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Thinking about AddictionReview - Thinking about Addiction
Hyperbolic Discounting and Responsible Agency
by Craig Hanson
Rodopi, 2009
Review by Jason Clark
Aug 24th 2010 (Volume 14, Issue 34)

Hanson has written a fine book that will be of interest to anyone interested in the philosophy of addiction, or the intersection between addiction and behavioral economics.  To a lesser extent, the book will also appeal to those interested in addiction and its treatment more broadly.  The final chapter by George Ainslie provides an excellent critical discussion and expansion of Hanson's theses.   Hanson does a good job of explaining any technical terms in a manner that should be accessible to most readers.

Hanson's theory is rooted in the concept of 'hyperbolic discounting' from economics.  Hyperbolic discounting refers to the fact that, in their calculations prior to a moment of decision, agents value larger, long-term rewards over smaller, short-term rewards.  However, as the moment of choice approaches, an agent's value system becomes warped in such a way that smaller, short-term rewards become preferable to larger, long-term rewards.  Hanson recommends Ainslie's strategy of "bundling" as a means of overcoming our innate and pervasive tendency to hyperbolically discount.  Bundling involves viewing one's present choice as precedent-setting or representative of all similar decisions in the future.  This means conceiving of the present decision as being simultaneously a decision concerning all future choices of this sort.  By tying or bundling immediate choices to all such future choices, longer-term preferences regain their dominance, and hyperbolic discounting is avoided. 

Also essential to Hanson's case is a "multiple selves" view, according to which we are not unitary selves, but rather a collection of co-existing selves with different values that successively control behavior.  Decision-making involves "intrapersonal warfare" between these selves.  Where addiction is concerned, the key selves involved are the addict self (AS) and what he calls the "reasonable self" (RS).  According to Hanson, the addict's struggle is at bottom a battle against self deception.  The key form of self deception for Hanson is rooted in the very fact that people tend to believe and desire that they are unitary (rather than multiple) selves, and desire such unity.  This desire for a unitary self leads RS to attempt to own, accommodate, or justify the actions of AS in terms of its own preferences, resulting in false rationalizations of the actions of AS. 

Such rationalizations are false because RS and AS are in fact two different selves.  The values of AS that lead to the addictive behavior are in fact not part of the values of RS, and RS is deceiving itself that they are, in order to maintain unity of self.  The resulting situation bears some strong resemblances to the dynamics abusive relationships wherein the partner rationalizes or "enables" the behavior of the abusive partner.  The crucial factor in overcoming addiction is the recognition by RS that it is a distinct self from AS, that RS has been deceived both by AS and by its own attempts to integrate AS's actions into its own value system. 

This realization amounts to a "liberation" or "revelation" that immediately results in the virtual impossibility of continuing one's addictive behavior.  Bundling behavior then emerges as a natural consequence of this revelation, rather than something that must be merely willed into existence.  Addictive behavior is impossible because the agent would have to knowingly and explicitly deceive itself, resulting in a psychological state that is highly unstable, if not impossible.  The only alternative is for RS to bundle because "doing so mirror those things, which it has come to value, [and] among the things it has come to value is valuating only on the basis of the preferences it has" (66).

Hanson's theory faces a number of problems, many of which are finely discussed by Ainslie.  One problem that is not adequately addressed in the book is the fact that bundling itself seems to be a form of self-deception.  Bundling requires the agent to believe that their present choices will be repeated at all similar future choice-points, e.g.,  "To choose to smoke now is to choose to smoke on all representative future occasions" (24).  In reality, however, it is clear that future cases may very well vary from their present choice.  Hanson addresses this at one point, suggesting that this belief in the "false necessity" of bundling rules is motivated or supplemented by the "agent's new knowledge of what it prefers" and the natural emergence of bundling behavior following revelation, but this does not adequately address the problem.

A second problem is a lack of attention to what Hanson calls the "visceral" elements of addiction: cravings, emotions, etc.  Hanson does claim that in order to account for the difference between ordinary hyperbolic discounting and addiction we must add in a visceral element, but this component of his theory gets short shrift.  Hanson equates visceral factors with neurobiological changes resulting from chronic addictive behavior.  His discussion mostly centers around withdrawal, and he often speaks as if visceral features of addiction are no longer a factor after withdrawal and habituation have passed.  But there is some reason to believe that addiction involves long term neural changes that affect core psychological mechanisms of decision making (rather than "merely visceral" processes) for a very long time, if not permanently. 

Furthermore, addiction and recovery seem to involve emotional and social factors as central features, and not merely as visceral supplements to cognitive processes.  His nearly purely cognitive account of addiction and recovery largely neglects these factors (though see e.g., p. 65).  Relatedly, it seems highly improbable that the mostly cognitive, highly metaphysical revelation that is supposed to end addictive behavior would be sufficient to accomplish this task.

Hanson's account would also benefit from greater attention to the empirical literature on addiction and treatment.  As noted above, recent empirical research has yielded many insights into the mechanisms of addiction that are relevant to Hanson's argument.  Hanson also fails to adequately connect his theory to the actual treatment literature, and we are left wondering whether there is any reason to believe that the process by which addicts actually recover resembles his account, and whether and how his account might be implemented in actual treatment.  Perhaps it is too much to demand of a short book that it also address these points, but the validity of Hanson's account ultimately depends in part on such factors.


© 2010 Jason Clark


Jason Clark studied philosophy and neuroscience at Syracuse University, where he received a PhD in philosophy in 2009.  His main interests are in the evolution of human emotions, and emotion theory more generally.  From 2009-2012, he will be a post-doc in the animal emotionale project at the University of Osnabrueck in Germany.




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