The Fourth Strategy

It’s that time of the year when the hook modellers have come out in full force. And boy, have they ever gotten good at their craft.

All of the psychological tricks are there: the appeal to scarcity; the suggestion of crowd behaviour; the advice of some supposed expert; the promise of a deep discount; the special added gift you’ll receive if you act now; the scarcity of the item.

None of us is immune to hook modeling, no matter how much psychology of reasoning we’ve read. But the greatest impact of all is on children and teens, and through them, on their parents. For the hook modeller is counting on another basic neurobiological mechanism.

I just recorded a podcast on Freedom and Constraint for the Shanker Chronicles series that Self-Reg Global will be running (coming soon). In it I talked about one of the many great insights to be found in the work of the affective neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp. He explained how:

When SEEKING is thwarted, RAGE is aroused. Anger is provoked by curtailing animals’ freedom of action. RAGE is a reliably provoked ESB [electrical stimulation of the brain] of a neural network extending from the medial amygdala and hypothalamus to the dorsal PAG. RAGE lies close to and interacts with trans-diencephalic FEAR systems, highlighting the implicit source of classic “fight-flight” terminology. It invigorates aggressive behaviors when animals are irritated or restrained, and also helps animals defend themselves by arousing FEAR in their opponents. Human anger may get much of its psychic energy from the arousal of this brain system; ESB of the above brain regions can evoke sudden, intense anger attacks, with no external provocation.[i]

In other words, deep in the heart of the “triune brain,” lying beneath the neocortex, are intersecting subcortical networks that reinforce one another in order to promote survival. The SEEKing system extends from the ventral midbrain to the nucleus accumbens and medial frontal cortex. It runs on dopamine, which produces the energizing and pleasurable sensation that Panksepp describes as “psychic energy.” 

The SEEKING system drives animals to “search for the things they need, crave, and desire.”[ii] In other words, SEEKING is the limbic secret to survival. Remove it by bilateral lesions and the animal becomes listless and passive. In humans, illness as well as severe stress can have a similar effect; while over-stimulation of the system leads to excessive impulsivity. 

If the SEEKing system is blocked by another animal this triggers the RAGE system, which produces an extra burst of energy/anger so as to overcome the obstacle. Go after your goal and don’t let another creature stop you. And here is where the hook modeller has glommed onto a hugely successful strategy.

Trigger dopamine in a child or teen – which, sadly, is all too easy– and the SEEKing system is off and running. Now it is up to the parent to counteract the child’s urge, which may be utterly nonsensical or overly extravagant. And as sure as night follows day that will trigger an angry response in the child or teen who has been thwarted.

The parent suddenly finds themselves in a hopeless no-win situation. You can’t argue with the SEEKing system. It lies buried deep in the subcortex, immune to the calming voice of reason. Or, for that matter, the threatening voice of the dire punishments to come.

Alternatively, you can fight back and simply refuse to accede. But that is enormously expensive in blood-glucose terms. And, I hasten to add, the fight just goes on and on. The problem is, the resulting anger produces yet more dopamine, which keeps the SEEKing system aroused. 

Or lastly, you can capitulate – and then wish that you hadn’t. 

This last strategy goes by the name of “permissive parenting” but really, it’s a mode of self-regulating. A way to make the stress go away. And as far as the research on permissive parenting goes, it’s a maladaptive way to deal with the stress of saying No, since giving in too often seems to have negative downstream consequences for a teen’s mood regulation and resilience. 

But there is a fourth strategy. And that’s where Self-Reg comes in.

Sometimes a simple “let me think about it” can help. For one of the more effective tools that we have in our parenting repertoire lies in the fact that dopamine has a relatively short half-life. Sensitive Interbraining can be as much about putting some time and space between ourselves and our child as it is about co-regulating. Throw in a little redirecting and you’re on your way to a constructive solution.

The same strategy can be just as effective for managing our own urges and impulses. Getting locked in a battle with ourselves can be exhausting, and ultimately, self-defeating. The more drained we become the harder it is to maintain self-control. The craving seems to grow in intensity, driving us to succumb just to make the stress go away. The frustration that we see in those kids in the Marshmallow Task is something that is going to dog us all through life.

The standard approaches to resisting an impulse are generally variations on a self-control theme. Resist for a couple of minutes to reassure yourself that you’re capable to resisting. Distract yourself until the craving dissipates. Tell yourself that you don’t like whatever it is you crave. They’re all good ideas. They just don’t seem to work that well when we need them most.

Or you can try reframing. We are no more immune to dopamine capture than our kids. But just becoming aware of how the SEEKing system works does wonders in terms of subverting dopamine’s influence. Even more powerful is to recognize the link between our stress-level and a particular craving.

One of the reasons why the Hook Model is so powerful is because of the effect of cortisol on dopamine. The greater the stress an individual is under, the less dopamine-induced positive sensations and the more cortisol-induced negative sensations. Seeking itself is a stress, so there is a vicious circle operating here, driving us further into the Hook Modeller’s arms. As, indeed, does trying to exercise self-control.

To break the cycle, we need to look at our cravings with soft eyes. An association was formed, maybe long ago, maybe on the very first exposure to a stimulus we now crave. But the dopaminergic reaction will never be as powerful again, which is what drives us to eat the whole tub of ice cream when the first time just a spoonful produced a wonderful surge of opioids.

We often are completely unaware when we’ve dipped into a low energy/high tension state. Which is where cravings, now reframed, can be enormously helpful guides to when we need to take a break and restore a little. Asking “why” and “why now” is a wonderful way of putting just a little time and mental space between us and a craving. 

The last thing we want to do in Self-Reg is somehow banish cravings from our life. But we do want to understand them. Just as we want to understand why our child gets so angry whenever we say No.


[i] Panksepp (2010) “Affective neuroscience of the emotional BrainMind,” Dialogues of Clinical Neuroscience, 12(4): 533–545

[ii] Panksepp (1998) Affective Neuroscience.

Dr. Stuart Shanker is a Distinguished Research Professor Emeritus of Philosophy and Psychology from York University and the Founder & Visionary of The MEHRIT Centre, Ltd. Stuart has served as an advisor on early child development to government organizations across Canada and the US, and in countries around the world. Dr. Shanker also blogs for Psychology Today
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