Mental Health

The Opposite of Addiction is NOT Connection

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This is a criticism to the idea of “The Opposite Of Addiction is Connection”. This idea was introduced by Johann Hari in his TED talk “Everything you think you know about addiction is wrong”. Uplift Connect then made a video based on this idea and got 4.9M views and 54K shares as of the time of writing..

Both Johann Hari and Uplift Connect concluded that addiction is CAUSED by disconnection(social isolation). People use drugs to relieve the pain of disconnection or childhood trauma. If we can’t connect with people, we will connect to anything available instead. Therefore, the solution is to provide unconditional love, care, and support to addicts to heal them. Well, this is a romantic idea in the field of new-age and spirituality, but we should remain critical in psychology. The line often blurs between the former and latter.

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The rat park studies quoted originally raised a question that the common practice of scientists for feeding rats drugs in an isolated cage when studying drug addiction. If the environment itself had effects on drug consumption, scientists need to rethink to what extent they can generalize their results. What the rats that were fed drugs in an isolated cage can give a hint on human drug addiction is the complex world.

The authors had called for current theory to include these social factors instead of oversimplifying the addiction behavior. “A housing-conditions effect, if substantiated, needs to be accounted for by existing theories of addiction.” Ironically, it was twisted and used to simplify social isolation as the root of addiction. Furthermore, further studies failed to replicate the results of rat park studies, which is a big deal in science.

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The low usage of heroines by Vietnam veterans who returned to the US, and success of Portugal social integration approach demonstrated that social factors are crucial in curing addiction. There is no doubt that social support is very helpful for individuals that are trying to stop addictions. If you knew someone who is recovering from addiction. By all mean, provide all the love, care and support you can afford. However, we should not reverse it and label social isolation as the root cause of addiction.

Follow the logic of opposite of addiction is connection, Vietnam veterans had unfulfilled need of connection back in Vietnam war, hence the use of heroin. Once they returned to US, where their friends and family are, they felt connected and stop using heroin overnight. There is no doubt that a war is more stressful and unpleasant than sedentary lifestyle in the US. However, I doubt the notion that they had a weaker sense of connectedness in the war than in home country.

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The bond between group members become stronger when there is a competition with the outgroup. Armies have closed tied with each other because they have common enemies. To a lesser extent, you feel the deeper connection to the football club during a football match.  

In fact, social force is a double-edged sword. One social environment might be very helpful in stopping addiction while the other makes addicts vulnerable to relapse. You may think that friends in the drug addicts environments are not “real connection”. Think again.

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-Smokers who have offered a cigarette by a stranger.

-Game addicts who play games with your team.

-A classmate that tell you that he too hasn’t studied for the exam.

-Hell, even the friends who share porn with you in your high school.

Smoking, video game addiction, procrastination, and pornography. None of the above seems to be healthy behavior. I doubt anyone who has experienced any of the above instances will call it “fake” connection.

The bottom line is social support helps, but social isolation is not the root cause of addiction.

Ps: Some attachment parenting advocates believe that given enough love, they don’t have to set any rule on kids’ screen time and everything will be fine. What makes this idea dangerous is it is driven by ideology instead of scientific evidence. This is the topic for another day.

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Author: Wong Boon Kiat


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