A well-dressed couple came in. They sat at the adjacent table and, after ordering drinks, whipped out their respective smartphones. Then they spent the rest of the time we were there clicking away.
Now, it could be that they were texting each other. But I suspect what we were witnessing was an example of information addiction.
Scientists have discovered that dopamine -- the chemical released when we have sex or eat -- is also excreted when we are stimulated in other ways. Like hearing the ping of an incoming text message or finding email in our inbox.
Frank Partnoy, writing in the New York Times, puts it all in context. "E-mail, social media and the 24-hour news cycle are informational amphetamines," he writes, "a cocktail of pills that we pop at an increasingly fast pace — and that lead us to make mistaken split-second decisions."
Despite Malcolm Gladwell's panegyric for thinking by blinking, economists label the problem “present bias.” Fast, salient stimulation has an out-sized -- and sometimes deleterious -- effect on our judgment.
The release of dopamine in sex and eating was an evolutionary adaptation that ensured our survival as a species. Unfortunately, many other kinds of addictive behavior can also stimulate its release. Video games, for example, or checking email.
So think about that the next time your smartphone pings.