Briefly, on Rationality and Addiction


Sam Wilkinson

According to a faithful reader, I'm Ordinary Times's "least thoughtful writer." So I've got that going for me, which is nice.

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68 Responses

  1. Avatar KatherineMW says:

    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.

    Doesn’t that lead to a tautology? Based on that definition sounds like your definition of rationality is “People will do what they want to do. We can tell what they want to do by watching what they do.”Report

    • Avatar Sam in reply to KatherineMW says:

      In my experience, we can gain a better (not a full, but a better) understanding of an individual’s thinking when we emphasize an understanding of their actions, especially when actions and stated motivations conflict. Is that a tautology? I don’t know.Report

      • Avatar KatherineMW in reply to Sam says:

        Going by your idea of rationality, can any decision be proven to be irrational? In other words, is the idea of rational decision-making falsifiable?Report

      • Avatar Vikram Bath in reply to Sam says:

        Someone buy’s a lottery ticket that you know has a negative expected value. When you ask them why, they say they say it was because they think it had a positive expected value.

        If they are not lying to you, then their action of buying the ticket is irrational.

        More generally, I’d say you can call someone irrational if their choices do not match their stated goals and desires.Report

      • Avatar Sam Wilkinson in reply to Sam says:


        As you might expect, I vociferously but respectfully disagree, first with the lottery ticket scenario, and then with the issue of stated goals versus undertaken behaviors:

        1. Regarding the lottery, I am suspicious of this person who reports, “I think this has a positive expected value.” I think it is more likely that somebody might enjoy the possibility of winning, no matter how remote. For $2, I can buy a good half hour of serious thought about what I’d do with a Powerball winner that I’ll never actually have. That’s not so bad.

        2. I think it is mistaken to assume that the person you’re dealing with is necessarily being entirely honest or forthcoming with you, not because they’re liars, but because all kinds of things influence the information we share with one another. Somebody who says they want to eat better might be saying so because they think you want to hear that, because they’re aspirational, because it made sense to make that comment at that moment. To then not eat better doesn’t render the comment irrational; it was made within its own context. It also doesn’t make the act irrational; Doritos are tasty. Nor does it make the individual irrational, because they are not bound to account for themselves completely.Report

      • Avatar Pierre Corneille in reply to Sam says:


        “Regarding the lottery, I am suspicious of this person who reports, “I think this has a positive expected value.” I think it is more likely that somebody might enjoy the possibility of winning, no matter how remote. For $2, I can buy a good half hour of serious thought about what I’d do with a Powerball winner that I’ll never actually have. That’s not so bad.”

        I agree. I have an acquaintance who buys lottery tickets–maybe $20 worth a week–and he doesn’t really expect to win (beyond the occasional $5 or $10 that aren’t too unheard of). By his account, it’s entertainment. Not my cup of tea, by the way, but neither do I think he’s fooling himself.Report

      • Avatar Vikram Bath in reply to Sam says:

        I am suspicious of this person who reports, “I think this has a positive expected value.”

        If they really use those exact words, I would expect that they know what they mean.

        I agree that it is more likely that they just want to experience the dream of possibly winning, but why would they not simply admit that is what they want? Dreaming of being rich is not a socially shameful thing to do.

        all kinds of things influence the information we share with one another

        True. But then how do we know what someone truly thinks? Decisions have to be made, and my first assumption is to trust that a person’s words are sincere unless i’m aware of some incentive for them to be insincere.Report

      • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to Sam says:

        Satisfaction is complicated. It comes in several parts. The first is merely wishing and dreaming, fantasies. The second is Seeking, which is often more rewarding than the third part, which is actually Obtaining. If obtaining is too easy, we don’t enjoy it so much. Too hard, we sublimate and resort to Fantasy.

        Lotteries are only for innumerate people. If I were to poke my head in over at our Fantasy Football League and start running a betting pool, with the understanding I’d put somewhere between 70% and 80% in my own pocket, with one lucky winner getting the rest — at which point I’d tax him some serious on a windfall profit tax — they’d arrange for my girlfriend to give me a beating — and a well-deserved one, too.

        But people just love them long odds. While it’s true they don’t really understand what long odds they are, the State, which used to have laws against this sort of mathematical grifting, has just stepped into the role of taking advantage of stupid people.

        And I’m not a bit sorry for the stupids, either. I wish we had gigantic lotteries, repeal the income tax, sales taxes, too. Lotteries are the greatest tax on greed and stupidity ever invented.Report

      • Avatar Sam Wilkinson in reply to Sam says:


        We don’t (and probably can’t) know what somebody thinks. That doesn’t mean they don’t think it though. It just means we don’t/can’t/won’t know. My point about emphasizing actions is the notion that a person’s actions tell us more about what they’re actually thinking than what they claim to be thinking. Obviously, this doesn’t work for all scenarios, and I’m not suggesting for a minute that a policy of widespread distrust makes sense, but caution seems reasonable.Report

    • I’m concerned, too, about the potential for tautology that creeps into discussions of rational behavior, especially when one is trying to prove that people are rational, because it all risks being true just by virtue of the way it is defined.

