The Dopamine Artist is back.
David Dobrik is a 21st century social-media influencer, but I have a feeling that his vlogs would appeal to early homo sapiens, too.
First, David leverages the power of genetics. Think about the common themes that thread together his vlogs. David presents us with disgusting things (vomit, urine, poop), scary things (snakes and spiders), sensuous things (skin, curves, plenty of makeout sessions, and sex(ual) assault), and tasty things (vlog squad members gorging on food and drink). We are genetically programmed to emotionally respond to every item that I just listed. When you see a big snake or a bottle of piss, that shit goes straight to your amygdala — no cap. A lot of the stimuli within David’s videos will bypass the “rational” part of your brain and go directly to its emotional center. Even Dobrik’s constant laughter — which borders on panting — is infectious and one of the most humanly relatable sounds one can encounter. Also, science aside, David’s vlogs are just funny.
Second, David leverages the power of the dopamine system. Ready for some neuroscience 101? Dopamine is a hormone that = pleasure (for the purpose of this discussion). The thing is — more dopamine is released in anticipation of a reward than when we actually get the reward. In other words, once we receive the signal that a reward is on its way, we start to feel pleasure. The more we know what to expect, and how great it’s going to be, the more pleasure we experience in its anticipation. Isn’t that how sex works?
Once David cues his go-to signal (the song “Show Me What I’m Looking For”) before someone is about to get a free car, dopamine starts to flow. There’s still some variability to keep things interesting (who’s getting a car this time? how exactly will they react? what kind of car is it?), but we mostly know what to expect. But it’s the anticipation leading up to the cathartic release of tension (tears and hugs and “holy shit oh my god thank you so much David”) that provides the most pleasure.
Still, it gets more intense. David manages to jack up your dopamine levels even higher by regularly injecting uncertainty into his vlogs. This is called intermittent reinforcement. Basically, if you’re uncertain that you’ll get the reward, even more dopamine is released. The highest level of uncertainty you can experience is 50%, either-or, this or that, black or red. And David loves to fly to Vegas and bet a bunch of money on one of two colors in roulette. Risk is addictive, whether you’re experiencing it first-hand or vicariously.
And when there isn’t much genuine risk, David will artificially create the perception of risk (“we’re about to launch this soccer ball off the top of a building and into a garbage can — who knows if it’ll land!!”). The reality is that David will keep trying until it does land, but we only witness that one, nail-biting, dopamine-maximizing, edited-to-perfection moment. That said, some of the risks in David’s videos are real, and eye-opening.
David didn’t need to study behavioral science to learn his craft. At a certain point, you don’t need to study what makes a piece of entertainment “emotional” or “viral” because you can be your own test subject.
David is a human, and he is aware of the kinds of videos that get him or his friends to feel pleasure. He understands the content that gets his own brain’s reward-center to buzz. I bet David films and edits his vlogs based on intuition — he can just feel what will work. There probably isn’t a “David’s Vlogs” formula because Dobrik’s intuition is the formula. Intuition stems from emotion, and emotions are biological algorithms — things we can feel but not so easily explain. But an inability to explain something doesn’t invalidate it.
So if you want to understand why David’s vlogs are captivating, why Wendy’s is irresistible, why videogames are addictive — anything — the first step is to observe yourself. You are not above self-observation!