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Jewish Journal

Addiction as a Prison

by Beit T'shuvah

December 12, 2012 | 1:00 pm

By Ben Spielberg

Shy B recently presented an issue with the reductionist approaches to understanding. I would like to offer an interesting rebuttal by using a behavioral economics approach to understanding addiction. A story:

Two men are arrested, and immediately separated. Then, the interrogator offers each of them some possibilities. If one person confesses to the crime, and other stays silent, the confessor will be freed and the other will do full time. On the other than, if both people confess to the crime, they each spend half the allotted time incarcerated. If both parties don't confess, they both do full time.

This is called the Prisoner's dilemma. It's an easy paradigm to fit into different scenerios—in this case, we are looking at addiction through the eyes of the dilemma. George Ainslie, for instance, took the story to another level by adding in information about the future self. There are many options here:

Somebody can relapse today, and relapse in the future.
Somebody can relapse today, and get sober in the future. (Sound familiar?)
Somebody can be sober today, but relapse in the future (A fruitless endeavor).
Somebody can be sober today, and be sober in the future.

Obviously the best choice is to be sober today, and be sober in the future. The problem is the payoff: drugs offer a greater reward than sobriety does. This is called “hyperbolic discounting.” From Ainslie's  Behavioral Economics of Will in Recovery From Addiction, “The rewards from drug use are immediate and the adverse consequences tend to be delayed; were the reverse true... it is unlikely there would be problem drug use.” Drug addicts make irrational decisions because feeling good now feels better than feeling bad later.

On the contrary, there is also the interesting option of being sober today, and relapsing in the future. Hyperbolic discounting could be accounted for in this option, as well; if I were to stay sober for a long time, I know that the effects of drug use would feel even better. It's kind of like the marshmallow experiment with children: if the kids don't eat one marshmallow immediately, they can eat two marshmallows in ten minutes (I would totally eat one immediately and regret it). The kids who were able to wait were found to have higher executive function capabilities than those who quickly succumbed to the sugary puffballs.

Ainslie misses the mark, though, because it would seem that there would be no rationality that actually gets somebody sober. Here is where the systems approach to everything tends to break down; cars are not just chemical reactions and momentum, just as addiction is not just Economics 101. Addiction is a combination of hyberbolic discounting, of spiritual maladies, of blips in neurotransmitter production. Regardless, next time you think about whether or not addiction makes sense, try to remember that it fits so well in the Prisoner's dilemma because it's a tough choice for everyone. Or maybe I've just had too many marshmallows.

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