Behaviours such as eating, copulating, defending oneself or taking addictive drugs begin with a motivation to initiate the behaviour. Both this motivational drive and the behaviours that follow are influenced by past and present experience with the reinforcing stimuli (such as drugs or energy-rich foods) that increase the likelihood and/or strength of the behavioural response (such as drug taking or overeating). At a cellular and circuit level, motivational drive is dependent on the concentration of extrasynaptic dopamine present in specific brain areas such as the striatum. Cues that predict a reinforcing stimulus also modulate extrasynaptic dopamine concentrations, energizing motivation. Repeated administration of the reinforcer (drugs, energy-rich foods) generates conditioned associations between the reinforcer and the predicting cues, which is accompanied by downregulated dopaminergic response to other incentives and downregulated capacity for top-down self-regulation, facilitating the emergence of impulsive and compulsive responses to food or drug cues. Thus, dopamine contributes to addiction and obesity through its differentiated roles in reinforcement, motivation and self-regulation, referred to here as the 'dopamine motive system', which, if compromised, can result in increased, habitual and inflexible responding. Thus, interventions to rebalance the dopamine motive system might have therapeutic potential for obesity and addiction.