Friday, 4 January 2013

Is Addiction a Choice or a Mistake?

On the subject of mistakes 

I keep hearing the quote by nineteenth century German Statesman (and who many describe as the true engineer of the First World War) Otto von Bismarck: 'A fool learns from his mistakes, but a truly wise man learns from the mistakes of others'. This suggests the existence of highly intelligent individuals, who throughout their adult lives never make any mistakes. He further implies that only fools learn from their own mistakes. What utter tosh! A fool is someone who keeps making the same mistakes and never learns anything from them. No actually an even bigger fool is someone who believes that he will never make any mistakes. Well news flash! We all make mistakes; trial and error is one of the main ways that people learn. Even some of the world’s cleverest people make some really stupid mistakes.

Off the top of my head, I put ‘Einstein + mistake’ into Google and found an undated paper by Ohanian who has written a book called, Einstein's Mistakes: The Human Failings of Genius.

To read more:

Ohanian described a critical examination of over six proofs that Einstein produced in over forty years working on his theory of relativity. Ohanian found that all six proofs suffered from serious mistakes. They range from unjustified assumptions, errors in logic, and low-speed restrictive approximations. Einstein claimed that he was not born with any special abilities mathematical or otherwise: “All I have is the stubbornness of a mule. No, it is not quite all. I also have a nose.” So unlike some modern scientists Einstein had a great sense of humour. He also had no doubts that the universe was created by God. However, he did question whether the Creation was deliberate or accidental. (This is an incredibly interesting question in spite of Christian doctrine stating that God is invulnerable to error). “What interests me is whether God had any choice in the creation of the world.”  

Of course Einstein was one of a kind so perhaps he is also a one-off in this respect. He was known to be dyslexic and might even have had Asperger’s Syndrome, which could explain the errors. Surely not all genii are so vulnerable to mistakes? I can hear someone say—but yes actually most of them are. I remember reading about a team of psychologists (I will not name them). They designed a study to explore psychiatric in-patient treatment. They booked themselves into different mental facilities as voluntary patients to document the experience, and to discover how long it would take for the staff to detect that they were perfectly sane. The staff never did detect that they were sane (it is not what they are trained to do). The more the researchers tried to convince the staff of their sanity the more insane they appeared.

They had only informed one member of their faculty of their plans in case something went wrong, but a few days later he had an accident driving home. He was hospitalised for several weeks, and was unaware of their difficulties until he eventually returned to work and discovered that they were all missing. If you would like to read more about howling blunders made by really smart, highly educated people click the links below. The first is the famous Stanford Prison Experiment by Zimbardo (1971). Today he is recognised as one of the most brilliant minds in behavioural science. However, when he was a PhD student his career was almost over before it began, when during the running of his unique Prison Experiment things began to go wrong:

When I first read about this I asked my tutor:
“If their treatment was so bad, why didn’t any of the ‘prisoners’ walk out?” He did not know the answer, and most of the discussion and subsequent research has focused on why the ‘guards’ became so brutal. They were not real prisoners they could have requested, nay demanded their release at any time, but apparently none of them did. Perhaps they were reluctant to be the first one to leave; or perhaps they did not want to forfeit the payment that they were due to receive at the end of the study.   

The second was Milgram’s (1961-62) now famous Obedience to Authority Experiment: The subjects were ordered to give what they were led to believe were potentially lethal electric shocks to another person. In spite of the lack consideration for ethics, the findings from these experiments were regarded as being of such scientific importance that (once the dust settled and they were forgiven) the ‘mistakes’ actually enhanced the careers of their creators.

One ethical blunder that not only destroyed the career of its creator but also caused such a backlash of public ill-will against behaviourism that research into changing behaviour through conditioning was stopped, (except for inside secret government facilities). The researchers were John Watson (who said: bring me a dozen infants of average intelligence and I will turn them into scientists, doctors or whatever else you like) and Rosalie Rayner (1920) and the highly successful study with into Conditioned Fear to demonstrate how humans learn fear. Little Albert’s mother had been happy to agree to let him to ‘study’ her eleven-month-old son while she got on with her work as cleaner at the laboratory. He had obtained her consent, but it was obvious that she had no understanding of what the experiment involved or its possible consequences.

