Monday, July 28, 2008

Question: why can't "Addictive"(tm) stuff addict me?

This has been a real confounder for me. You all know about how society regards certain products as dangerous, and gets them banned, in large part because they are addictive. You use them, you get hooked, you can't stop, they're destructive to your body, and then you have to go on public assistance. Woe is thee.

Yet I have never been able to get addicted (or near addicted -- I'm not going by the rigorous psychological definition here) to such products. For example, I have never once actually enjoyed the process of drinking an alcoholic beverage. That is, there has never been an instance where I drank beer/wine/liquor/whatever and actually got a positive response signal from my brain telling me to do it again because it's cool.

So I don't like any alcoholic beverage (the feeling of intoxication is another story) and can't even distinguish them much. They all taste like like sour/bitter stuff that stings/hurts as they go down. Yuck! I mean, I get that it's an "acquired" (i.e., imagined) taste, but I've been socially drinking for a while (i.e. in the presence of legal guardians and after turning 21), and ... nada. To drink anything alcoholic feels like a chore, not something I'd do for enjoyment. (In fairness, soda stings too as it goes down but is otherwise tasty.) When I pick a beer, I go for "least painful", not "tastes good".

I'm even at the point where I believe it's all faked. You're all familiar with the phenomenon of how double-blind tasting destroys the standard quality ranking for wines (link forthcoming). And then, for example, when I asked my female friend "K" what she likes about beer, I got answers like, "well, um, it tastes good when you're really thirsty and tired ..." (in contrast, of course, to all those drinks that taste BAD when you're desperate for one...).

My female (and Italian) friend "A", an avid wine lover, claims that my brain or genome must be so fundamentally different that I should submit myself for medical study so as to gain insight into curing alcoholics (a condition that completely perplexes me). Yet my female friend (wine lover but not Italian) "C" insists that not liking wine is common among her friends. Like with wanting to tank oil's price, I'd be very interested in contributing to the well-being of society by helping out with curing alcoholism ... if in fact I can. (I'm glad their names all begin with different letters!)

(Yes, I know there are some good points about how "alcoholism" is just a case of "I really like alcohol and will ditch my family to enjoy it" [link forthcoming] but the existence of a desire to drink so much is believable and worth understanding better.)

The same phenomenon repeats itself for smoking. While I have tried cigarettes before, and did smoke socially a couple times, and certainly beyond the threshold that makes people yearn for a cigarette, I feel no desire whatsoever to smoke. (Hi health insurer! I haven't ever smoked nearly enough to count as a "smoker".) Sure, the buzz is great, but I have never thought to myself "Hey, I want to do something enjoyable ... oh! Right! Lighting up!"

I can hear you guys yawning. Now, here's the kicker: I do get powerful, near-addiction urges to e.g. post on internet forums, eat ice cream/milkshakes (YUM!), play certain video games, and other things I can remember. But EVERY one of those things for which I *do* get urges ... is completely legal! (Go me!) That is, there has never been any kind of succesful mass movement to ban those things! Those closest we've see is "fat taxes" which are very unsuccessful.

For discussion: am I different enough to be useful to medicine? Is this condition a special case of my bad luck, as society will protect me from access to non-addictive stuff, and let me use addictive stuff to my own detriment? Is it just a matter of time before I start "getting a taste" for these things? Do people merely pretend to like certain beers and wines e.g. as a form of social signaling?


TechNick said...

I find it interesting I think I'm the same way, I hate alcohol as well. I think it's just a like a matter of taste some people like pickles others don't.

macsnafu said...

I'll do you one better--I have a 'friend' who does crack cocaine, and really does seem to be addicted to it, has to have it almost every day, and yet I've tried it (and more than once), and I could care less if I ever try it again. I don't smoke tobacco, and rarely drink, either.
I recall seeing an encyclopedia entry that described cocaine as "mildly addicting". But, of course, when cocaine first became popular, the drug warriors were saying it was the worst thing ever (and before that, they said the same thing about marijuana, and crack after that, and now meth).

