Why We Need to Stop Blaming a Lack of Willpower for Addiction

Addicts often blame themselves for being addicted or for relapsing into addictive behavior. Frequently, members of the public, friends and family can be even worse finger-pointers, citing a lack of willpower for a sustained addiction or a relapse.

These approaches, however, do not help anyone. They hinder public understanding of addiction, add to stigmatization and make it harder for an addict to live a normal life in recovery. Such views also make addicts feel ashamed – which is a difficult emotion to deal with and could trap an addict in the cycle of low self-esteem and addiction. Stimgatization just makes seeking help and recovery harder.

Anyone Can Crack

There are a series of scientific studies that show that each individual has a fixed amount of willpower. Given the right amount of pressure, anyone will crack and look for comfort.

We all have varying stress, tolerance and resilience levels. These can even vary from day to day depending how much we’ve had to deal with. Perhaps our most easily-depleted inner strength is willpower. But even if we do have weak willpower, it’s still not our fault. It’s caused by a mix of physiology, psychology and behavioral biology, nature, nurture and even chance, but rarely by pure choice.

Studies by the American psychologist Roy Baumeister showed the strange discrepancies between different individuals’ attitudes toward unsolvable tasks. For example, those told to solve deliberately tricky puzzles were informed to suppress their own stress levels while doing so by eating cookies. The result: the more stress suppressed, the more cookies eaten.1

Talbott Recovery Objectives

Work for public recognition of alcoholism and chemical dependency as diseases
Advance the knowledge of the treatment of addiction and co-occurring psychiatric disorders
Promote education in the medical community about the most effective approaches

Self-Control and Success

The most long-standing set of willpower tests and follow-ups was begun by Walter Mischel at Stanford University. The inaugural “Marshmallow Experiment” (1973) was started by a researcher leading children into a room individually. In the room, there was a chair and table, with a single marshmallow on a plate.

Researchers would tell the child that he was popping out of the room and that if the child had managed to not to eat the treat while he was gone, then he’d be rewarded by a second marshmallow as a prize. But if the child had eaten the sweet before the researcher returned, there would be no second marshmallow.

The researcher would leave the room for 15 minutes. Sometimes, the moment he was gone, the child ate the marshmallow. Others wiggled with frustration or sat on their hands to restrain themselves. Some ate the sweet halfway through the waiting period, and a few kids successfully awaited the prize.

The research teams followed up each child’s progress – for more than 40 years. The children who were able to delay gratification earlier to receive a second marshmallow ended up having higher school grades, lower levels of substance abuse, lower likelihood of obesity, better responses to stress, better social skills and generally improved life measures.

These experiments show just how vital it is to be resilient, delay gratification and make wise choices in life. But it’s not that easy for many people.

The Addictive Personality

Unfortunately, an addictive personality type can give an individual this susceptibility long before he or she ever takes substances. A review by Schuckit (2009)2 surmised a variety of heritable genes could contribute to an addictive personality.

Brain genetic coding can also have a strong impact on natural behavioral instincts. At the same time, a low number of D2 receptors has been shown to cause a propensity to not learn from negative feedback and to repeat mistakes (Klein et al. 2007). It is also believed (Dalley et al. 2007)3 that some of these propensities may have occurred in utero or shortly after.

Accountability and Healing

OK, so what if you were a marshmallow-grabber? You can still turn it around. Researchers at the University of Rochester did an experiment that allowed children to build their strength and resilience.

Researchers split the children into two groups. Both were offered the delayed marshmallow, but the first group was exposed to many unreliable incidences. For example, children in group one were given a small box of crayons and promised a bigger one later, but never got them. In group two, the children were given a small pack of stickers and promised a second pack, which they received.

Clearly the children who were tricked with the crayons had less trust and decided to eat the marshmallow quickly. But the kids in the second group had good reason to trust, and they did. They were learning many things that we learn in recovery – don’t expect too much, pause, be grateful for the small things. Instead of more stress and blame, addicts need encouragement and warmth in their recovery efforts.

1 Roy E Baumeister, Ellen Bratslavsky, Mark Muraven, and Dianne M. Tice (1998). Ego Depletion: Is the Active Self a Limited Resource? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 1998, Vol. 74, No. 5, 1252-1265.
2 Schuckit, M.A. (2009). An overview of genetic influences in alcoholism. Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment, 36, S5– S14.
3 Dalley, J.W., Fryer, T.D., Brichard, L., et al. (2007). Nucleus accumbens D2/ 3 receptors predict trait impulsivity and cocaine reinforcement. Science, 315, 267‒70.
4 Klein, T.A., Neumann, J., Reuter, M., Hennig, J., von Cramon, D.Y., and Ullsperger, M. (2007). addict ion 324 324

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