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Case study: why economics and addiction do not mix

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Let me start by saying that I’m admittedly an economics fan. So much so that I nearly threw away my science and writing training and ran off into the sunset for an economics PhD. It’s the cleanness of it, the logic. The economics of everyday life seems shiny, interesting and alluring, and I delight in reads like Freakonomics. It’s comforting to know that we as a people make sense, regardless of how complicated we like to consider ourselves. However, clean logic and addiction don’t always coalesce.

A recent headline on the Freakonomics blog proclaimed, “Cocaine Addicts Prefer Present Cash Over Future Coke” .. Well, yes. I would imagine addicts would rather have drugs now. If they’re given cash now, they can buy drugs now and don’t have to wait until later.

This struck me:

“Until now, researchers believed that cocaine addicts valued the drug above any other commodity, no matter what the situation. Bickel’s findings however show that cocaine addicts place extra value on the drug only when it is immediately available, and future values of cocaine are heavily discounted.”

So a portion of this study gave addicts an option of cocaine later versus money now. Addicts do value the drug, in whatever way they can obtain it in their current situation. Our baser brains are creatures of the “now”: the amygdala in an addict’s brain screams for her drug, and she’ll get her fix as quickly as she can. If a woman is starving, she’ll obtain food. Addicts will too, but here their ‘food’ is a drug, a neurochemical deficit and need driven by the reptilian old brain.

When deprived of their addictive substance, addicts’ brains go into survival instinct mode with neurons ablaze and screaming “GET DRUGS NOW!” And yet we’re trying to put logic behind the value addicts place on drugs?

Focusing on “how addicts make decisions” is hammering the proverbial nail in sideways. Study how addicts’ brains work, thereby putting us on the path to stop this neurochemical nightmare, if you want to really get to the crux of it. If the study and post focused on the value placed on drugs by users, not addicts, it might make more sense.

And so, I kindly ask economics to stop trying to figure out what sort of logic addicts use. It acts as though thoughtful, tailored decision-making processes are involved, it insults any person struggling with addiction, and above all, it sends us two steps back in alluding that addiction is a logical disorder.

Economics, I do love you, but kindly get off addiction’s lawn.

Cassie Rodenberg About the Author: I write on culture, poverty, addiction, and mental illness: I explore things we like to ignore. I also teach public school in New York City's South Bronx. Follow on Twitter @cassierodenberg.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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  1. 1. John_Donnelly 2:29 pm 08/25/2011

    Addicted folks are celebrating and having a good time in their mind. Someday they will get serious and quit partying, hence they place very little value on future drugs because they won’t have any use for them.

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  2. 2. charl(ie|s) 4:13 pm 08/25/2011

    The Freakonomics books are not what I would call…scientific. They bring up interesting ideas but in my opinion are misleading in the substantiation of their conclusions. It seems to be more musings than discoveries.

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  3. 3. Postman1 5:15 pm 08/25/2011

    John_Donnelly- They usually “get serious and quit partying” only because they die.

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  4. 4. Postman1 5:20 pm 08/25/2011

    When I saw the title of this article, I assumed it was about the huge number of people addicted to government handouts, and how they destroy the economies of western nations. It just sort of made sense. Of course, Cassie Rodenberg makes good sense in the article anyway.

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  5. 5. Bops 5:36 pm 08/25/2011

    Very few people seem to make it out of addiction for life.
    I don’t understand how anyone would enjoy living in a confused brain.

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  6. 6. erichiii 11:24 am 08/30/2011

    It is highly significant, in understanding the behavioral symptoms and neural drivers of addiction to have a study that highlights the addict’s impaired brains need and demand to have something now — even their drug of choice.

    So the impairment in the brain may not just be hyper-seeking of the drug, which we as a society also hyper-focus on, like the addict, but something more generalizable having to do with a broken dopamine system and hyper-hyperbolic discounting of dopamine triggering activities..

    If it was circus clowns who discovered this, who cares? We desperately need more and better science about addictions.

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