Squirrels, Doritos, Social Media, and Leadership

Mamie McNeal

Our family dog, Mamie, a shepherd-mixed rescue, loves chasing squirrels.  It’s her natural instinct – her prey drive. If she sees a squirrel outside, she is immediately ready to hunt. She has learned to relate the animal with the word, “squirrel,” and, so, if you so much as whisper the word to her, she’s ready to bound outside in defense of her herd (i.e., our family)!

Mamie’s prey drive – or in her case, her shepherding drive – is built in. Trying to train that out of her, I imagine, would be a very long process or would be altogether impossible.  It’s part of her DNA. And her response to the squirrel stimulus is just about automatic.

Of course, we humans have our own “squirrels” – powerful, naturally-wired-in responses and impulses that drive behaviors.  Think sex, hunger, thirst, sleep, etc. In a host of circumstances, our behaviors are pretty predictable.  Given the right stimuli, each of us will end up responding in ways similar to just about every other human. So, a big part of our behaviors are already naturally mapped out for us.

Our more conscious choices (or, at least those choices we believe to be conscious), such as what food to eat, also tap into our hard-wired responses.  For instance, the Doritos brand of snacks are some of the most successful in the U.S.  With over $1.5 billion in sales each year, Doritos are heralded as “the perfect snack food,” by food scientist, Steven Witherly.

By “perfect,” Witherly does not mean “good for you.”  Instead, Doritos are, quite literally, lab-tested and engineered with salt, sugar, and flavor-boosters like MSG, other chemicals and acids, cheeses, and fat ratios (turns out we like half of our calories to come from fat and Doritos nails it), that, when combined together, cause our mouths to water and our brains to light up in almost-immediate euphoric response.  There is a reason we complain that we can’t eat just one.  Doritos have been engineered to cause that addictive response.

Similarly, social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram are designed to keep us coming back for more.  The seemingly insignificant action of liking a post, picture, or meme, turns out to be very significant.  You probably already know about the feel-good nuerotransmitter dopamine spike that happens when we see new “likes” to our picture.

What you may not know is that social media is engineered to keep us coming back for more.  Dopamine not only makes us feel good in the moment, it motivates us to crave the feeling again.  So when social media engineers realized that seeing more “likes” or “comments” to our posts and pictures also prompted our brains to release dopamine, the rise of social media had begun. The problem, of course, is that accessing your Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter is so universally easy, we wind up checking our phones incessantly.  The average person spent almost 2.5 hours per day on social media in 2019! And recent research suggests that engaging in social media and other online activities consistently is causing us to become more susceptible to distractions in all aspects of our lives. We, literally, are re-wiring and training our brains to become less focused!

With all the natural, hardwired impulses we’ve always had pulling and pushing us in various ways, combined with the new, seemingly-ubiquitous, synthetic, and engineered stimuli shaping our behaviors, the thoughtful among us are learning that self-awareness is more critical today than ever. Taking the time to better understand why we are drawn to certain behaviors – even when they are bad for us – and why we eschew other more helpful behaviors, is now a critical skill of effective leaders.

If we aim to achieve significant goals; if we want to be more capable of advancing our institutions in meaningful ways; if our desire is to build advancement programs that transform and serve more better, then a key objective is to grow even more mindful of the motivating factors related to our own behaviors and impulses.

We’ve understood for eons the impact of “squirrels” on our brains and our behaviors.  What’s far more recent and concerning is the need to have a better collective understanding of our brains on Instagram. . .and Doritos.



  1. Love this – makes one think we need to learn to understand and appreciate the Insta and Doritos AND know exactly what they are doing behind the scenes. Only through understanding and (waiting to eat them) can we be free of them. Such a hard thing to try to explain to my teenagers, let alone a boss who wants to send gifts to all new donors or evaluate the ROI from one mailing vs over the entire year. Maybe I’ll suggest some Doritos as the new donor gift next time. 😉

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