The Addictive Personality
A treatise on the balance between indulgence and discipline
This essay was featured in the STSC Omnibus, a weekly collaboration between STSC writers. You can read the full volume below.
If you are like me, you have what is called an addictive personality. Put a few beers in me and I’ll want to keep drinking. If chips are easily accessible to munch on, I’ll kill a family size bag in 15 minutes. If I start scrolling Twitter, I struggle to stop scrolling for another hour.
To be precise, there are two pieces to an addictive personality:
When you start something pleasurable, you have a hard time stopping
When you are around something pleasurable, you have a hard time saying no
With either of these tendencies and especially with both, you have The Addictive Personality. Though I’d argue we all have this to a certain degree; we are wired to want what’s pleasurable and struggle to override that desire. The key differentiator is that different activities bring pleasure to different people. To some it’s booze and for others it’s work or food.
There are three ways to go through life with an addictive personality:
Indulge yourself like the little Epicurean you are
Cultivate an environment that limits your ability to indulge in pleasure
Eliminate pleasurable triggers by changing what is important to you
Each one of these is the right choice given the right situation. Surprise, surprise! I’m yet again arguing that context matters.
When to Indulge
Boring people will argue that pleasure is wrong and indulgence is a sin. Nonsense, there are times when it is good for the soul to let your receptors enjoy what makes them fire. Sometimes I hear the nonsensical argument that you should retrain your dopamine receptors to only feel pleasure from accomplishment. That is slavery to ambition - a topic for another conversation.
Pleasures like Grannie’s cake, laughter with friends, or the occasional weekend bender aren’t always bad. What matters is the degree an indulgence harms you and the frequency you imbibe. Up to a certain threshold, the consumption of something “harmful” is beneficial. And likewise something “beneficial” becomes harmful after an inflection point. A certain dose of morphine will greatly benefit someone in chronic pain but an increased dose will kill them. The benefit or harm is entirely dependent on the level of exposure.
Let’s think about something a little closer to home, particularly in America: alcohol. Consider an extroverted 25 year old who just moved to a new city in the United States. His coworkers invite him out for the first time to attend their weekly trip to the local watering hole for happy hour. One drink might actually be a good way to loosen up and help connect with new people. After a certain threshold, things go downhill, and after another threshold, they go downhill rapidly.
In economics, this is called Diminishing Returns, yet the concept equally applies to the impact of pleasurable activities. Since alcohol starts out beneficial for our extravert, we can say his personal context with alcohol consumption is positive.
On the other hand, the 75 year old with liver cirrhosis that recovered from alcohol addiction by converting to Islam won’t benefit from a single drink. And his life will rapidly go downhill if he consumes more than that. We can confidently say that our Islamic reborn friend has a negative personal context with alcohol consumption.
Diminishing returns are influenced by your personal context, but they are also influenced by their fractal nature. As you increase the scale, the trend repeats itself. Whether you zoom in to the fine details, or zoom out to the big picture, you’ll see a similar structure.
Continuing with the alcohol example, you can look at the fine time horizon of the number of drinks you consume in one night and see diminishing returns. Zoom out to the number of nights you spend drinking in a month and you see the same diminishing returns trend. Zoom out even further to the amount of alcohol consumed over a lifetime and again we see the law of diminishing returns.
Your personal rate of diminishing returns and your starting point on the impact totem pole strongly depend on your position in this fractal structure.
This fractal discussion is a technical way of saying that the impact of a pleasurable activity depends on your recent activities and the frequency you indulge on different time horizons. If you’ve already had 7 drinks in the past hour, the next one probably won’t benefit you. If you’ve drank the past three nights in a row, you probably won’t see much benefit doing it a fourth time. If you spent your early twenties partying, boozing it through your thirties and forties is not doing your liver, kidneys, or reputation any favors.
On the other hand, if you haven’t gone out to a bar in six months, it may be beneficial to go out - given it jives with your personal context of course. At the very least, it can reinforce why you don’t do it frequently and give you a greater appreciation for your typical habits.
There are a few key points to pull out of this discussion about diminishing returns and fractals:
Every pleasure has a diminishing return as you increase exposure
Your personal rate of diminishing returns (downward curve) depends on your personal context
Each person’s starting point on the impact totem pole (y-intercept) is dependent on their personal context
Your position in an activity’s pleasure fractal influences the impact of indulgence
Internalizing and applying these concepts will help you understand when an indulgence is helping or harming you. They also serve as a reminder to not judge when someone engages in a pleasurable activity that may be harmful to you. It might be beneficial to them, they have a different personal context and fractal position after all.
