Briefly, on Rationality and Addiction
Assuming irrationality is one easy way to make sense of the world, simultaneously affording the assumer his own superiority while summarizing the assumed’s behavior as that of a person whose thought processes are underdeveloped. Whether that second part is an extension of the assumer’s desired superiority or it is an attempt to make sense of a complicated world is really beside the point: the conclusion denies the possibility of unique individual experience.
This is hugely unfair. One way to identify irrationality is to trust a person’s own accounting of motivations. We ought to know better. It is more likely that we can know a person’s motivations by what we know them to do, not what he or she says they want to do. Imagine a person who says that they want to eat a healthier diet and who then does not do so in any observable way. Should we assume them to be irrational or should we assume that their personal priorities are perhaps different than what they explained? To put that another way, assuming irrationality puts the onus on them; assuming that we do not fully understand puts it upon us.
Which brings me to addiction, and more specifically, the allegedly surprising finding that addicts are perfectly capable of making decisions that might be described as rational. We are meant to be floored by this. We should not be.
That last part should not be read as a critique of the research or of Carl Hart, the researcher. His work on addicts’ rational capabilities should be not only praised, but understood, and not only understood, but incorporated into a greater awareness of human motivation. To ignore what his research has again and again shown is to ignore the reason for addiction’s perniciousness.
Hart’s work centers on whether addicts can, in controlled environments, make decisions that we might describe as rational:
At the start of each day, as researchers watched behind a one-way mirror, a nurse would place a certain amount of crack in a pipe — the dose varied daily — and light it. While smoking, the participant was blindfolded so he couldn’t see the size of that day’s dose.
Then, after that sample of crack to start the day, each participant would be offered more opportunities during the day to smoke the same dose of crack. But each time the offer was made, the participants could also opt for a different reward that they could collect when they eventually left the hospital. Sometimes the reward was $5 in cash, and sometimes it was a $5 voucher for merchandise at a store.
When the dose of crack was fairly high, the subject would typically choose to keep smoking crack during the day. But when the dose was smaller, he was more likely to pass it up for the $5 in cash or voucher.
“They didn’t fit the caricature of the drug addict who can’t stop once he gets a taste,” Dr. Hart said. “When they were given an alternative to crack, they made rational economic decisions.”
When methamphetamine replaced crack as the great drug scourge in the United States, Dr. Hart brought meth addicts into his laboratory for similar experiments — and the results showed similarly rational decisions. He also found that when he raised the alternative reward to $20, every single addict, of meth and crack alike, chose the cash. They knew they wouldn’t receive it until the experiment ended weeks later, but they were still willing to pass up an immediate high.
I have highlighted what I might consider to be the most important finding, which is that those sufficiently rewarded for making one decision will end up making it, despite their addictions.
But there is another finding here, one hinted at later on in the article:
“If you’re living in a poor neighborhood deprived of options, there’s a certain rationality to keep taking a drug that will give you some temporary pleasure,” Dr. Hart said in an interview, arguing that the caricature of enslaved crack addicts comes from a misinterpretation of the famous rat experiments.
Those famous rat experiments are likely at least some of what is being discussed here. Those studies concluded that addicts were changed, monstrous, unthinking. And if propaganda is the game, the changed and monstrous and the unthinking are easier to wage a war against than the alternatives.
It is here that I want to pivot. Hart explores drugs perceived to be incredibly dangerous (with good reason), but I will suggest that his findings reflect much more broadly upon the human experience. Often, when we see individuals make decisions that we cannot understand, we decide that the decision was an irrational one, when a much more obvious explanation is plainly available: because that decision made the most sense to that individual at that time, often for reasons that we cannot begin to understand. Per the definition offered here), rationality is achieved if an individual’s action syncs up with their reason for action. Nowhere does that demand that we understand their reason for action, nor does it demand that the stated reason for action be the actual reason for action. In Hart’s research, getting the pleasure from a temporary high made more sense than doing anything else, thus, consuming the drug should be considered a rational decision, even if it offends our sensibilities about what is and isn’t rational behavior. More broadly, it seems safe to assume that when individuals make decisions, they are attempting to maximize their pleasure, even if we cannot understand how that decision maximized their pleasure.
Perhaps pleasure is an inaccurate word. We associate pleasure with certain scenarios, feelings, and outcomes. Perhaps it makes more sense to say that individuals make decisions which are deemed better for themselves than all of the understood alternatives. Personal experience informs this conclusion.
I have been sober since December 9, 2006. Before that, I drank heavily, as often as possible to the point of getting drunk, at times to the point of completely blacking out. Earlier that year, I had been asked for the thousandth time to stop drinking so much. Not even to quit, but just to slow down a concept that did not then (and does not now) make sense to me. But I grudgingly agreed. I could slow down, right? I went to a party that night and vowed walking in that I would drink slowly. And I did exactly that, ssslllooowwwlllyyy drinking six beers in an hour. I remember looking down from my chair and having to count the bottles. The next day, I dragged myself to a counselor who asked me if I was an alcoholic. I had no answer to the question, having never thought about it, even though I had endured those aforementioned requests to at least take it easy. They were gently pointing me toward the possibility that my drinking was out of control. Not being able to answer the counselor’s query, I quit.
That held for six months. Then, after a particularly bad day emotionally, I drove to a convenience store, purchased a thirty pack of beer, then went to a friend’s house – a friend who knew of my sobriety and who also recognized that me purchasing a case of beer meant that my sobriety was ending. She took my keys away from me and I proceeded to drink as much of that case as I could before finally blacking out.
