A Visceral Account of Addiction

Authors: George Loewenstein, Carnegie Mellon University

Publication: Getting Hooked: Rationality and Addiction (book)

Year: 1999

Focus Area: Prevention, Decision Making

Relevance: Victims of fraud are not victims of addiction, but the methods used to remind recovering addicts why they quit taking a drug could be applied to fraud prevention programs. In both cases, time diminishes the effect of an unpleasant experience and makes the possibility of relapsing (taking a drug again, or saying “yes” to a deal presented on the phone).

Summary: Addiction can be viewed as the overpowering of willpower by an immediate, visceral need that focuses attention on relieving suffering (in this case, the discomfort of not having the drug). This visceral need focuses attention both on this need as compared to other desires (hunger, fear) and in time (today’s need rather than tomorrow’s).

  • The motivation to use a drug is immediate, visceral and subject to situational cues. The motivation to not use a drug is long-term, cerebral, and must overcome the situations that inspire cravings. These motivations are misaligned, unfortunately, making it difficult to avoid using a drug – even when a person genuinely wants to quit or avoid a relapse.
  • Non-addicts underestimate the visceral power of an addiction, and even people using drugs (including cigarettes) underestimate the hold that the drug has on them – smokers tend to predict that they will smoke less in the future, although this generally fails to come true.
  • Memory of pain (in this case, the pain of a craving) is fleeting, and as a result, has weak influence as a disincentive against decisions made in the heat of the moment.

Author Abstract: In the past, addiction has been viewed as a sui generis phenomenon (Baker 1988). Recent theories of addiction, however, draw implicit or explicit parallels between addiction and a wide range of other behavioral phenomena. The “disease theory,” for example, highlights similarities between addiction and infectious disease (e.g., Frawley [1988], Vaillant [1983]). Becker and Murphy’s rational-choice model of addiction draws a parallel between drug addictions and “endogenous taste” phenomena, such as listening to classical music to attempt to acquire a taste for it, in which current consumption affects the utility of future consumption (Becker and Murphy 1988). Herrnstein and Prelec’s “garden path” theory sees addiction as analogous to bad habits, such as workaholism or compulsive lying, that can be acquired gradually due to a failure to notice a deterioration in one’s conduct or situation (Herrnstein and Prelec 1992).

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