There’s another reason we spend so much time on Trump: We’re addicted to him.
The word “addict” is derived from the Latin word for “slave,” and this is more appropriate than you might think. While substance addictions like heroin tend to get the most attention, it’s also possible to become addicted to behaviors, such as gambling. And as it turns out, financial conflicts of interest aren’t the only connections between casinos and our commander in chief. Every time we see a Trump-related tweet or headline, our brains release the same chemical that’s triggered when we pull the lever of a slot machine.
That chemical is dopamine, a neurotransmitter that tells our brains when something is worth doing again. Dopamine plays a crucial role in helping us establish habits, which means that it’s evolutionarily essential — it’s released, for example, in response to food and sex.
But dopamine is also a key player in addictions. Our brain’s dopamine systems don’t distinguish between habits that are good for us and those that are harmful. Anything that stimulates the release of dopamine is something we’ll want to repeat — and the more dopamine that’s released, the more powerful the urge will be.
This lack of selectivity means that, much like the DNC’s servers, our dopamine systems are vulnerable to being hacked. Doing so is easy: You simply identify things that cause dopamine to be released, and then incorporate as many of them as possible into your product’s design.
Packed with dopamine triggers, slot machines are a perfect example of how effective this manipulation can be. They’re also widely considered to be one of the most addictive devices ever invented. This makes it worth noting the many traits they share with Donald Trump, including bright colors, loud noises, and, most important, unpredictability.
You’d think humans would be drawn to activities with predictably good outcomes. But instead, the less predictable something is, the more attractive it becomes. Or, to put it a different way, the possibility of a reward is often more satisfying than the reward itself. (Definitions of “reward” can vary: For one person, it might be Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court confirmation; for another, it could be an indictment. Our addiction to Trump is surprisingly apolitical.)
As a reality television star and natural showman, Trump exhibits an incredible ability to keep people guessing (and to get the media itself to act as his enabler). Did his campaign collude with Russia? Are we going to have a nuclear war with North Korea? Is he related to this bird? No one knows!
And even if a question seems like it’s been answered, there’s no guarantee that Trump won’t contradict himself five minutes later. His unpredictability is itself unpredictable, which leaves us in a constant state of anticipation over what he might do next.