Passion Is Dope(amine)

Why do some care less than others? Are folks who don’t place high importance on values such as art, ethics, power, or spirituality built differently from those who do?

The short answer: yes. The passionate have more dopamine in their veins, while more

Cooling with Juice
Cooling with Juice. Ananta Bhadra Lamichhane. 2007. CC BY 2.0

quotidian folks have less. We inherit our dopamine levels in two ways: our brain’s capacity to manufacture the chemical, and the number of receptors that recognize, receive, and transmit its message—pleasure in searching. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that, when released and transmitted, causes us to feel curious, to question, to imagine, to move about, and to feel pleasure in so doing. The thrill of the hunt. Game on. It takes both the neurotransmitter and its receptors to get the full effect. The two in tandem are often referred to as key (neurotransmitter) and lock (receptor), with only one kind of receptor friendly to its dedicated neurotransmitter—in this case, dopamine. I like to think of it as juice (i.e., the chemical, liquid form of dopamine) and a mouth/esophagus (i.e., the destination of the liquid). Folks with big mouths (more dopamine receptors) and less juice (less dopamine) experience less passion than do folks with both big mouths and lots of juice. Similarly, folks with smaller mouths and more juice experience less passion than those with both large mouths and lotsa juice. And those with less juice and small mouths get the least high, as it were. Having more juice than capacity is a waste of juice, and having more capacity than juice leaves one unactivated.

From an evolutionary perspective, we need the full spectrum. Those of us who are more juiced up are the leaders, the inventors, the artists, the innovators, the entrepreneurs, while those of us less juiced up are the doers, the implementers, the engineers, the craftsmen, the quality control inspectors, the assemblers. If either extreme lacked survival value, it would be long gone—unfit for survival.

I am a researcher. Researchers ask questions and set out to find answers. Questions typically arise when I encounter a pattern I can’t explain, and I want to find the cause of the pattern. At Paradigm Personality Labs, we focused on developing comprehensive assessments of personality for use in the workplace. Two of our instruments—the WorkPlace Big Five Profile™ and the WorkPlace Values Profile™–measure kinds of behavior (sociability vs. solitude, for example) and strengths of values (e.g., how important is achievement to someone). In total, we measure five supertraits (each with its own set of subtraits) and 16 values. Over time, I noticed that many individuals lacked a value with a standard score above 55. Or, these folks placed only moderate importance or less on each of the 16 values—achievement, activity, beauty, competition, health, helping, independence, intellect, justice, pleasure, power, relationships, spirituality, stability, status, and style. They didn’t feel strongly about any of these values. Whereas, I score above 55 on six! This question formed in my mind: “Do those who lack strong values have a distinctive trait profile?

I found a set of 145 individuals who had taken both assessments. I sought whether any traits distinguished the small group who scored below 55 on all 16 values. Paydirt! Several weak contributors emerged, but there was one strong supertrait that reared its head proudly: O, for Originality, or Openness to Experience. Folks who didn’t warm up to any of the values were folks who scored low on O. O measures level of imagination, love of complexity and variety, comfort with change, and a preference for the big picture. These individuals with moderate to low scores on all 16 values were practical, down-to earth, fond of simplicity, comfortable with the status quo, and found satisfaction in taking care of the details. The two strongest correlations were low imagination and love of details. And wouldn’t you just know it—levels of O are associated with levels of

Rosie the Riveer
ilovewecan, Mariana Mansur, 2005. Rosie the Riveter. CC BY 2.0


While this primary effect was statistically strong and significant, there were several other traits that had somewhat weaker associations with the low values scorers. For instance, they tended to be somewhat more introverted, somewhat more accommodating/agreeable, somewhat less ambitious, somewhat more methodical, and somewhat more resilient.

So what? All God’s children have worth. We need people with strongly held values to lead and innovate, but we also need people who don’t get distracted by the urge of strongly held values to follow and to maintain. We need our Martin Luther King Jr.’s, but we also need our Rosie the Riveters.

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