It goes without saying, but it is not wise to indulge if the impact is negative. Environment engineering can help when you feel tempted to indulge in spite of a harmful impact.
In Why are we so Nostalgic, we explored the lifecycle of an emotion:
There are four components in the lifecycle of an emotion:
The emotion itself
The beholder’s beliefs about the trigger, emotion, and their context
The resultant behavior
The trigger releases an emotion, and your beliefs guide your reaction. If your beliefs are constructive, you tend to have a constructive response. If they are destructive, they tend to play out poorly.
This path goes on ad infinitum with every trigger, desire, and emotion you face, forking between constructive and destructive at each emotion.
This discussion could fork in infinite directions so let’s center ourselves around the two flavors of an addictive personality - how this mechanism applies to the path of engaging and continuing an indulgence. In this discussion, let’s assume indulgence occupies that negative personal context.
Centered on the decision to begin indulging and the subsequent decision to continue, we see the same path repeat itself once to form a nice model for the addictive tendency towards destructive indulgences.
Like the previous model, something triggers your desire to feel pleasure, and depending on your beliefs, you engage in different types of behavior. A stacking occurs when the same behavior becomes the trigger for the next feeling: pleasure. Again, your beliefs impact the behavior that results from your pleasurable feeling.
Environment engineering is your way to bend this mechanism in your favor without breaking it. This is where you place barriers at different places in the mechanism, leading you towards the path of least resistance (i.e. the constructive path). There are three ways to engineer your environment:
Make your indulgence invisible
Make your indulgence harder to start
Make your indulgence harder to continue
Invisibility limits your exposure to triggers that make you crave the feeling of pleasure. Out of sight, out of mind; wax in your ears; or attention diet. Whatever you want to call it. This can be extremely difficult since pleasurable triggers are not always apparent. Further, we don’t always have control over what we see, yet in an increasingly digital environment, we do have some semblance of control.
Making it harder to start puts a barrier between your desire for pleasure and your destructive response. Even if you crave pleasure, this technique makes it sufficiently difficult to start indulging in something harmful.
Making it harder to continue adds a barrier between your feeling of pleasure and your ability to continue that response. The barrier should be just enough to make you take that path of least resistance - the constructive response.
Okay so theory is great and all, but what does this look like pragmatically?
Let’s say you struggle with compulsively snacking on processed foods. For your first barrier, you can keep them out of sight. Instead of leaving snacks out in the open, you can keep them hidden in the pantry so they don’t trigger your desire for them.
If something outside your sphere of influence triggers your desire for a snack, like an advertisement on TV, you have another line of defense. You can prevent yourself from starting by simply not keeping these snacks in your home. Build this barrier and you now need to go out of your way to indulge in such a snack. This could be enough of a barrier to make you choose a more constructive response - like reading.
Perhaps you have no moral objection to starting and indulgence, but you face difficulties trying to stop. You can purchase individual portions of chips instead of family size bags. A small barrier is created once you finish your personal size bag because it forces you to grab another bag. This is a small barrier, since it’s not difficult to get up and grab another bag of chips or even ration yourself two bags of chips for one sitting. Maybe you need a taller wall.
During your weekly grocery trip, you could limit the amount you purchase for the week, and once you run out, you force yourself to make a separate trip to the store if you want to indulge further. This little trick will force you to either ration your snacks out across the week or live with the consequences of no snacks in the near future. For most, these two choices are easier than committing to a separate journey to the grocer.
The degree you engineer your environment should depend on the degree your indulgences are a problem for you. Of course that requires you to have the self-awareness to know what your problems are - another rabbit hole we won’t explore today.
Sometimes you cannot engineer your environment to realistically solve your problem. Think about the ubiquity of alcohol in American culture: advertisements everywhere, bars on every corner, coworkers attending weekly happy hours, etc. If your ability to say no or ability to stop is not strong enough in the face of these pressures, there may be no barriers you can build that will sufficiently deter you from destructive indulgence.
Dethroning the Pleasure Pedestal
In situations where pleasurable-yet-destructive behavior continues despite your efforts to engineer your environment, it is time to look within. This section will be an amateur onlooker’s naïve effort to describe behavioral modification, so please bear with me and like any of my other writing, don’t take it too seriously. If you do have a legitimate problem with addiction, please consult an expert.
