Do Addicts Have Free Will? What Research Says About The Nature Of Addiction
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About The Author

After earning a BA in anthropology at the University of California at Riverside, I moved to Boston to work at a large psychiatric hospital. The move eastward retraced in reverse my parents’ journey. They had moved to California from the East Coast, eventually settling in idyllic Mill Valley, a small town, nestled in the red woods, across the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco. Their parents had also moved westward as young adults, but from Eastern Europe.

My academic interests were initially in clinical psychology, but a lab course in experimental psychology at Harvard awakened an interest in basic research, and I switched from clinical to experimental, focusing on the determinants of choice in pigeons and rats and the behavioral effects of dopaminergic drugs. I earned a PhD in 1977 and then took a post-doctoral position in the Department of Pharmacological and Physiological Sciences at the University of Chicago. The psychopharmacological studies led to a research position at a pharmaceutical company. There, I ran an animal lab that tested drugs for the treatment of anxiety, depression, and age-related cognitive decline. In 1987, I returned to the Harvard Psychology Department to teach and do research. My goals included developing an animal model of drug use (see papers on preference for alcohol in rats) and to teach the experimental psychology laboratory course that so changed my life. I also taught courses on learning, decision making, and addiction. In 2007, I began teaching at Boston College. Here, I am teaching courses that reflect a natural science approach to psychology and advising students engaged in new research projects on cognition and choice.

What attracted me to research was the opportunity to scientifically explore important, long-standing psychological questions. My first experiments tested whether a widely observed behavioral pattern in studies of choice and decision making was at root an optimizing process, as predicted by economic theory. The results were orderly and surprising. A number of simple equations neatly summarized how pigeons, rats and people made choice, but they were not the equations that the economists believed in. Also surprising, the results from these early studies have proven relevant to the understanding of addiction and other forms of excessive behavior (as described in my more recent writings). So, a circle of coincidences and contingencies: my clinical interests led to research with pigeons and rats on choice, which led to psychopharmacology research, which led to the study of addiction, which is one of the most prevalent clinical syndromes of our time.

                       

Do Addicts Have Free Will? What Research Says About The Nature Of Addiction

“Going cold turkey” and “kicking the habit” are familiar idioms, but their origins are not. Some (and perhaps many) heroin addicts quit on their own and do so all at once, hence the goosebumps and spasms that often accompany withdrawal. In contrast, no one goes “cold turkey” from diabetes, heart disease, or schizophrenia. No one kicks the cancer habit. Nevertheless, according to the directors and spokespersons for the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), addiction is a chronic, relapsing disease,...

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