      That said, a theory of rational behavior or a theory of knowing others’ motivations might be useful, albeit tautologous. For example and as Sam noted, there can be, among some people, a certain smug sense of superiority in identifying the putatively “irrational” behavior for others without acknowledging that in a given circumstance and under certain assumptions, certain choices make sense. I also, by the way, think the “just world” hypothesis to be an instance of smugness.Report

      • Avatar Sam in reply to Pierre Corneille says:

        Can I ask which part of Just World Theory you find smug?Report

      • I should clarify and say rather that it can be smug, inasmuch as someone might assign some non-nameable reason for the way things are instead of recognizing the choices people make and the circumstances and incentives that constrain those choices.

        So, take the following from your description of the hypothesis:

        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 who adopts the hypothesis might indeed be tempted to assume a certain smugness about others who lack power, or others who face bad tidings. Or, that same person might discern a certain justice to unearned privileges they have.Report

    • Avatar James K in reply to KatherineMW says:

      The trouble with looking at rationality, is that there are basically two ways of determining whether a choice is irrational:

      1) The choice is part of a pattern of choices that betrays a fundamental inconsistency. For example, intransitivity (that is preferring A to B, B to C and C to A) is irrational, because no coherent set of preferences can explain it. Behavioural economics focuses on these forms of irrationality.

      2) The choice is inconsistent with the person’s preferences. The tricky part here is working out what their preferences are. You can ask them (stated preference), but people tend to say things that sound good, rather than what they really believe; sometimes people believe they believe things, but that belief doesn’t affect their actions in a way a true belief should. Alternatively, you can look at their actions to determine their preferences, but that assumes what you’re trying to prove. Neither option is satisfactory, but they’re all we have until someone works out how to directly read someone’s preferences out of their brains.Report

      • Avatar KatherineMW in reply to James K says:

        For point 2, asking people about their preferences sound like the only option of the two that would actually qualify as a research method, albeit a suboptimal one. Otherwise you’re just using circular reasoning.

        (By the way, I don’t regard classifying certain choices as “irrational” an assertion of superiority, because I think most people act irrationally at least some of the time. Rationality is one of the many assumptions economists use to construct theories that are excellent at explaining a fictional world, and are erroneously applied to the real one.)Report

      • Avatar Sam Wilkinson in reply to James K says:


        Can you give an example of this irrational behavior that you’re referencing?Report

      • Avatar KatherineMW in reply to James K says:

        On an everyday level, people don’t weigh choices against each other seriously. One day they might decide to forego going to a movie, or to a club, because they’re trying to save money; another day they might go, because they feel like it. Thus, the rank order of preferences is constantly shifting based on trivial concerns and whims; it’s not a consistent thing.

        We can shop around for sales at the supermarket to save a few dollars, and then go out and buy something far more expensive on impulse and stop really caring about it after a few weeks. We buy clothes we rarely or never wear. Thus, we make decisions that aren’t consistent with the preferences we might express if we took a little time to think about those preferences and inconsistencies. Moreover, we engage in rationalization and self-justification – once we’ve made a choice, our brains become more convinced that it was the correct one. (So, if you went with actions/choices as a demonstration of preferences, the very act of making those choices changes a person’s preferences.)

        We’re easily manipulable by marketing techniques (what thing are placed at the front vs. back of the grocery stores, the level of things on the aisles). We frequently buy on the basis of emotion, not assessing relatively quality, and advertisers sell to us on the basis of emotion rather than factual comparisons between products (watch any beer ad, and most other ads; it’s music, images, constructed stories that they’re trying to appeal to people on the basis of) – if they weren’t showing some understanding of how people think, advertising would be a tremendous waste of money. We’re significantly more likely to buy something at $6.99 than at $7 – again, if it doesn’t work, why would advertisers do it?

        We’re downright terrible at judging risk and probability and making decisions based on them. We believe statistics don’t apply to us. We buy lottery tickets.Report

      • Avatar James K in reply to James K says:


        For point 2, asking people about their preferences sound like the only option of the two that would actually qualify as a research method, albeit a suboptimal one. Otherwise you’re just using circular reasoning.

        Most of economics doesn’t try to figure out what peoples’ preferences are, because its too difficult. The only branch of economics that does try to do that is Shadow Pricing, estimating prices for things that aren’t traded in a market, and that does use stated preference, but using careful protocols to minimise the problems with simply asking people for information.Report

      • Avatar Sam in reply to James K says:


        I’m struggling with your qualifier of “seriously.” What does it mean to “seriously” weigh choices against one another?

        When I hear this comment generally, my hackles go up, if only because I interpret the concept of serious consideration to mean something like, “If you’d seriously thought about your choices, you wouldn’t have been drinking…” and that ends up looking like, “Well, if you’d seriously thought about your choices, you would have done what I think that I would have done.”

        For the record, I’m not alleging that you yourself have said this.Report

      • Avatar KatherineMW in reply to James K says:

        When I say “seriously”, I mean that when I decide to go see a movie, or to buy a chocolate bar, I don’t think about it in terms of “Is this the optimal way I could use my money? Would saving it, or spending it on something different give me more satisfaction in the long run?”

        I’m thinking “I’m bored, I’ll go see a movie”, or “I feel like a chocolate bar”. I might buy a snack for $5 one day and pass up on a $2 one the next day on the basis of “I’m trying to save money”. It’s not consistent.

