The Rational Addict

The American dream. The idea that one can be successful through hard work and determination, that good choices will lead one to upward mobility and financial stability, and that society provides barrier-free opportunities.

What about people living with addictions? Addictions differ in type and severity, though it can often be heard that people facing any number of addictions should simply pull themselves up by their own bootstraps. Why don’t they just kick their bad habits and move on to leading a more fulfilling life free from the demands posed by (insert any number of addictive substances)? Bootstraps might reasonably help a person pull on a tight shoe without a zipper, but imagine levitating off the ground by pulling at your bootstraps. Given the frequency with which this statement is suggested for people who are “down and out”, it’s perhaps ironic to note that it’s impossible.

Similarly, this main ethos of the United States is not without flaw. Science has repeatedly demonstrated that we do not possess the freedom to make choices that are always in our best long-term interests. Depending on a person’s circumstances, the development of patterns of behavior that are classified as “addictions” are, indeed, rational. Of course, saying that a behavior is rational does NOT mean that it is “good” (either for the individual or for society), but rather that it can be understood and explained scientifically. There are valid and logical reasons why choosing to seek out addictive substances might be in a person’s best, often short-term, interest.

In this blog we’ll explore the meaning of addiction. What can behavior analysts add to the discussion about how such patterns of behavior manifest and persist over time and what can be done to disrupt them? In addition, most people agree that addictions have negative consequences for the individual and often the culture at large – but who is to decide when a behavior has gone “too far” and should be targeted for change? And then, for people looking to change their behavior, how can we best help them overcome their addictions?

Primarily I’ll be focusing on this main point – are addictions irrational? The answer to this question has implications for how we (as a society) react to things like substance abuse, compulsive tendencies, or even “milder” patterns of behavior such as excessive technology use. Or, you know, not being able to set down that bag of chips.