Imagine a strange genie offers you the opportunity to no longer crave food, drink, sleep, warmth or sex. Are you be interested? I wouldn’t be – getting things I need and crave seems to be more fun on the whole than getting things I just casually enjoy. There’s a pretty steep diminishing return to the things I listed though, and like many people I have about as much as I want of most of them. So how to make my life much better?

An obvious strategy is to acquire more such strong desires. This is an unpopular path though. If you want to enjoy life more it is common to look for new casually pleasurable activities – make new friends, try a new sport, take your partner on an unusual romantic excursion. If you become too attached to an activity, you are deemed ‘addicted’ though, which is a bad thing. There are activities that are known to make people particularly addicted, and beginning them is seen as a stupid move. But why is addiction so bad?

There is an argument that addictions don’t make you happy – they entrap you in a cycle of endless obsession with no real satisfaction. Remember enjoyment and desire don’t always coincide. But while that’s surely true for some things people become addicted to, if addiction merely entails strong ongoing craving, why should the subjects of such cravings tend to be unpleasant more so than less serious desires?

For these reasons I recently set out to acquire an addiction to coffee, a not particularly dangerous drug. It’s not very strong yet; I do alright without coffee for long periods, but feel relieved and invigorated for having it. So far this seems a great benefit, compared both to casually and unaffectedly drinking coffee and to not drinking coffee at all. However if I say to people that I’m somewhat addicted to coffee they usually express pity. If I say I think it’s a fine arrangement they seem to think I’m silly.

Why is addiction bad, beyond the few specific addictions that aren’t pleasurable or to lead to externalities such as weaponed thievery?

19 responses to “Addiction

  1. I think in almost everybody’s mind the concept “addiction” is associated with those that aren’t pleasurable or to lead to externalities such as weaponed thievery, hence there is a spontaneous negative reaction to someone declaring she’s addicted to something (unless it’s simply a rhethorical device to say one really likes something).

    Not everybody approves of craving the need for food, for example, such as me or this guy. We normally just don’t think of those as addictions.

  2. I’ve been thinking about this too. It helps to distinguish between consummatory and anticipatory pleasure (wanting vs. liking). A stereotypical addiction gives you consummatory pleasure that diminishes as you get addicted, and is replaced almost fully by anticipatory pleasure (craving).

    A healthy dose of craving is crucial to maintaining sanity, as it gives you a purpose in life. The stereotypical hedonist, eating chocolate all day, is not looking forward to anything. The stereotypical drug addict has specific, non-arbitrary values. Without craving for food, drink, sleep, warmth, or sex, you’d just go crazy of boredom.

  3. Your thought problem is way under-specified.

    No longer needing sleep is effectively increasing your lifespan by 1/3; I’d trade a heck of a lot for 30 years. (Consider all the trades people make for much more uncertain health benefits, like supplements or exercise.)

    Or, where do the displaced cravings go? Maybe no longer caring about food means you care *way* more about $FAVORITE_AUTHOR. You seem to assume a negative-sum offer in your later comments, where zero-sum is quite as plausible.

    And there’s an obvious limit to acquiring cravings: they tend to be mutually exclusive. You can’t be asleep, eating, having sex, and shooting up heroin simultaneously. You need time, money, and energy; each addiction eats up a fair bit. At some point you stop having time for a job to pay for it all. It’s an optimization problem and it’s not too obvious to me that any further addictions are cost-effective for you. (Coffee can be a real money-sink compared to water or tea, even if you aren’t contemplating more expensive addictions.)

    Finally, when you acquire an addiction, you’re limiting your present and future options and exposing yourself to risk. Someone addicted to smoking has thereby cut themselves out of a good fraction of the dating pool, not to mention the constant restrictions on their location – they have to keep an eye on the exits for if they suddenly need to smoke. The stronger & more frequent the urges, the more they are hampered. Generally, self-limiting is a bad thing unless it comes with a good reason – sheer self-indulgence & hedonism usually isn’t considered a good reason (especially if it comes with other negatives).

    • Also, hedonic treadmill. The observation that new activities quickly lose their savor means that you want to be able to constantly switch among new activities – and away from old ones. The exact opposite of getting addicted to new things.

  4. I thnk it’s simply a question of free will. By definition, when you’re addicted to something, you’re thought to have lost your ability to exercise free will in relation to that thing. And we humans cling desperate to our illusion of conscious will.

