Addiction and Self-Control More Generally

Addiction is confusing.  Both to the addict, as we’re told.  And of course also to those around the addict. AA’s “The Big Book” describes addiction to alcohol as akin to addiction to jaywalking:  from both the inside and the outside, it is just bizarre.


Jennifer Baker earned her Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Arizona. She has taught at Duke and UNC-Chapel Hill, and is now an associate professor at the College of Charleston. Her research is on virtue ethics, and she looks to ancient ethical theories as positive examples of how ethics ought to be done today. She considers herself a Stoic, and despite this has three children.

Editor:  Saad Shaheed


Debates over whether to classify addiction as a disease don’t even reach what seems truly perplexing about addiction. At this point, we might have a good understanding of what happens in the brain when a person takes a drug or craves some “trigger” for their addiction. FMRI studies on how addict’s brains respond to triggers are nothing less than fascinating. The signs that our own brains encourage us to continue addictive behavior, shocking.

But what remains unsettled is how people quit addiction. We know some do. But how? What motivates the decision to quit? There are now medications that can help curb cravings, but, as many researchers have warned for some time: craving alone is not what brings about addiction.

Doesn’t the question of what motivates an addict to quit, what lies behind their decision to give it all up (even for a time), get us thinking of how little we understand about our own efforts to change our own behavior?

George Ainslie has the most helpful  explanation that I’ve found. He undercuts any notion that what when we consider behavior we simply weigh costs and benefits.This saves the “puzzle” that is addiction, as otherwise addicts are just repeatedly choosing poorly. (And we’d still ask why?)

He discourages us from thinking of ourselves as containing a part that is “willpower,” and that this is what takes action against our inappropriate impulses. Instead, we ourselves take this action. We have “will” and Ainslie tells us this is “an imperfect committing device that a person cobbles together to a greater or lesser extent from reward predicting processes that evolved in lower species.”

When it comes to how we control our errant impulses, be they part of addiction or not, Ainslie describes the following four aspects of our process.

1. We come up with rules for ourselves. We might not be aware of having these, but one rule we probably maintain as students is “I’ll sit through this lecture until the end.” When a professor says class is almost over, that is when you see student legs twitching.

Ainslie suggests that having a rule about your behavior does a few things. It has the power to curb cravings (if not eliminate them) because the rule itselfbecomes appealing to maintain.

Someone might urge you on by saying some behavior is “harmless,” and it might be, if considered in isolation. But we are capable of seeing harmless individual behaviors as precedents. We avoid them not because the consequences are so bad this one time, but over time and in terms of what they will do to our own ideas about our behavior.

2. According to Ainslie, we should not talk to addicts about what they want in life overall. We are not very good at thinking so long-term. Only moderately long-range options effectively appeal to us. Imagine a benefit of quitting that you can think of coming about rather soon, though not just a matter of short-term rewards. Perhaps keeping a family intact and keeping a job are good examples of such mid-range goals.

3. Once we have failed to self-control in some arena, we become very motivated to give up trying to control that behavior altogether. I thought of how any student who does poorly in a course comes to passionately dislike that course. Anyway, this phenomenon might explain why addicts quickly become rather hard to reach with our typical appeals.

4. Finally, Ainslie reminds us that we engage in distorted informational processing in order to avoid the perception of having violated one of our own rules. “Does this count as cheating?” We shouldn’t ask ourselves this and trust our own answer. This helps explain why it may be so difficult to over come addiction on your own, without a peer to call you on self-created excuses.

These may just seem like common sense, but a quick survey of advice that is regularly given to addicts shows how often we recommend solutions and bromides at odds with the above description.

Courtesy: PsychologyToday

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