Why Does It Feel So Good To Be Bad?
Being bad, in whatever context you choose, is damn appealing. Whether it be the satisfaction of smoking an impeccably executed roll-up or ending an evening in a sweaty tangle of limbs with a perfect stranger, there is nothing more likely to elicit a self-satisfied little grin as being naughty.
But why? More often than not, being ‘bad’ puts the performer of said behaviour at risk. Perhaps it is this that appeals; a brush with mortality, however slight? Perhaps it is the different way people look at you when you have undertaken something risky – the arched eyebrow and appraising nod, the ‘Nice one, didn’t know you had it in you!’
The reason bad behaviour can feel satisfying before the guilt kicks in, is brain chemistry. When we take a risk, we flood our nervous systems with the hormone adrenaline, otherwise known as the ‘fight or flight’ response. This hormonal response can be addictive. It is designed to be used for either a swift getaway or to fuel defensive violence, and there is something deliciously subversive in using it not for self-preservation, but rather to put yourself in a position of mild peril.
Another hormone responsible for indulging in risk is the neurotransmitter dopamine, the so-called ‘happy hormone’. Dopamine results in rewarding feelings of intense pleasure, which motivates us towards achieving our goals. It can all be good clean fun, but you also get a dopamine response when you win in a game of high-stakes poker, drive too fast down a country road in the middle of the night, or do other thrilling but questionable things. Drugs like cocaine artificially pull more dopamine from the brain’s nerve cells, providing an artificial pleasure response, that’s why its so addictive. Dopamine also has clear links with aggressive behaviour.
A number of studies have shown that seemingly arbitrary factors, such as income, or visibility in global media, can affect hormonal response. An example is sex addiction. In a so-called ‘normal’ individual, an addiction to sex is likely to be a source of relief from the demands of the modern 9-5; there is rarely an adrenaline response. In the rich and famous, or those who are public figures, sex addiction results in a massive adrenaline high from the risk of being caught, and consequently losing everything. This powerful chemical response goes part way to explaining why some high profile politicians will insist on sending dick-pics to twenty-two year old models. Getting away with reputation-ruining behaviour such as this is, obviously, incredibly challenging, but presents an opportunity to live outside of the parameters set up by your PR company.
By this token, crime can be seen as a way in which one can stray across the boundaries that society, the world’s biggest PR company, has laid out. That mild shoplifting phase you went through in your early teens was your desperate quest for anything other than predictable suburban tedium. Evidently, though, there are times when the need for an adrenaline high goes beyond a bottle of WKD from the corner shop, and becomes a daring heist on a jeweller’s in Hatton Garden. Chemically, there is incredible similarity in the feeling gained from an executing an armed robbery, and the feeling experienced by a 14-year-old necking a knowingly purloined cider at the park.
Despite this, there is clearly a difference between the odd indulgence, or placing yourself in mild jeopardy for a kick, and a sociopathic disregard for your personal safety and that of others. But some people lose sight of this difference.
In measured doses, taking a risk and the subsequent hormonal response is good for us. But when we put ourselves in dangerous situations which could completely destroy a reputation or career, vice becomes much more threatening. Regardless of the sociological aspect of naughty behaviour, it is sometimes undeniable that being bad feels fantastic. We eat a pint of ice cream and convince ourselves we’ve ‘earned it’, despite having a sedentary job. We spend £200 on a night out, because it was ‘worth it for the memories’. We chase the immediate rush. But all these naughty actions have something in common – a hangover. Be it a shame hangover, a financial hangover, or your gut literally hanging over your waistband, the consequences of truly bad behaviour resound long after the event. Yet, we continue to bend the rules, just for fleeting pleasure. Because above all else, that is what we are: pleasure-seekers.