For years, many scholars and clinicians have considered addictive behavior to be a brain disease that eliminates free will. If addiction is a disease, then presumably its sufferers have no more control over its course than people with cancer or the flu. This message of no free will is echoed by Alcoholics Anonymous: the first step in AA is admitting you are powerless over your addictive behavior. However, the removal of free will is not scientifically proven. Many scientists now believe addictive behavior, while unfortunate and tragic, is controllable and caused by free decision-making.
If this latter view is correct and addicts do have control, they may suffer more for mistakenly believing they lack control. Specifically, telling people they cannot control addictive behaviors may discourage them from trying to control addictive behaviors, thereby needlessly prolonging addiction. We conducted several studies that collectively suggest people have internalized the message that addiction removes free will, people use this belief to excuse and justify bad behaviors, people who are given reasons to disbelieve in free will are more likely to see drugs as highly addictive, and people who disbelieve in free will are more likely to struggle with addictive behaviors.
Our first study examined whether people who disbelieve in free will are more likely to have difficulties with drugs and alcohol. Nearly two hundred participants anonymously reported their beliefs about free will and their personal history with alcohol, tobacco, and other drugs. We found several correlations between disbelieving in free will and having problems with addictive behaviors. Participants with weaker beliefs in free will were more likely to have a history of daily drinking, were less likely to have successfully quit drinking in the past, were more likely to have tried but failed to quit drinking, and were also more likely to have been addicted to other substances at some point in the past. These results are consistent with the idea that disbelieving in free will enables addictive behaviors by excusing the supposedly uncontrollable bad behavior.
However, because the initial study was correlational, it alone cannot provide evidence that disbelief encourages addictive behavior. We, therefore, conducted several additional studies to further test this idea.
Two studies found that ordinary people have internalized the idea that drugs and alcohol sap free will. In one study, participants read a fictional vignette about a woman who sped and drove recklessly across town in search of mushrooms to buy. By random assignment, participants read that the mushrooms were either drugs or dinner. Participants thought she had less free will when she drove across town to get drugs than to get dinner, even though the woman’s actions were described in exactly the same way in each vignette. In another study, participants thought people had less free will in deciding to drink alcohol than to eat chocolate, even when the person’s reasons for eating or drinking were exactly the same. Together, these studies support the idea that people believe addiction reduces free will. Actions normally considered to be free were seen as unfree if done to support an addiction.
People believe addiction reduces free will, and believing less in free will is associated with problematic behavior involving drugs and alcohol. Why? One reason might be that people use the supposed lack of free will to excuse harmful addictive behaviors.
Two additional studies supported the idea that people were especially likely to claim that addiction removed their free will when they had done something bad. Our participants wrote about times when they faced an addiction or strong temptation and also reported how much harm came from their actions. There was no statistical difference in the topics they wrote about: e.g., smoking tobacco and marijuana, drinking alcohol. The behaviors they talked about were the same on average. Nonetheless, they were more likely to deny free will when their actions caused problems. When similar behaviors turned out fine, they were happy to acknowledge they were free and in control. Thus, people selectively excused their bad behavior by blaming addiction and denying they had free will while claiming freedom for addictive behaviors that were unproblematic.
Thus far, our studies showed that messages that addiction removes free will may increase addictive behaviors because people internalize these messages and use them to blame addiction for their own bad behavior. But can the causal arrow also go in the other direction? Do claims that people lack free will change how people perceive addictive substances?
Another study showed that the idea that free will is an illusion makes drugs seem more addictive. Participants who read an article claiming free will is an illusion said drugs were more addictive than participants who were not given the article to read. Disturbingly, participants who read the article also believed they had less self-control than participants who did not read it. Thus, when the general public hears scholars tell them they lack free will, it may make them give up on trying to control addictive behaviors.
This research identifies a potential drawback to public promotion of the (contested) idea that addiction means loss of control. The idea may be self-fulfilling because the more people believe they lack control, the less control they use to restrain their addictive behaviors. People who believe they lack control may act as if their addictions are uncontrollable. Tragically, some people may fail to quit even when they could have succeeded.
These findings are described in the article entitled, Ordinary people associate addiction with loss of free will, recently published in the journal Addictive Behaviors Reports. This work was conducted by Andrew Vonasch from the University of Canterbury, Cory Clark and Stephan Lau from Florida State University, Kathleen Vohs from the University of Minnesota, and Roy Baumeister from the Universiy of Queensland.