        My purchasing habits also depend on what I’ve been doing recently (I’m particularly susceptible to Christmas craft fairs). If I’ve already bought a bunch of stuff, a $40 purchase feels more natural than it would if I was just out window-shopping and saw something for $40.

        (I haven’t had to buy a house, car, major appliances, etc. yet, so my examples are fairly trivial.)Report

  2. Avatar Kim says:

    Blowing yourself to smithereens is not a rational act.
    It is an act that comes from fundamentally
    misunderstanding risk and reward
    (or if you’d like, being more now-focused
    rather than being future-focused).

    People are rather notorious about this,
    failing to account for small percentage risks
    that they take frequently.Report

    • Avatar Burt Likko in reply to Kim says:

      Suicide can indeed be rational, just as much as can be succumbing to addictive behavior.

      Consider: I am terminally ill and my illness causes me debilitating pain. My death is imminent, to the point that even a few months’ worth of life is an outside possibility. This will be the situation no matter what I do — there is no cure, the hope for a cure to be discovered is vanishingly faint, and palliative therapy will at best only reduce the pain I must endure for the rest of my very short life from “debilitating” to “crippling.”

      I am very unlikely to be able to accomplish much that is productive. I am unlikely to be able to keep my thoughts in order sufficiently long enough, because of the constant pain I endure, to do much more than put my affairs in order and say my goodbyes to the people I love and who love me.

      Is it so irrational, then, that in such a circumstance I might elect to forego the remainder of life left to me, given that this life will all but certainly be filled with nothing but crippling-to-debilitating amounts of pain? It seems obvious to me that death is preferable to life under those circumstances. And if I cannot procure the assistance of someone else in effecting my death, then I could easily see doing something myself to bring it about.

      Let us hope that none of us, and none of the people any of us love, are even in such a circumstance; indeed, let us hope that the number of people who find themselves in such circumstances are small and the incidence of such circumstances are very rare, with modern scientific medicine working as hard as it can to reduce their frequencies. But those hopes do not change the reality that there are people who are faced with such circumstances.

      Obviously, this hypothetical weighs the scale heavily in favor of death as opposed to life. Other sorts of circumstances might present different facts, and we might perform a life-versus-death calculus differently based on those facts. The point of this exercise is to demonstrate that such a calculus can exist and can rationally reach a result that seems initially distasteful or socially taboo, particularly to someone other than the one making the choice.

      Why, then, should a decision to balance a deferred reward of money as opposed to an immediate pleasure of smoking cocaine be fundamentally any different?Report

  3. Avatar KatherineMW says:

    This post reminds me of reports that have been done on homlessness and addiction, showing that providing stable housing and social/emotional support to people who are drug-addicted and on the street is an effective way to get them using less and improving their lives. When their lives are less dreadful, “get high or drunk to escape from it all” becomes a less-preferred choice.

    I don’t think we should draw the NYT article’s conclusion that hard drugs like cocaine and meth aren’t addictive, though. People’s lives aren’t a controlled experiment.Report

    • Avatar Kim in reply to KatherineMW says:

      Many things are addictive. Perhaps one of the most pernicious is decaf coffee.
      … the more you know! 😉Report

      • Avatar KatherineMW in reply to Kim says:

        Many thing are indeed addictive. My general calculus for whether a substance should be illegal involves several questions:

        A) How addictive is it?
        B) Does it cause a person to behave dangerously towards others?
        C) How severe and common are its short-run health effects (i.e. chance of overdosing)?
        D) How severe and common are its long-run health effects?

        Marajuana is relatively unaddictive (many people have used it at one point and subsequently stopped doing so), doesn’t cause dangerous behaviour, can’t be overdosed on, but is a strong carcinogen; that seems like a balance that warrants legalization. Tobacco is less carcinogenic, extremely addictive, and like marajuana on the other counts. Cocaine and meth (the substances included in the study) are addictive (though probably less so than tobacco) and far worse on counts B and C, so I believe they should remain illegal. Alcohol’s a tricky case because its effects vary quite a lot based on dosage (lots of alcohol often makes people dangerous, a small amount doesn’t; most people can use small amounts without becoming addicted, but some cannot).Report

      • Avatar Kim in reply to Kim says:

        I haven’t seen much evidence of B) with cocaine.
        With better regulation, one might be able to reduce C) and D).

        You’re missing E) how much of an environmental pollutant (and toxicant to others) is it?
        That’s the big one with meth.Report

      • Avatar Pierre Corneille in reply to Kim says:


        One thing I’ll add, although perhaps it’s implied in your point B, is the notion of how far one is willing to go to secure access to the substance for one’s own personal use? For example, I find it hard to believe that someone would literally try to rob another person in order to get money to buy a tobacco cigarettes, but I find it much easier to believe that a meth addict would. (Of course, I imagine someone might mug another person for their money and then spend it on cigarettes, but I suspect in such cases the motivation is more to get money than to get tobacco.)