My conclusion is that psychological addiction is more harmful than physiological addiction, and that people can become psychologically addicted to practically anything, legal or not. I'm not sure that psychological addiction is "all in the mind", but suspect that it is deliberately escapist in nature, and thus very dependent upon the individual psyche, and what they may want to escape from.

Vladimir M. said...

(Continuing our discussion from

This is a very interesting post, thanks for the link. My experiences have been somewhat similar. For several years, I smoked regularly and drank much more than the commonly cited safe limits -- both with great enjoyment. Yet, I never felt anything addictive about it. I never felt any abstinence crises when I'd stop doing either for several days or weeks, and I always perceived both vices simply as pleasures that come at a cost, like eating dessert. At the end, I cut back on drinking because I was getting too old to constantly party and waste time in bars, and I quit smoking when I was no longer willing to pay the cost in low status signals and weak lungs that make it difficult to stay in shape (I valued the monetary and life expectancy costs less in comparison).

I know lots of people who can tell similar stories, some involving other "addictive" substances, which has led me to the conclusion that the standard story about addiction is mostly a myth.

The only truly bad cases of self-destruction by substance abuse I know of all involved individuals who reached the point where their lives seemed tedious and painful to the point of worthlessness, so they basically chose this form of self-destruction as a more hedonistic alternative to suicide. The ugly truth, which few people are willing to admit explicitly, is that unless one believes in afterlife, such a choice may well be rational for some people.

That said, I also find the akrasic lure of wasting time on the internet far greater than that of supposedly addictive substances, especially when I'm in the middle of some work I find tedious. I never felt the urge for a drink or smoke anywhere as strong as my everyday temptation to procrastinate by checking for new posts and replies to my comments on various blogs and forums. Still, I must admit that I draw immense pleasure from these activities, and in the final count, I'd say it's worth the cost in lost productivity and greater stress when deadlines approach.

Vladimir M. said...

Also, regarding your comments about alcoholic drinks in this post and the other one tagged "alcohol," as an experienced boozer, I'd say you're going too far with your skepticism.

Yes, very expensive wines and liquors are mostly just about status signaling, i.e. showing off. Besides blind tests, this is also visible from the fact that even the best beers are never as extravagantly expensive as luxury brand wines and liquors -- for the simple fact that drinking beer is by itself not seen as high-status enough to serve as conspicuous consumption. [*] However, up to a certain price level, there is a noticeable difference between crappy and expensive booze, both in taste and in the severity of hangovers. A few glasses of truly bad wine or beer can easily make you hate being alive next morning! All in all, a $15 bottle of wine is likely to be noticeably better than the $5 bottle, and a $50 bottle better yet -- while a $500 bottle may well fail a blind test against the $50 one. (Though I wouldn't be surprised if some people who actually drink $500 wines on a daily basis could tell the difference reliably!)

Moreover, booze is mostly an acquired taste, though not completely, especially when it comes to wine. When I was a little boy, I liked when my grandfather would let me dip my finger into his wine glass and lick it. But yes, pretty much everyone hates the taste of beer initially, and first pretends to like it for a while to show off and get trashed. The same is even more true for hard liquor. However, once you do acquire the taste, it tastes mighty good, especially when drunk with a meal or in accordance with the weather (e.g. cold beer on a hot summer day, or mulled wine in winter). If I had to stop drinking completely for health reasons, I would probably drink at least some non-alcoholic beer. (Whose very existence disproves your thesis in its most sweeping form.)


[*] - This is in fact changing to some extent with the modern "microbrew" snobbery. But in the general society, beer is still seen as a low status drink to the point where it would seem ridiculous to put fancy labels and extravagant price tags on it.

Silas Barta said...

Thanks for the comments, Vladimir!

Regarding the acquired taste for alcohol, my issue is that the same process people have to go through to like alcoholic drinks, could just as well make them "like" pretty much anything. In other words, it's harnessing an aspect of our psychology that allows our tastes to change. So it's not particularly significant to me that alcohol is one of the trillion things people can be primed to enjoy -- I want to know what's enjoyable, *irrespective* of specific priming.

I expand on this idea in a LW thread.

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