate having an orgasm. Dopamine tells you to go get it.

The problem is, with scammy advice, there is no reward. You get the rush of dopamine from clicking on an alluring, all-promising title, and that’s all you’re good for. A click is cash in the register. Your eyes are the prize.

We all click. Of course we do. Then we think, “why the hell did I just click?” It’s like that moment in Goodfellas where Joe Pesci walks into a room thinking he’s about to be “made” but realises in that instant he’ll be shot in the head instead. Those hacks hit the dopamine button.

Writing a substantial check to yourself and sticking it to your wall gives you a small hit of dopamine. But that’s all you’re getting, because the promise is caveated.

These people are masters of the caveat. “You can be successful!*”, they say. But the small print is as vague as vapour. “You need to work hard of course,” they say. How hard? We ask. “Hard,” they say.

How long is a piece of string? If you didn’t hit the jackpot, you didn’t want it enough. What a get-out clause.

These tricks exploit a gap in human understanding. They use the same parasitical methods as faith healers, chain letters and good luck charms.

For example, we “knock on wood” (“touch wood” in British culture) when we hope something will or won’t happen. This idea has ingrained itself as an everyday custom because it’s a like a parasite, it spreads through our natural inclination to doubt and uncertainty. Like coronavirus or any other mindless parasite, “knock on wood” has hacked a human weakness to propagate.

Anyone who believes that not knocking on wood will bring bad luck need to consider that in all the hundreds of cultures in the world there are different ways of warding off bad luck. Since we don’t routinely do any of those, we must be really unlucky, right?

Writing a check to yourself is the same as knocking on wood. The hard work part is of course the important part. Sticking a check to a wall is the garnish sold as the steak. You can’t sell the advice to work hard, because it’s obvious, but you can sell silly “hacks” like sticking a check to your wall.

Survivorship Bias

How is it that no actually-rich person who made money building legitimately-useful stuff, like Bill Gates or Richard Branson, have endorsed this kind of stuff?

Bill Gates didn’t ask the universe for success or “manifest money”. He built an easy-to-use operating system that democratized computing. It took hard work to do it, and he had a lot of luck as well. (Intelligence, hard work, right place, right time. Stick that to your wall.)

Yet it’s people like Bill Gates, Elon Musk, Warren Buffet and Steve Jobs who these grifters constantly pull out of the hat. These grifts have headlines like “Elon Musk’s little-known secret that 10x’ed his productivity”. As if by clicking that link you’ll learn something that will multiply your productivity by ten. What does that “ten” even mean?

High achievers who are not billionaires are ignored. I’ve never read an attention grift that takes Jimmy Wales, the founder of Wikipedia, as a case study, or Tim Berners-Lee, the man who made the internet itself happen. These men have made an immense contribution to the world, but nobody’s interested in the greater good, right?

Survivorship bias is the reason so much get rich quick garbage convinces people. The odds are that some people who read The Secret will get rich. Byrne has cashed in on the hopes and desperation of more than 30 million people that bought it.

A tiny fraction of those people will attribute their wealth to The Secret. These are the “survivors”, and only the survivors get to tell the story. These survivors usually get rich selling the same thing: vague non-promises and hope.

Non-survivors have no say. You’ll never hear from the millions who read the book and didn’t get rich, or who got rich and ignored the “lessons” of the book.

It gives out toxic advice like “illness cannot live in a body with harmonious thoughts.” Only literal survivors of cancer can say, “I had harmonious thoughts and survived.”

It’s not hard to work out how insidious this advice is.

Corrosive

As we become inoculated to attention grifts, the grifter changes their tact. There’s a whole myriad of styles. That’s partly what makes attention grifting so hard to pin down.

Sometimes it’s confessional, and that’s a particular trend among white and male hacks because they need to come up with a new, “honest”, angle to mask their ultimate — and increasingly salient — dishonesty.

These white and male scammy guys will use reverse-psychology techniques like “advice on winning in life from a guy who drives a second-hand Corola”. Or “I became a millionaire, then I lost everything, here’s how to not repeat my mistakes.”

It’s words like “winning” and “millionaire” that gets you of course. That’s the dopamine button. Each article, online course, newsletter, video or book is a microdose of sweetened poison. It keeps our hopes up enough to keep coming back. Like the nicotine in cigarettes, it soothes the agitation it engenders.

The idea that success is a choice, available to anybody, is a dangerous one. It’s a parasite that preys on doubt and lives in our weaknesses. The flip-side of that belief is that anybody who hasn’t achieved success are not unlucky, but undeserving.

This immunises success seekers to social responsibility, they become the middle of their world view and other people are a means to an end.

People don’t need wealth or success, they need the means to be happy in life. Neither wealth nor success can guarantee that, but the more we pursue these unrealistic promises, the less happy we become.

Every grift is a product of its time. Faith healing emerged from a time when health care wasn’t accessible to the vast majority of people. Get rich grifting thrives in an age that equates our net-worth with our value.

Buying into this poisonous ideology leaves us bereft of what we really need to find fulfilment — kindness and understanding.

Thank you for reading.

The lessons of philosophy and history, their practical benefits for your life and work. Feel free to get in touch: stevengambardella@gmail.com

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