        I think of this more as a criterion for determining the degree of addiction, and not whether or not something is addiction. I believe tobacco is “addictive” by most relevant measurements (physical and psychological dependency), but not by the one I mentioned above. (And maybe I’m wrong–I don’t smoke–but even if someone would rob another *because* he/she “needs” tobacco, I imagine that as a proportion of tobacco users, they are less numerous than would be similarly inclined meth users)Report

      • Avatar Jim Heffman in reply to Kim says:

        ” I find it hard to believe that someone would literally try to rob another person in order to get money to buy a tobacco cigarettes, but I find it much easier to believe that a meth addict would.”

        But is that because meth is awful, or is that because meth is illegal? The supply side of the meth market meth is sharply constrained, for obvious reasons, and that can mean that prices are high and options are limited. If I don’t have enough money to buy smokes at Quick Stop, I can go down the street to 7-11. If I don’t have enough money to buy meth from Steve, I’m SOL.Report

      • Avatar Pierre Corneille in reply to Kim says:


        You raise a good point and I’m not sure I know the answer. I was proceeding from the assumption that addiction to, say, tobacco creates less desperation in the addict than does addiction to, say, meth, largely (but not independent of) the one’s legality and the other’s illegality.

        My example of robbery probably muddies the water more than not. But maybe a better scenario would be, would a tobacco user be more likely to kill for a cigarette than a meth user would be to kill for a dose of meth? I suppose any answer would have to assume everything being equal, which they are not. Maybe a better comparison might be marijuana and meth, but I’m too ignorant of drug laws to know if they’re illegal in the same way (I guess we’d have to assume that they are equally hard to get, equally illegal, and equally expensive).Report

    • Avatar Anonymous in reply to KatherineMW says:


      I was just thinking about the controlled experiment bit. If you gave an addict enough money to go out and get REALLY high, that might be worth more to them than letting them get a little bit high all day long. It’s like saying to an alcoholic, “You can have one good beer every three hours for the rest of the day, or I’ll give you enough money to go get black-out drunk on fortified wine as soon as I’m done my stupid science experiment with you.”

      I don’t know a single alcoholic who wouldn’t go for the second option, but that doesn’t make getting black-out drunk inherently rational. It just means that within the framework of living a life dedicated to nothing more than getting black-out drunk as often as possible, it’s better to do that than get slightly buzzed.Report

  4. Avatar Glyph says:

    Sam, thanks as always for this stuff.

    The flip side of the infamous “rat studies”, and where I take Hart to be coming from as well, was the “Rat Park” study:

    I also don’t want to argue about AA, but one area where it seems like they are probably helpful is in counteracting social isolation, itself an addiction trigger.

    • Avatar Sam Wilkinson in reply to Glyph says:

      I wonder about that issue of isolation. It works for me but I am not certain it is for everybody; nothing is for everybody. Still, I’ve always heard that the connections that occur at Alcoholics Anonymous often lead to relapse. Whether it’s meeting up with a person whose own story is worse than your own or being exposed to other people falling off of the proverbial wagon, it seems to me that being embedded socially is necessarily beneficial. I don’t know though. It’s a model I’ve never had the courage to try.Report

      • Avatar Glyph in reply to Sam Wilkinson says:

        I hadn’t considered that. I guess it’s better to be isolated, than to be around those who could drag one down (not placing the blame on others, but you know what I mean); but better still would be to be around those who will lift one up.Report

      • Avatar Sam Wilkinson in reply to Sam Wilkinson says:


        I don’t think there is any easy or right answer here. AA works for some people and doesn’t work for others. As I said, I never had the courage to try it (and I lived literally across the street from a nightly meeting during my first year of sobriety). My only point was that there are some challenges within the AA model.Report

      • Avatar Anonymous in reply to Sam Wilkinson says:

        Isolation kills most people. They have no one to commune with but their own demons, so even if they stay sober they turn into restless, irritable, and discontent jerks to be around. And when the craving to drink comes over them, there’s no one to call or speak to who might be able to talk them down from it.

        Also, people with long-term sobriety can feel fairly invincible over alcohol if they don’t go to meetings and don’t interact with other recovering alcoholics. That’s good when things are going well for them, but not so good when the urge to drink hits them. And the urges, themselves, are not rational, even if people can rationally decide to give in to them.Report

  5. Avatar Roger says:

    Fantastic read. Thanks for sharing. There is much to think about here.Report

  6. Avatar PPNL says:

    Meh, it seems like you are playing word games. If the voices in my head tell me that I must kill Bill that is not rational. If I use logic and reason to accomplish Bill’s death I have used rationality as a tool. That does not make schizophrenia rational.

    In the end no goal is really rational. Only the tools we use can be said to be rational.Report

    • Avatar Burt Likko in reply to PPNL says:

      A demon is attacking my baby and will kill her if I do nothing. Of course I’m going to fight the demon. I love my baby and would do anything to protect her. And look, I have a butcher knife right here. I hope it works against the demon’s evil magic powers.

      My reason is not in question, nor my moral calculus. It is my ability to perceive and understand objective reality that is disrupted by my mental illness.

      That my psychotic break* has disrupted my ability to perceive objective reality — in which it is not a demon attacking my child but in reality her mother trying to change the baby’s diaper — does not change the fact that based on what I see and understand, a decision to protect my baby is perfectly rational. The problem is one familiar to IT specialists — GIGO. I’m getting bad information in my brain, so bad outputs to my behavior result.