As a result of these and many other mistakes, any scientific study using human participants must first be subjected to rigorous questioning by an ethics committee. Then the researchers must also obtain prior ‘informed consent,’ from the participants.        
One reason that all humans make mistakes, especially in judgment and decision-making is because we deceive ourselves on a regular basis. We all have a strong tendency to believe we are right when we are absolutely wrong, but it does not stop there. There is a list of 27 cognitive self-serving biases (which are also self-deceiving biases) and false assumptions to which even the most intelligent and educated people are vulnerable. Even when you know that these exist it is still very hard not succumb; it is goes against thousands of years of evolution to learn how to disregard their influence. If you would like to read about these (or anything else for that matter) put the keywords: cognitive or self-serving biases in Google and click the link to Wikipedia. Nobel Laureates, Kahneman and Tversky (1973) were among the first to observe and report the effects of these biases during their work on cognitive heuristics (rules-of-thumb).

Their availability heuristic said that if you can think about something it must be important. To put this into terms more relevant to addiction, if drugs are not available you cannot take them. In other words, if you had never heard of drugs you would not have gone out to look for them. So where does that leave addiction as a congenital brain disease? The work into the social and environmental influences on decision making also provided some crucial factors in helping to answer some of the questions regarding the addict’s ‘decision’ to take drugs once (and to keep taking them). Kahneman and Tversky were among the first to demonstrate that human beings are not as logical or rational as we used to believe. 

A branch of social psychology explores attribution, (who and what do individuals and society as a whole choose to blame when things go wrong). One of my favourite constructs is ‘fundamental attribution error,’ defined by Lee Ross (1977). This explains how (a part of cognition called working-self), works in the human brain. This convinces us that when we succeed it is because of our own brilliance, determination and other internal qualities. However, if anything goes wrong we blame external factors, the situation rather than us (the train was late, the pavement was uneven, the other player cheated).  

The typical human brain is wired in such a way that it makes us believe that whatever goes wrong it is never our fault. The only problem is that this allows people to avoid acknowledging their mistakes and taking responsibility for their own actions, (or lack of action). This prevents us from learning from our mistakes to improve our chances of future success. But when things go wrong with these defence mechanisms, such as during depression, the effect can go into reverse and the individual believes that everything is her fault. This can result in hyper-sensitivity to guilt, which is one of most damaging emotions; and it is utterly pointless if neuroscience is right and we have no free will. I have found that many people with addictions are also suffering from depression or other psychiatric or psychological conditions. It is sometimes impossible to tell whether this is the cause or the result of drug use, or even a vicious circle.    


  1. Well Jo, quite a read, Joseph Heller called such things as these researchers experienced "catch 22" i always loved thaf scenario. Also a free thinker is a rare thing these days when the mmasses are fed on celebrity gossip via the red tops, and news is cynicaly channeled in such a way. . to dupe us into false assumptions regarding the state of....well whatever they want us not to notice. Oh my this started out as a reply, seems to havr turned into a rant, pointing at Fox news for openers.Will re read your piece again later,Question can rage become addictive?

  2. Hi Llarion,

    Interesting question. Yes I think reacting with rage could become a habit, if not an addiction. In particular some drivers develop a habit of taking it personally and becoming enraged when other drivers do something stupid. To be a true addiction we need to feel bad when we can't get it, but with rage we feel much better if we can avoid it. It isn't a useful emotion like anger. Anger inspires thought first, then action and can provide the motivation to tackle a difficult problem successfully. Rage in contrast is literally mindless, inspiring destructive reactions. It uses far too much energy, to do more harm than good. Rage prevents a considered response that might solve the problem.

    Rage allows our emotionally driven mammalian instincts to take over mission control. It actually blocks the source of all common sense, reasoning and higher thought, by shutting down one of the most important cognitive defence mechanisms, the Central-Executive in our higher frontal cortex*. The CE is that little voice in your head who says "Don't do that it would be crazy!" and reminds us there will be consequences.

    In fact it will play out all the possible options as scenarios and their consequences. These appear very rapidly [too fast to notice consciously] in our minds eye when we do things like drive a car. This is why when the plonker in front suddenly changes lanes without signalling a good driver will already be expecting it and won't need to get road rage. How many times have you said "I just knew he was going to do that." You were right you did know because your CE [using a combination of all your years of driving experience] told you.

    * By the way: [The HFC is the part of the human brain that most animals don't really have although some like higher primates have the rudiments (possible exceptions are whales, dolphins and ochres whose brains appear to be proportionately bigger and far more complex than ours)]. Other creatures that are surprising biologists are certain shell fish like squid cuttlefish and that flaming mantis shrimp that does Rubik Cube in milliseconds [its online somewhere!].