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Gene Heyman Provocation: What addiction and the principles of choice can teach us about changing habits

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Gene is primarily interested in addiction because it explores behaviors that at one time were effective, but now are destructive and not effective. An important distinction he led with is that there are intentions that are often in conflict with one another.  In the popcorn example, there might be the goal of having good popcorn but there might often be other goals (like keeping our hands busy) that do get accomplished even if we are eating bad popcorn.

What addiction teaches us is to look at intentionality and choice in different ways.  To understand how the frameworks that make sense that of self-destructive behaviors and how to shift them may apply to other behaviors.

The field of addiction of elicit drugs has shown that remission rates are actually quite high — most people who go through recovery, about 70-80% actually stop using drugs.  This is different from what people actually think that most people continue to use.  Most people who quit were not in treatment.  So what does quitting look like?

If people aren’t in treatment, Gene suspects something about the conditions that people were in must explain it — the economic, personal, social settings that influence all of our decisions.  And there are multiple attempts, for smoking say it takes on average about times.  Consequences of behaviors are vital and some studies suggest that prosocial incentives (getting rewards that allow one to be with others: dinner, sports, etc.) are more effective that 12-step based programs of recovery.  Programs that offer prosocial rewards have longer lasting effects for quitting — overtime they last and in fact increase over time.  Daniel: It makes me wonder what would be the analogy of pro-social behaviors when we are trying to incentivize others to change entrenched habits.

Gene believes that what is necessary is that we have a theory of choice that explains these effects.  How can voluntary behaviors lead to suboptimal outcomes?  He led us through an exercise that illustrated the difference of what we choose changes in how we frame the decision — from one at a time vs. a larger combination.  We can ask ourselves which would we rather eat at (Chinese vs Italian) one meal at a time versus what combination of places will lead to the best eating out experience.  In other words, we should do less than what we like the most to preserve overall value of experience.

Local vs Global Framing:  what Gene and other researchers have learned about addiction is that there are two ways to frame choices.  Do I use drugs or not to use is a local frame.  What is the best combination of drug days + non-drug days over a month, what we see is that people don’t take drugs at all.

Harvard Graduate School of Education