Social Positive Reinforcement: The Surprising Benefits

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "The Art of Impossible" by Steven Kotler. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What are the benefits of social positive reinforcement in the brain? Why is it easier to achieve goals when you receive social positive reinforcement?

According to Steven Kotler, the world’s elite performers are able to achieve seemingly impossible goals thanks to some surprising habits. Kotler’s book, The Art of Impossible, explores the neurobiology behind the success of elite performers and explains why social positive reinforcement is a primary building block for success.

Read on to learn the surprising benefits of social positive reinforcement, according to Kotler.

Why Is Social Positive Reinforcement Important?

As you work through the process of exploring your interests, share what you’re learning with other people. According to Kotler, including other people in your exploration garners positive feedback and social reinforcement. This positive attention generates a combination of dopamine and oxytocin. This makes your progress feel more meaningful and boosts your motivation to continue learning more about your topics.

  • Regularly discuss what you’re discovering with other people. Talk to friends, join groups devoted to the subject, or start an online community.

(Shortform note: While positive social reinforcement can provide support and useful feedback, it can also reduce your motivation to pursue your interests. Psychological studies find that positive social reinforcement makes you feel like you’re making progress even when you’re not. This feeling of progress feels good but it’s based on a false sense of achievement that causes you to lose sight of what you need to do to move forward. For example, receiving positive feedback about your idea to use solar power to grow produce makes you feel like an expert on the topic even though you’ve only read one book. Because you already feel like an expert, you lose the incentive to expand your knowledge and actually become an expert.)

Social Positive Reinforcement & “Reward” Neurochemicals

What are neurochemicals? In brief, your nervous system is made up of billions of neurons and neural pathways that transmit chemical information (neurochemicals) from one neuron to another. Kotler explains that these neurochemicals regulate your body and allow you to function. They also drive all of your decisions, behaviors, and habits by creating sensations that motivate you to move toward pleasure and away from pain.

We’ll briefly discuss the two reward neurochemicals generated through social positive reinforcement.

Dopamine: Well-known for the role it plays in fueling addiction, dopamine also helps regulate cognitive functions, emotional responses, and physical reactions. Deficient dopamine levels produce numerous symptoms, including cognitive impairment, muscle cramps, diminished balance, mood swings, and fatigue. On the other hand, excessive dopamine levels contribute to stress, mania, aggression, hallucinations, and insomnia. Dopamine dysregulation is associated with mental health conditions such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorders, and obsessive-compulsive disorders. Therefore, healthcare professionals suggest seeking medical advice before attempting to manipulate the levels of dopamine in your system.

Oxytocin: Commonly known as the “love hormone,” oxytocin plays a key role in various emotional, social, and cognitive processes, such as increasing sexual arousal and satisfaction, promoting positive communication, and improving social memory. However, research hasn’t yet confirmed all of the different ways that dysregulated oxytocin levels can harm or benefit you. Ongoing research suggests that dysregulation of oxytocin in the brain can contribute to envy, aggression, and fear, as well as neuropsychiatric conditions such as autism, schizophrenia, and eating disorders.

Social Positive Reinforcement: The Surprising Benefits

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  • A look at how some people can achieve seemingly impossible feats
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  • A step-by-step process for developing peak performance habits

Emily Kitazawa

Emily found her love of reading and writing at a young age, learning to enjoy these activities thanks to being taught them by her mom—Goodnight Moon will forever be a favorite. As a young adult, Emily graduated with her English degree, specializing in Creative Writing and TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language), from the University of Central Florida. She later earned her master’s degree in Higher Education from Pennsylvania State University. Emily loves reading fiction, especially modern Japanese, historical, crime, and philosophical fiction. Her personal writing is inspired by observations of people and nature.

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