one hand passing a syringe to another hand to further their drug addiction

Drug Addiction & Immediate Gratification

Last Updated: Tue, January 23, 2024

Many people wonder why addicts cannot simply “stop”. When an alcoholic wakes up to a crippling hangover, or a person’s drug addiction lands them in the hospital, many friends and family take the situation as an opportunity to host an intervention… and then get upset when the addict returns to substance abuse.

Addicts know where the habit leads and yet cannot say “I’ve had enough” or even walk away from a tempting situation they know will end badly. But the reason is not (or seldom) out of disrespect to their peers, the reason is a mental imbalance.

Dual-Process Brains

There are two parts of our brain that – in most people – work harmoniously for our overall happiness: the conscious and the unconscious; the deliberate and automatic; the self-controlled and the impulsive. To function, you need both. For instance, driving to the grocery store (rather than stopping for fast food) is a self-controlled action that’s more cost-effective, but the impulsive nature of your brain is what helps you avoid a car accident when someone swerves into your lane. This also identifies another point, the impulsive part of your brain is relatively effortless whereas the controlled part requires some analysis and time.

These two parts of your brain should work together to help you assess short- and long-term goals, but for an addict, one part of their brain is in the driver’s seat and overwhelming the other. This is why terrible hangovers and hospital stays are not always enough to make an addict simply “quit”. When the drug provides such an immediate gain, the long term effects are not processed. If you think about it, this is also why a person who doesn’t struggle with an addiction can have one or two beers and be set, but an addict cannot. A person who doesn’t suffer addiction, recognizes how many beers they can have before they need to consider the side effects, before they need a glass of water, or before they need to stop. That however is a long-term thought process. An addict is not thinking about drinks being enough or what effect it’ll have on them tomorrow. An addict is thinking about the glass in their hand and if it needs to be refilled is as far into the future as they can see.

Moreover, your impulsiveness becomes compulsive, when you start getting triggered by various situations. Obviously, an addict would struggle to drink heavily if there was no liquor around, say at the zoo or Disneyland, but what causes the addict to seek out their drugs is the fact that they start experiencing a compulsion. Various triggers (a conversation topic, event, TV show, etc.) remind addicts about the drug and causes them to pursue it. Addicts know this all too well during recovery and just because they’re not using the drug, doesn’t mean it doesn’t have control.

In order to recover and stay sober, you need to manually restore a balance between your two brains or as Daniel Kahneman calls it, the dual processes. You need to dial back impulsiveness and build up self-control.

Daniel Kahneman Can Help You Stay Sober

Daniel Kahneman is a Nobel prize winner in economic science (2002), and he wrote extensively about the two halves of our brains (along with his partner, Amos Tversky). For reference into how influential the two’s research was, New York Times columnist David Brooks considered them the “Lewis and Clark of the mind” (New York Times, 2011).

Among Kahneman’s research, he conducted numerous studies to measure a person’s happiness and in doing so, he realized there was a stark difference in “experienced” well-being and “remembered” well-being. Ultimately, he would label this the peak-end rule. The idea is that people remember an experience based on the peak (most intense) part of the experience and the end rather than a sum or average of all the moments.

The way he measured this was by subjecting two groups to painful colonoscopies (yes, really). Both endured the same amount of pain, but the second group was subjected to additional discomfort at the end of the exam (not “painful,” but uncomfortable – they left the scope in for 3 more minutes). Surprisingly, Kahneman found that those in the second group remembered the experience more fondly than those in the first group. This, he concluded, was because Group A’s experience ended at the peak of pain whereas Group B’s “pain” was offset by an uncomfortable, but not painful ending.

This could explain why some addicts return to their drug of choice and others start their journey to recovery after a particularly bad trip. Those who wake up in the hospital may not connect the two situations together and therefore remember the event at its peak and how it ended for them. If the peak was good and the ending was good (before a blackout), then of course an addict will return to a drug despite the hospital setting. The brain recorded the event and remembers it fondly. Meanwhile, those that retained enough of themselves during their most recent drug-use or drinking binge to suffer the consequences are able to see the problem because they remember the experience at its worst when it ended.

This idea of the peak-end rule also explains why some people think (and others need) addicts to hit “rock bottom” before they get help. If the last remembered experience is bad enough, then these people may believe that’ll be enough to set them down a new path.

Staying Clean And Sober

If you reflect on the last time you did drugs and remember how awful you felt, then that’s good. It will help you hold onto that sensation and increase your likelihood of abstaining. If however, you reflect on the last time you did drugs and think of it fondly, then remember that you’re not piecing the whole story together. Knowing how your memory works, try to see the big picture and think of the long term to ward off the impulse to drink.

No doubt, this is a big reason why addicts get addicted early and cannot escape. So many drugs will make you experience the peak… and blackout before things get bad. As a result, the peak-end rule plays into your impulses. The best thing you can do going forward is take this knowledge with you. Remember what your brain is doing, which process is functioning, and try to make that deter you from making decisions you’ll regret.

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