It would be easy to describe my actions that day as being those of a man who was out of control, who despite knowing that he had a serious drinking problem still made the irrational decision to drink. I am sure that there are those out there who would see behavior as being precisely that especially because I would have been the first person that day to say, “I shouldn’t be drinking.” And if a person’s words are tied to a judgement of their rationality, then I suppose my actions count as irrational. But I knew what I was doing when I stormed out of my house. I knew what I was doing when I drove straight to a convenience store. I knew what I was doing when I bought the case of beer. I knew what I was doing when I drove to a friend’s house. I knew what I was doing when I called from the road to make sure that she would let me come over. I knew what I was doing when I went inside, when I put down the beer, when I opened the first one, and when I drank my sobriety away. Everything I did was cold and calculating and based on the knowledge that the fastest and most effective way I understood to make emotional devastation go away was to be unable to feel anything at all.
The first of Alcoholic’s Anonymous’s twelve steps is the following: “We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable.” Although I do not intend to argue about Alcoholics Anonymous – it is a vital mechanism that has helped so many people to get sober – I do take great issue with the idea that addicts are powerless. We can think of being powerless as being irrational; we connect concepts like power and rationality for reasons that I will get into below. I struggle with this framework though. The issue isn’t one of powerlessness, but rather, power. Unstated, unrecognized, unharnessed power, perhaps, but individuals who drink are not powerless so much as the scales in their lives are weighted in such a way as to make having a drink more appealing than not taking a drink. Outsiders peering in often claim otherwise – “Why doesn’t he stop drinking? He’s hurting himself!” – but that is not their calculation to make. It is not irrational take a drink when taking a drink is the best of the available options.
Hart has found the same thing. It isn’t the addicts are powerless; it’s that nothing on the other side of the scale weighs as much as does the benefit of the whatever-is-being-sought. Back on that Sunday in September 2006, nothing on that scale weighed as much as getting blind drunk. My perceived options in that moment were narrow. By artificially increasing the number of options, Hart shows that even the farthest gone can still make what we might be more willing to describe as the rational decision. Where we stumble is in misunderstanding that the desire the use is rational too.
One of The Simpson’s most beloved jokes (as seen below) is painfully accurate in this regard.
Addiction is so harrowing a foe because it literally becomes the solution for everything. The mind’s calculator shows the same answer no matter what the problem is. How do I solve an emotionally devastating day? Beer. How do I celebrate a beautiful day? Beer. How do I unwind after a long day? Beer. How do I endure an uncomfortable situation? Beer. How do I…? Beer. The answer is beer. It does not matter what comes after the ellipses. I wrote this several months ago after giving alcohol as a gift. I am more than six years sober and if I don’t pause long enough to think about the answer my brain is giving me, drinking suddenly starts to make an incredible amount of sense. But if I did stop short of that longer consideration, my conclusion wouldn’t be irrational, especially if I’d only thought to consider all of the good things there are about drinking. And there are good things.
Those good things have made it harder to stay sober. Rather than combat them regularly, I have tended simply to avoid those good things whenever possible. No bars. Few parties. Fewer friends. Etc. Unless I maintain the weight on one side of the scale, I risk it settling in the other direction.
A Just World
At the beginning of this, I wondered why it was that people think of others as irrational. I offered two answers: a smug sense of superiority (often the case) or a desire to make sense of the world. When I mentioned the latter above, I was thinking of irrationality as a mechanism by which we can make sense of another’s decisions that do not make sense to us. There are also a third and a fourth possibility worth considering. The third is that people genuinely are irrational; I do not believe that obviously, but it certainly could be true, especially if we decide to elevate a person’s claims about themselves above their actual behaviors. But I cannot get past the incredibly judgmental conclusion, nor do I find it easy to believe that a schizophrenic person is truly being irrational if his reality contains people that are not actually there. The fourth possibility though? That one is more helpful. It is the Just World Hypothesis.
Just World Hypothesis is not specific to a particular type of individual. The Just World Hypothesis accounts for the the human desire to make sense of the world by assuming, in essence, that everybody gets what is coming to them. If good comes, it was an earned good. If bad comes, it was an earned bad. We do not think this out of malice but rather because we want the world to make sense. It makes a certain amount of intuitive sense to assume that powerful people are rational thinkers; it would explain how they got there, and it would make it easier to believe that the power will be used in an appropriate fashion. What is a great struggle is doing the same for those who claim powerlessness. If they have no power, they must be broken in some way, and if they are broken in some way, there must be a reason.
One genuinely appealing portion part of the Just World Hypothesis is that it does not account the reason. It could be anything: God, karma, the way things ought to be, justice, personal decisions, some combination of all of that, or something else. We are all guilty of this thinking to some extent. Our life’s work of enduring each day is made easier if things happen for a reason. Considering the possibility that they do not is to stare into Nietzche’s abyss. So in the case of the addiction, the responsibility of foisted entirely onto the individual with no greater consideration of that addiction’s context. It is easier to accept a War On Drugs than it is to imagine people for whom drug use makes more sense than anything else. Perhaps then that is my pollyanna conclusion – that the majority of the time we see the accusation of irrationality, what we are seeing is an individual attempt to make sense of a world that is too bleak to consider otherwise, one in which humans can make decisions that seem to be entirely irrational to outsiders and yet remains the best of the available options.