      Is that what’s happening with the addict? The reward-cost ratio for addictive-but-destructive behavior is different for the addict than it is for the non-addict. I’d rather smoke a rock now than get $5 later — but I’d rather get $20 later than smoke a rock now. That’s rational decision-making, even if the alternatives being weighed include something that is taboo (and, by the way, illegal). You and I, not being crack addicts, think that the weighed advantage of smoking the cocaine is obviously much smaller than the advantage of getting money, but the fact that the addict has a different decision matrix yields a different result. The perceived pleasure of the rock is greater for the addict.

      Is it rational to intentionally speed on the freeway? Because I bet you do speed. In fact, I bet that most people who speed on the freeway will be able to come up with an elaborate rationalization for why it’s okay for them to speed and the productivity advantage of faster driving, or the hedonic benefit of driving at a pleasing speed, outweighs the surely-minimal marginal risk differential as between speeding and adhering to the speed limit. When I’ve sat as a traffic judge, I’ve heard a lot of people offer exactly such rationalizations. From my perspective, it’s almost always a bad choice to speed on the freeway.

      I probably speed too, when I’m not paying attention to my driving. Speeding because of inattention is irrational — no decision is made. But when I do pay attention, like when I set my cruise control, my decision matrix leads me to choose adherence rather than violation. Clearly, not everyone uses the same decision matrix as I.

      And understanding that different people have different ways of weighing costs and benefits, and use different matricies for balancing alternatives, does not mean that we need refrain from making either moral or prudential judgments about the outputs of those processes. Nowhere in the OP do I see Sam suggesting other than that an alcoholic who drinks is engaging in recklessly dangerous behavior.

      He’s suggesting, instead, that to the alcoholic, that the reckless and dangerous behavior appears to the alcoholic to be the best available choice out of the universe of apparent possibilities. Understanding this is, or ought to be, an important part of how we collectively deal with those whose perceptive or decisional abilities vary from the norm.

      * I am not a psychologist, and this term may not be clinically accurate to describe the symptoms set forth in the hypothetical. I strongly suspect, though, that the concept is clear enough to all of us.Report

      • Avatar PPNL in reply to Burt Likko says:

        I think we are talking past each other.

        Your decision to defend your child is in no way rational. It is driven by biology, psychology and culture. The primitive emotions that such a situation brings up is mind killing.

        Your method of defending your child may or may not be rational. Is a butcher knife going to be effective against a Demon? Do you care?

        A rational choice may be to let the demon have your baby so that you can live to have another. It would also be an inhuman choice.

        Rationality is only a tool for getting what you want. Wanting is not rational. When our wants are in conflict rationality becomes difficult. That is what is happening with an addict. Your wants in life are in conflict with a more primitive biological need.

        We all have conflicting desires that make us seem irrational at times. Addiction just makes those conflicts more immediate and devastating.Report

      • Avatar Jim Heffman in reply to Burt Likko says:

        “Your decision to defend your child is in no way rational. It is driven by biology, psychology and culture. The primitive emotions that such a situation brings up is mind killing. ”

        Please do not confuse “moral”, “rational”, and “preferable”.Report

      • Avatar Burt Likko in reply to Burt Likko says:

        @ppnl I think we agree more than we disagree, where we are talking past one another is in the definition of “rational.” By that word, I mean to say that there is a conscious choice made weighing benefits, costs, risks, probable results, and other sorts of intentional decision-making factors.

        So “A rational choice may be to let the demon have your baby so that you can live to have another.” is a statement with which I agree. One might rationally reach such a decision which in this case fortunately avoids the heartbreaking objective result of the psychotic father stabbing the mother. It is not the only rational — intentional, reasoned, conscious — choice the psychotic might make in that situation.

        I’ll posit further that emotional gratification is part of the factors that can go in to a rational calculus, the same way that pleasure and pain might. Which is part of why the decision to defend the baby is rational beyond the autonomic instinct hard-wired into all of us to protect children.Report

      • Avatar PPNL in reply to Burt Likko says:

        Jim Heffman ,

        I don’t think I am confusing moral, rational and preferable. In fact separating the value judgment from the logic is the point. The Germans killed six million Jews. The decision to do so was a value judgment. Making the trains run on time to accomplish it was an exercise in rational thinking.

        Burt Likko,

        You cannot rationally weigh pain and sorrow. These things are biological rather than logical. You can only make a value judgment about them.

        And as for “choice” I’m not sure how much of that we ever have anyway. I am pretty sure that what we call free will very often isn’t. Very often what we call free will is an after the fact story we tell ourselves.Report

      • Avatar Burt Likko in reply to Burt Likko says:

        Well, then we do disagree after all @ppnl . It seems to me that one can decide between different kinds and degrees of pain and sorrow, often with a cold, deliberate, and intentional process involved. The pain and sorrow themselves may not be rational as inherent objects, any more than pleasure or happiness, but a decision between two alternatives is rational. By my taxonomy, anyway.Report

    • Avatar Sam Wilkinson in reply to PPNL says:

      How are you meant to know that the voices in your head aren’t real?Report

  7. Avatar BlaiseP says:

    A wise excerpt from In David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest

    If, by the virtue of charity or the circumstance of desperation, you ever chance to spend a little time around a Substance-recovery halfway facility like Enfield MA’s state-funded Ennet House, you will acquire many exotic new facts….

