When the dopamine kicks in, can you handle it?


John Peel

Current Columnist

Email: johnp@durangoherald.com

When the dopamine kicks in, can you handle it?

It’s technically not legal, and we basically have no clue what we’re doing. We waste valuable work time watching. But for some reason, we just can’t help ourselves.

Each year. Mid-March. Must be the dopamine. ...

“Hi, my name’s John. I’m an addict. March Madness.”

“Hi, John.” ...

In case you’re unaware, today, the Monday of tourney-opening week, is the day things really start cranking up. The brackets are out, and your office mate who loves running the pool will be around soon to ask for your dollar. Or $5. Or $10.

If you’re halfway serious about this, you already have bracket in hand. You’re wondering: Can that little school in Spokane, Wash., really pull it off?

We follow the NCAA men’s basketball tournament because we love to gamble, we love an escape, and more than anything, it’s a ton of fun.

Should we be worried about our addiction? And if you’re an employer, should you sit back and let it all work itself out, or should you be worried about a lack of production?

Well, like anything in life, the answer is never black and white.

Let’s face one fact: Some work time will be lost this week, particularly Thursday and Friday when games begin at 10 a.m., although it’s impossible to quantify this kind of thing.

Or is it?

Challenger, Gray & Christmas, the “original outplacement company” (it basically helps people transition to a new job), does an annual study that supposedly does quantify this kind of thing.

The Chicago-based company estimates that March Madness will cost U.S. companies at least $134 million in lost wages during the tourney’s first two days. That’s assuming 3 million employees making $22.38 per hour (supposedly the average U.S. wage) spend one hour of work time watching tourney games each of the first two days.

With games available on television, by streaming on your computer and even on your smartphone, there’s pretty easy access to basically every game. Of course, employees have similar distractions every day, with access to email, games, Facebook, fantasy sports and more.

It truly can be an addiction, said Brian Burke, associate professor of psychology at Fort Lewis College.

“For some people, the betting part can become a little bit obsessive,” Burke said last week. “When we gamble, it affects our brain very strongly. We actually get a dopamine drip in our brain, in the limbic system, which is our emotional centers of our brain, and that’s what causes addictive behavior.

“We get that drip when we get a Facebook message” or a text, or when we smoke marijuana, or when we gamble, he said.

Not only that, Burke said, but the advertisements we see during the tournament don’t generally promote healthy behaviors. They’re generally about sugar (soft drink products, for example), alcohol (yes, beer) and money (investment firms).

“In that sense, I think there’s sort of a somber undertone to the whole thing,” he said.

But he quickly shifted gears and put in a plug for his alma mater, the University of Arizona.

“I love March Madness. I watch it every year. ... I think there is an upside to it. It can promote workplace cohesion, and that is super important. Doing anything that maximizes positive contact between co-workers can be really important.”

Durango businessman Phil Bryson said he has no problem with office pools. “If people don’t go crazy about it, it’s fun to have it going.”

The key is to manage the distraction. As noted, those temptations exist every day, whether it’s emails or fantasy football, he said.

“You’ve gotta manage all that or you’re going to be in trouble,” said Bryson, a former Washington state resident who truly is pulling for Gonzaga.

Jim Cross, associate professor of exercise science at Fort Lewis and former head basketball coach, says the NCAA tournament lures people in. Unlike most other sporting events, it rarely disappoints. The Super Bowl is sometimes a blowout, but March Madness always provides improbable comebacks, desperation last-second heaves and underdog winners. And all that “madness” means that skill goes out the window when picking winners.

“I don’t think the term ‘expert’ applies to anyone ... because there’s so many surprises and upsets. And that’s what makes it so fun.”

Cross, who is picking the University of Miami to win it all, said he used to run a pool in his classes and the students had fun with it. The winner would get extra credit or malted milk balls – no money, of course.

So, will the U.S. economy hit the skids between now and the April 8 championship game, as employees stream hoops from their desks? Maybe, but probably not. It turns out even Challenger, Gray & Christmas isn’t worried: “At the end of the day, March Madness will not even register as a blip in the overall economy,” John A. Challenger, the company’s CEO, wrote in a March 13 news release.

But if your company’s Internet connection slows to a crawl Thursday afternoon, you’ll know why.

johnp@durangoherald.com. John Peel writes a weekly human-interest column. How about Creighton for a dark horse?

When the dopamine kicks in, can you handle it?

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