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The White Noise

The White Noise

A hit of addiction and mental illness, chased by chemistry and culture.

Case study: why economics and addiction do not mix

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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.

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

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