We are all addicts, so what can we do about it?

I found an incredibly interesting view on addiction from a couple psychiatrists at Cambridge University (you can check it out here if you are interested). The article, called The Addict in us All, posits an alternative view on addiction based on the current scientific literature. With the help of over 130 references, Brenden Dill and Richard Holton outline that addiction is not an issue which only drug addicts or highly neurotic people deal with, but an issue that we all face daily, and exactly what to do about it.

People everywhere struggle with doing things they do not want to do, it might be excessive shopping, internet browsing, gaming, watching TV, or heroin. We all struggle with “bad habits”, or doing things which have previously been found to be intrinsically rewarding. Gaming offers the rewards of the “flow state” and accomplishment as well social interaction, which at times can produce large amount of dopamine and become highly addicting. Shopping is an activity which involves being rewarded with items we deem valuable by spending money, and can thus become highly addictive. Heroin offers a disproportionate amount of pleasure when compared with it’s negative effects, but because of the intensity of the pleasure, it can hijack our attention to focus merely on the good qualities of the experience. Dill and Holton call these addictions, regardless of if they are large or small, incentive salience desires. I love the name…

Incentive salience desires are basically desires which gain particular appeal proportionate (or in the case of drug-addicts disproportionate) to the reward associated with the desired goal. Sugar is an incentive salience desire because of its intrinsic reward, which is that it’s yummy. Browsing the internet could become an incentive salience desire if one comes across several entertaining or interesting articles or videos. These incentive salience desires can become harmful when they take us away from our cognitive desires, or our deliberate judgements. Everyone has had this experience at some point in their life, they know they shouldn’t have that extra piece of cake, or spend that extra money, they know it will have detrimental effects and they still do it anyways. This is an example of the incentive salience desire overriding the cognitive desire system (aka the self-control system).

So we are walking around all day, buzzing with incentive salience desires, ice cream over there, popcorn over here, video games over there, fish and chips over here. Our environment in western society is a cesspool of incentive salience desires, and the more people give in, the more people must fight against these desires. But is the answer to withdraw? Maybe not. It may be possible to nurture another way to control ourselves in order to line ourselves up with our cognitive desires. Dill and Holton outline this method as the MMMCII, which stands for Mindfulness Meditation, Mental Contrasting, Implementation Intention. With this method, maybe we can enjoy those desires only when choosing to indulge, as opposed to being controlled by our unconscious desires.

Mindfulness meditation is form of meditation which focuses on one particular attention point, traditionally breath but it could be anything. The need more mindfulness meditation for overcoming addictions is found in our ability to direct our attention. The reason why we are naturally drawn to our addictions is that they possess salience. This salience causes us to focus only on the “good” aspects of the desire, and because humans can only hold a limited amount in their working memory at any given moment, these salient aspects of the desire dominate our ability to judge. When wondering if we should have another drink, the salience of our favourite beer may draw our attention towards the smooth taste and the refreshing coolness, along with the relaxing buzz. The hijacking salience can deliberate our judgment merely by moving our attention towards the salient aspects of the incentive salient object. Mindfulness meditation can nurture our ability to exert self-control over our attention and redirect it onto both the positive and negative aspects of that desire, and potential lead us to a more rational judgement about our circumstance.

Mental contrasting is a technique used to help us choose to side with our cognitive desires by imagining both the positive effects of our cognitive judgement (which was arrived at via directing attention), and the difficult obstacles which lay in our path. Interestingly enough, and this may seem counterintuitive, but research shows that our motivation is highest when both our value of a judgement is high, and the perceived difficulty is high. Turns out that humans don’t want things to be easy, they naturally want to be engaged in their task. The other reason why motivation is higher when difficulty is high is because it takes away the illusion that we have already completed the task. If one only imagines the good things about our chosen cognitive judgement, then we illude ourselves into thinking we have already completed that task. When this is contrasted with imagining the obstacles in our way, we see a more clear vision of what completing the task would entail and our motivation goes way up. Combining mindfulness meditation and mental contrasting may lead us to be able to take action towards our cognitive desires. Which leads us to our third issue, habits.

When we posit a goal, or make a judgement, and we manage to get through the first two stages of moving towards that action, then we arrive at our implemental stage. This stage is thwarted mainly by habits, which entail our previous associated behaviours with certain circumstances. These habits are unconscious behaviours which may or may not take us away from our posited goal. Intention implementation is designed to help us create new habits more insync with our cognitive judgement about what would be good. Intention implementation starts with positing a statement like “if X happens, then I will do Y”. These cues which we create in accordance with what we want to achieve can prove incredibly helpful towards achieving our goals. Dismantling bad habits and replacing them with good ones doesn’t usually take all that much effort, but it does indeed require conscious deliberate action.

With these three stages it may be possible to reformat our lives with our current values and move towards our goals. It may allow us to break free from our addictions, or at least choose when to participate in them. If you find yourself addicted to something and it is taking away from your ability to live your life how you want to live it, this method could be of some use. If you want a more wholesome outlook on the method, check out the article with the link at the top.

Hustle it up!

1 thought on “We are all addicts, so what can we do about it?”

  1. Loved this post, and so weird because I was recently learning about goal implementation. I never knew changing habits and behaviours had specific labels. I find knowing the terminology and reading psychological studies on habit, behaviour and goal had helped a lot with sticking to my goals or changing those habits that don’t serve me anymore.

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