    That the chilling Hispanic term for whatever interior disorder drives the addict back again and again to the enslaving Substance is tecato gusano, which apparently connotes some kind of interior psychic worm that cannot be sated or killed…

    That a little-mentioned paradox of Substance addiction is: that once you are sufficiently enslaved by a Substance to need to quit the Substance in order to save your life, the enslaving Substance has become so deeply important to you that you will all but lose your mind when it is taken away from you. Or that sometime after your Substance of choice has just been taken away from you in order to save your life, as you hunker down for required A.M. and P.M. prayers, you will find yourself beginning to pray to be allowed literally to lose your mind, to be able to wrap your mind in an old newspaper or something and leave it in an alley to shift for itself, without you….

    That certain persons simply will not like you no matter what you do. Then that most nonaddicted adult civilians have already absorbed and accepted this fact, often rather early on.

    That no matter how smart you thought you were, you are actually way less smart than that.

    That AA and NA and CA’s ‘God’ does not apparently require that you believe in Him/Her/It before He/She/It will help you. That, pace macho bullshit, public male weeping is not only plenty masculine but can actually feel good (reportedly). That sharing means talking, and taking somebody’s inventory means criticizing that person, plus many additional pieces of Recoveryspeak….

    That you do not have to like a person in order to learn from him/her/it. That loneliness is not a function of solitude.

    That most Substance-addicted people are also addicted to thinking, meaning they have a compulsive and unhealthy relationship with their own thinking. That the cute Boston AA term for addictive-type thinking is: Analysis-Paralysis… That it is simply more pleasant to be happy than to be pissed off. That 99% of compulsive thinkers’ thinking is about themselves; that 99% of this self-directed thinking consists of imagining and then getting ready for things that are going to happen to them; and then, weirdly, that if they stop to think about it, that 100% of the things they spend 99% of their time and energy imagining and trying to prepare for all the contingencies and consequences of are never good. Then that this connects interestingly with the early-sobriety urge to pray for the literal loss of one’s mind.

    That nobody who’s ever gotten sufficiently addictively enslaved by a Substance to need to quit the Substance and has successfully quit it for a while and been straight and but then has for whatever reason gone back and picked up the Substance again has ever reported being glad that they did it, used the Substance again and gotten re-enslaved; not ever….

    That ‘acceptance’ is usually more a matter of fatigue than anything else.

    That different people have radically different ideas of basic personal hygiene.

    That, perversely, it is often more fun to want something than to have it..Report

  8. Avatar zic says:

    I don’t know that I would suggest people who are addicted are irrational, so much as they have great incentive (the addiction) to rationalize irrational things. I’ve struggled with addiction (tobacco), as has my husband (alcohol). I lost my beloved step-sister to alcohol; she drank herself to death, shutting down first her liver and then her kidneys, at 38. And after a lifetime of watching people in bars, I clearly see how alcohol, in particular, is seductive; it’s social grease, it’s courage, it’s a good time, at least for that first 20 minutes of pleasant buzz.

    Right now, I’ve family members struggling with opiate addictions; starting with prescribed pain medication; one’s moved on to heroin. It’s not that this is irrational, it’s that they find a way to rationalize it. Having lived with chronic pain since I was a teenager, I see how easy that is to do; the few times I’ve taken something that eased that pain, I did not want to stop. Last time, it nearly cost me my sight; and it took waking up one day to a world gone dim to make me stop taking the medication (an anti-seizure medication, something that is not supposed to be addictive; but stopping pain is, I think, an addictive behavior).

    Be it gambling, food choices, drinking, smoking, video games, or time commenting on the internet, if it distracts you from some discomfort, if it comforts when reality discomforts, there is a risk of rationalizing.

    Sam, I’m glad you’re sober. It’s not easy, and writing about it, talking about it is difficult, for it’s a reminder of the escape our brains so easily latch hold of and turn to in moments of discomfort.

    I don’t ever say I quit smoking, in a time of stress, I will smoke. I say I’m a smoker who opts not to smoke most of the time; it keeps me from having to rationalize something bad; from having to forgive myself and gin up the courage to quit again. Instead, I remember the sight of my sister, the last time I saw her alive; no longer beautiful and bright, no longer able to recognize me. She’s my guide to the value of being honest with myself: I’m a smoker, she was a drinker. I can’t change that, but I can refrain from making excuses to myself.Report

  9. Avatar Chris says:

    Hey Sam, I was just wondering where you were, since I hadn’t seen you ’round these parts in a while. Thank you for this.

    I think you’re right, it’s important to recognize that addictive behavior is not irrational in the sense that it is not inconsistent with our preferences. It is self-destructive, of course, so a better word for it than irrational might be counterproductive, or something to that effect. Or perhaps just pathological, but I’m not sure, from your posts on this topic (which, I find touching in addition to excellent and informative), how you feel about treating addiction as a disease or disorder, as “pathological” implies.Report

    • Avatar Sam Wilkinson in reply to Chris says:

      My only issue with something like counterproductive is that I don’t remembering thinking it was true when I was in the middle of it, because my goal then was drunkeness. I don’t remember thinking, “This is getting in the way of my life.” I remember thinking, “Life is getting in the way of my drunkenness.”