In my experience, the most effective route to dethroning the pleasures that live on a pedestal is by placing another source of pleasure higher than your current one. This completely dismantles our previous system because it means that certain triggers are no longer triggers. Confused? Me too.
Let’s say trigger X leads you to feeling Y. If you reprogram your sources of pleasure, the exact same trigger X may bypass feeling Y and lead to feeling Z instead. Applying that to the real world, if the sight of a cigarette makes you crave the feeling of pleasure from nicotine, you could reprogram yourself such that the same sight of a cigarette makes you desire the satisfying crunch of a carrot.
Alright Pavlov, so how do you get to the point where the spark of a cigarette leads to the desire for a crisp carrot? It’s all about leaning into your curiosities and teleological nature.
León Castillo’s Explore, Exploit heuristic is the embodiment of leaning into curiosity and teleology. In the first phase, you spend your time exploring what interests you. You keep trying new things and saying no until you find something worth saying yes to. When you stumble across your first yes, you enter the exploit phase. This is where you truly lean into it, dig deeper, and try to accomplish something from it.
Most people run into trouble when they reside somewhere in the middle of yes and no for everything they do. León’s heuristic is another phenomenon that employs Nassim Taleb’s Barbell strategy: live on the poles and avoid the middle, lest you be lost. Carelessly explore uninhibited or lean heavily into one thing, preferably in that order.
In the real world, the explore phase involves travel to different places or exploring different topics: maybe a round of tennis, a documentary on modern architecture, a class on mixology, or a visit to the aquarium.
Perhaps none of the previous activities were intriguing until you visited the aquarium. Maybe you felt compelled to chat up the aquarium workers and a shred of information about one of the fish fascinated you. It struck a nerve in you that propelled you to learn more. You’ve now hit the exploit phase. You lean into it by doing research on your own. The fish interest you so much that you set a goal to invest in a tank and house your own fish. So you set out and do it.
Through passion-driven experimentation, you learn that your fish loves the texture of carrots - he can’t get enough of it - and in that moment, you found something worth more to you than your desire for cigarettes. You have a newfound appreciation for the texture of carrots and make it a habit to munch a few crunches before feeding one to your fish friends every morning. Without your awareness, this habit slowly phases out your morning cigarette. One day, you come to this realization. You look at your pack of cigarettes and find that you’d much rather munch some carrots with your fish friends than suck a cig. And so, the sight of a cigarette leads to the desire for a carrot more than the rush of nicotine.
It sounds utterly ridiculous, but these stories frequently happen. Someone is stuck in a rut of addictive habits, they discover something fascinating through exploration, they become so enamored with it that their destructive habits get in the way of their newfound goals, and so the destructive tendencies fall off their pedestal.
For those stuck in a rut, my humble recommendation is to follow León’s advice: explore-explore-explore, until you find something worth exploiting. Dive into the rabbit hole of your interests and let your natural tendency to set goals move you. You’ll slowly watch your destructive interests fade away as they impede your progress on your goals.
Follow a genuine curiosity, set a goal, and place the pursuit and fulfillment of that goal at the center of your life. Those destructive yet pleasurable activities quickly become a distraction to what is important to you.
Addictive tendencies are hard-coded into us because what is pleasurable to us is good for us - up to a certain degree of exposure. As we explored, there are a few factors that impact whether a pleasurable activity is beneficial:
Your personal context (values, age, mood, personality, etc.)
Your position in the fractal structure (i.e. how often do you indulge on different time scales, recent history)
Once you cross that threshold where indulgence becomes harmful, but not detrimentally so, environment engineering can deter you from sliding too far down the slippery slope of hedonism. Environment engineering creates just a large enough barrier between yourself and your destructive habits that you take the path of least resistance - a more constructive behavior.
For the most harmful addictive tendencies, you can dethrone the pedestal by leveraging León Castillo’s Explore Exploit heuristic. Find something that excites you and let your curiosity destabilize its position on the pedestal.
Indulgence can be beneficial and add to your life in some situations, destroy it in others, or live anywhere in between. Jordan Peterson has a heuristic for living a balanced life: plant one foot in chaos and the other in order. Mine is similar: one foot in indulgence and the other in discipline is the way.
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