Addiction and Willpower


Peg O’Connor takes a look at our beliefs about addiction and willpower.

I believe there is an implicit formula undergirding this conception of willpower that “inability to resist temptation = addiction.” All parts of the formula—inability, resistance, temptation, and addiction—are worrisome.

Regarding inability: It would seem to follow that the further a person moves down the substance use disorder continuum (mild to severe), the less one is able to exert her self-control to resist the temptation of her drug of choice. A person either loses the ability she once had or develops the inability as she moves along the continuum. But what space is there to explore the conditions under which one loses the ability? This sort of question falls off the table and instead the focus remains on the individual and her failure to exert self-control in the right direction to the right degree.

. . .

Regarding addiction: The formula tends to reduce a very complex set of phenomena to one characteristic, namely the failure of an individual to exert the right amount of self-control. Addictions progress and manifest in many different ways. At the end of the day, I am not convinced that all addictions share one thing in common. More on this in an upcoming post.

It’s worth pointing out that there is considerable evidence that “temptation” in the brains of addicts is turned up to 11 out of 10, while there is also evidence that the regions responsible to saying “no” to drugs are impaired. And, as she points out:

Saying no to things is exhausting, as Baumeister and Tierney argue. We live in a world of unending temptations, and at times it seems as if we are constantly caught in a deluge of wants and desires. Having said no to 99 things makes it more likely that we cannot when the hundredth temptation crosses our path.