      As for disease, disorder, or pathological: I’m willing to consider them all, but I don’t remember experiencing that. I remember the drive I had for it.

      I don’t have a good answer here perhaps.Report

      • Avatar Chris in reply to Sam Wilkinson says:

        Well, self-destructive behavior rarely seems self-destructive in the midst of it. The same is true of counterproductive behavior, or behavior that ultimately causes us to suffer more.

        Now, it seems, you recognize that your addiction is bad for you. You also, I assume, recognize that back then you should have seen that it was bad for you, but didn’t, because that’s part of what it means to be an addict — difficulty in evaluating addiction-related behavior.. If this is the case, then it seems possible that “self-destructive” or “counterproductive” or some variant thereof would be accurate, right?Report

  10. Avatar BlaiseP says:

    Rationality isn’t an attempt to make sense of the world. Rationality is just a framework for processing your life and all the stuff you’re doing. It puts aside all the slimy, wet guts of our emotional lives, all the bubbles coming up out of the muck of our unconscious and applies some rules to it.

    Mostly it’s handled in the forebrain, is rationality. Reason does two things: it attempts to put our actions into the hopper and ask “How would you feel if someone else was doing these things?” But it does something more important with the answer, it then asks “Okay, so you wouldn’t like it. What are the reasons for anyone doing it?”

    That’s as far as reason can take anyone. Thereafter, it’s all so much normative stuff. The Drunk in St. Exupery’s Little Prince,

    “I am drinking,” replied the drunkard, with a lugubrious air.

    “Why are you drinking?” demanded the little prince.

    “So that I may forget,” replied the drunkard.

    “Forget what?” inquired the little prince, who already was sorry for him.

    “Forget that I am ashamed,” the drunkard confessed, hanging his head.

    “Ashamed of what?” insisted the little prince, who wanted to help him.

    “Ashamed of drinking!” The drunkard brought his speech to an end, and shut himself up in an impregnable silence.

    And the little prince went away, puzzled.

    Crack is pretty straightforward. It floods the brain with dopamine. Of course the poor crackhead will want more crack if he’s given a larger dose. Ever seen a crackhead working a pipe? He starts cracking, he’s not going to stop until he’s done. Goes on for days. The poor bastard’s brain isn’t generating any more dopamine once they’re on a binge, just like an alcoholic isn’t really drinking to feel better. If all the drunk wanted was to feel good, he’d stop after two. Maybe tighten up his buzz later if he felt like it. Slobbering drunk doesn’t feel good. It just feels like you’re drunk, if you’re feeling anything at all.

    It doesn’t surprise me to see smaller doses of crack producing wiser strategies for satisfaction. Dopamine is the Molecule of Satisfaction. The wretched crackhead’s getting his dopamine, all right. “Hey, I’m gonna get five dollars.” It’s just that obvious.

    Are you seriously questioning the monstrousness of a cocaine addict or a junkie or a serious alcoholic? They’re thinking all right. About one thing. The Molecule of Satisfaction and how to get more of it. They will steal, lie and debase themselves. This ain’t propaganda. These are facts.

    Addiction is not a solution to anything. It’s the brain in a satisfaction feedback loop, demanding more of what squeezes the orange for more satisfaction — and using every possible strategy from lying and stealing and every other sort of madness — to remain on that feedback loop. True, even the addict knows he’s not happy, that his choices aren’t rational to anyone else. Rationality might ask us how we’d think about others doing what we’re doing and how it might ever be justified — but mankind is the most self-deluding, deceitful little beast ever to walk the face of the earth.Report

  11. Avatar Kim says:

    Rational thinking is slow thinking.

    Most people aren’t (generally) rational in most of their decisions,
    so saying that someone who is addicted isn’t rational is like saying that water is blue (so too
    is the sky, we’re not differentiating well between the addicted and the non-addicted).

    Just pulling a few quick studies. I find the field fascinating.Report

    • Avatar Sam Wilkinson in reply to Kim says:

      I disagree with your second sentence entirely.Report

    • Avatar Burt Likko in reply to Kim says:

      I disagree with your first sentence.Report

    • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to Kim says:

      What? People do weigh their options, with every move they make. Nobody has time to sit around like Rodin’s Thinker, maybe the philosophers. Our entire conscious existence is maintaining the framework for our lives. That framework exists so we can make rapid, timely decisions.

      Some novice coder encountering the Singleton Pattern for the first time, he might stop and boggle for a while but no serious coder who’s been at it for a few years does. It’s a pattern. It solves a problem. Most of our conscious mind is a vast process of bandpass filters, processing the fire hose of input through the valves and gates. To be a rational person is to know what to ignore. That’s about it. Water isn’t blue nor is the sky. The rational mind is capable of understanding, along with every painter, that it’s about the light striking your retina, not about any intrinsic colour.Report

      • Avatar Kim in reply to BlaiseP says:

        most of our unconscious mind is a vast process of bandpass filters. Some of the time it makes decisions, and even masks data from the conscious mind.

      • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to BlaiseP says:

        It’s not that simple, Kim. The conscious mind is rather like the flames over a fire. We look at the flame, not the logs in the fire. That’s the basic problem with most trivial definitions of Rationality, they always fall into a normative pit trap. Why should I stop using cocaine? Used to be kind of a big ol’ problem for Yours Truly. Drinking was, too. Still wrestle with smoking tobacco. You don’t “quit” by a conscious decision, you come to a point where it’s inevitable, like getting out of a burning building.

        While I was using, I could justify every one of my actions. Put very considerable effort into such justifications. When Sam tells the story of that 30 Pack, I’ve bought that 30 Pack. Coped with stress for years by drinking to relax and doing coke to get busy. Worked for me. It never interfered in my work life. I was a functional cokehead and drunk. Wreaked some savage damage on my soul, or whatever you might call it.

        When the only time I felt a frisson of satisfaction and truly belonging somewhere is when I had a new book in front of me, a pretty bartender serving me good gin and tonic as an overture, a plate of schnitzel for the first movement and enough beer to float a battleship for the remainder of the evening, that, Kim, is a rational decision. Beats sitting in an empty hotel room, all seven days of the week. I spent seven years on the road, a hotel room starts looking like a jail cell. I found a good woman, got off the road (with periodic relapses) and found satisfaction elsewhere. Took up blogging again.

        Sam has an exquisite point to make here:

        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.

        Sentient beings return to what gave them satisfaction before. Doesn’t matter what it is, drugs, sex, power over others, food, booze — once you’ve parsed out all the normative stuff about what’s a good decision or bad decision, who gets harmed and why, it’s all about coming to terms with our reasons for doing these things. Nobody can tell me I’m a bad drunk. They could, at one point, call me a drunk. Only when I came to the conclusion my behaviour wasn’t constructive, that other options were open to me, was I able to walk away from it.

        And like Sam, I kinda had to walk away from it alone. Others are of no real assistance on The Walk. Want enlightenment? Better want it bad enough to walk away from most things you find comforting and reassuring. The truth will set you free. But first it will crush you flat.Report

  12. Avatar Mike Dwyer says:

    Sam – I don’t have much to say about the post itself, as this is not an area I know much about or really have anything interesting to say in reply. I do want to thank you though for the post and your willingness to share your story. This is the kind of blogging I like the most and I really appreciate what you have done here.Report

  13. Avatar Horse Bootley says:

    The goal does not have to be “getting drunk.” The goal can be drinking a beer. And then drinking another beer. Using “getting drunk” as the goal kinda undermines the theory of “getting drunk” as the goal. Most mammals prefer to alter their moods. That’s what moods are for. It is a luxury to have moods. Most mammals can’t afford it.Report

  14. Avatar Christopher says:

    There is one element here whose rationality I cannot begin to conceive. If “everything [you] did was cold and calculating and based on the knowledge that the fastest and most effective way [you] understood to make emotional devastation go away was to be unable to feel anything at all”, why in the blue blazes did you choose beer? Beer? I would drown in the beer, or becoming physically incapable of consuming more, or at least become bloated beyond recognition, long, long before it got me drunk, let alone blacked out. And I’m a small, rather delicate person. Surely someone looking for “the fastest and most effective way” to become unconscious has a wide array of more potent beverages to choose from?Report

  15. Avatar SoberNow says:

    This was a fascinating opinion to me, as I am minoring in philosophy and majoring in psychology, wanting to go into addition counseling.
    Can anyone really know if another person’s actions are irrational? They may seem irrational to us, but as already said, we have no way of actually knowing what goes on in another person’s head. This is doubly so for actual addicts. I say “actual” addicts because there are many people out there who may call themselves addicts but are only problem drinkers/users. They may be the ones that the study picked, because, according to my research, personal experience and everything I have ever been taught about addiction on a neurological level, once a true addict puts the drug into their body, there is a biological reaction. The brain chemistry of an addict is different than a non-addict. This is why addiction is called a disease and not a moral issue anymore. Irrationality is a moral issue, predicated on the assumption that everyone has the same mental faculties to make “rational” decisions. When your brain is not like other people’s (addict brain vs. non-addict brain), the whole discussion of rationality goes out the window. Only after the drugs have been out of the addict’s brain chemistry for a sufficient amount of time can an addict actually choose whether they are going to get high/drunk again.
    As for AA, millions of people around the world have gotten sober and stayed that way (using AA’s 12 steps to change their lives) , so I think that speaks for itself. AA is not the only way to get and stay sober, it just seems to have the best results so far. Most addicts need social support to get and stay off substances. It is a hard road of change ahead to change the way you deal with the world. As for someone being “drawn back” to using alcohol by the connections that they make at an AA meeting, I say, “The person didn’t really want to quit in the first place”. If you really want to quit and are motivated enough, AA can be a great help. But if you are not motivated in the first place, and you meet someone else who is not committed to sobriety either, then you both can find a sympathetic ear in an AA meeting, but also in a church, grocery store, school campus etc etc.
    The thing that I would like to know is, where did the researchers get the crack and coke they gave to the subjects, and how did they diagnose that they were dealing with true addicts? Did they do brain scans of every participant? Or did they just take the person’s word for it? I think that study has ethical questionability written all over it.Report