  5. So Brave New World was a utopian vision?

  6. Reminds me of Gary Becker & Kevin Murphy’s theory of “rational addiction”.

    The reason addicts engage in weaponized thievery is that illegal drugs are very expensive. If they were legalized, the cost would be low enough that addicts could get them about as easily as cigarettes.

    Nemo, on reading the book it sounded a lot like utopia to me.

    Brother Theodore finds eating quite objectionable. Or at least he did while he was still alive.

  7. This entry really doesn’t display a great deal of sophistication about the ideas related to addiction. One economist differentiated between a habit and an addiction in terms of how the likelihood of engaging in an activity depended on how long it has been since previously engaging in that activity. If the likelihood increases with elapsed time, then the activity can be characterized as an addiction – withdrawal leads to craving. If the likelihood decreases with elapsed time, then it can be characterized as a habit – withdrawal leads to finding other things to do. Quantifying this is a bit of a challenge, since any analysis of panel data about a given behavior is very vulnerable to model specification and heterogeniety/frailty modeling.

    Substances are tricky – coffee may or may not be addictive to an individual, I personally randomly consume between zero cups and two pots of coffee per day, with a slightly positive serial correlation from day to day, and suffer none of the classic withdrawal symptoms (headache, moodiness) even if I go a week without caffeine. Other people I know are immobilized if they don’t get their daily cup’o’joe. Nicotine, cocaine, and alcohol are generally much more likely to be addictive, although I know many people who drink socially with no problems. I have known exactly one person who is a “social smoker” – she smokes one or two cigarettes per day (over the last decade and a half). However, I don’t really know of any alcoholics or self-aware nicotine addicts who really derive a lot of pleasure from their drug. They mostly use because they have to. And craving, while it may be behaviorally indistinguishable from “anticipatory pleasure”, does not seem to be consistently described as “pleasurable” by the cravers.

    I suppose that the classic addiction would be sex, since people seem to desire it more intensely the longer they have gone without it. It also seems to have the lowest “recovery” rate of any addiction, since I’ve never met anybody who’s given it up after starting…..

  8. CraigM, that doesn’t sound right to me. The longer an addict has been “clean” the less likely they are to relapse.

  9. Maybe excitement in life is simply about tension-release cycles. Enjoyment of music and other art is very often about creating an expectation, prolonging the moment, and then delivering the anticipated change at just the right point. Addiction to e.g. coffee could be the same thing. Life would seem to be more enjoyable with these cycles than without. The question is if it’s all a distraction. Are there more real, less artificial cycles to be found if one does not dull the senses by inventing stimuli of one’s own?

  10. Caplan has a new post on addiction here.

  11. I drink much coffee, I recognize its many attractions, but developing a craving isn’t one. Craving occurs when you become tolerant of caffeine: you desire more and enjoy it less.

    An American psychiatrist in the 70s, William Glasser, proposed a theory of “positive addiction,” which accords with your concept if not your implementation.

  12. Our bodies are *designed* to crave food, drink, sleep, warmth or sex. We have built in circuitry that generally keeps these cravings from becoming damaging addictions (although there are exceptions, of course, especially as we move farther away from the ancestral environment).

    On the other hand, our bodies are *not* designed for drugs, which hi-jacks the pleasure circuitry.

  13. You seem pretty clueless about the nature of addiction. Doing something you like because you enjoy it is not addiction – addiction is enslavement to a behavior you dislike or despise.

  14. Caffeine addiction is pretty lightweight. I suggest cultivating a weed, or WoW addiction and then posting an update.

    • I used to have a decent Civ addiction. It was great as far as enjoyment goes, but some parts of my mind had other goals, so I gave it up eventually. I can understand avoiding strong addictions because you want to achieve things other than personal enjoyment, but weak addictions are more compatible, and plenty of people are trying to achieve personal enjoyment.

  15. Addiction is so much more prevalent than we choose to see or recognize here is America. It is not just the obvious neighborhoods and people…Addiction has permeated every economic level, every type of individual, every age group. Most people would be amazed. It is time to provide help for this serious disease.

  16. Pingback: afarrago» Blog Archive » Addiction « Meteuphoric

  17. I could definitely see myself taking the genie’s offer up on purely utilitarian grounds in that I might be much more productive without those. However, realistically I’d probably just procrastinate for most of the time.

    If it were just sleep I’d definitely take the genie up on it. Sure, sleep is nice when tired, but that need overall is just an inconvenience.


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