the cause of alcoholism

People struggling with alcoholism are desperate to identify someone or something to blame for their addiction but we confuse things that cause us to drink with what causes addiction… and these are not the same thing at all. Here are the three most popular things that people say causes addiction and why they are incorrect and misdirecting.

#1 People become addicted entirely because alcohol is addictive.

This idea is that the sole reason that people become addicted is that they consume an addictive substance. This idea expressly rejects the notion that alcohol affects some people differently to others and maintains that addiction afflicts everyone that drinks. If this were true then addiction would be evenly distributed across society and proportional to the amount drunk. But this is clearly not what happens because certain portions of the population are much more likely to become addicted than the average. People that are more likely to become addicts than the average are; those with trauma in their history, people living in distressed circumstances, and the children of alcoholics. This idea is also refuted by the fact that most people that drink do not become alcoholics even if they drink their whole lives. Addiction is clearly not universally progressive because most people that drink do not end up addicted. Addiction afflicts some people but not others and this variation is not randomly distributed; most significantly it is substantially inheritable… so susceptibility to addiction not only varies from one individual to another this variability has a genetic component.

#2. Alcohol is glamorized and normalised in the media and this causes addiction.

This proposes that we become alcoholics because drinking is explicitly promoted as a good thing: the alcohol industry promotes drinking as a cool and sophisticated thing to do, drinking is a routine component of our society, and media representations of society (TV, movies etc.) portray drinking as the normal thing to do. But these ideas do not make sense as the “cause” of addiction because they don’t match up to the evidence. First, addiction has been around far longer than mass media; it has been recorded as a problem throughout history. Second, everybody sees exactly the same media and societal promotion of alcohol as we do, but most do not become addicted. And thirdly, cocaine, heroin, meth and other drugs claim many addicts but they have no media presence or societal promotion whatsoever. In fact society and the media universally warn against them, but people still become addicted. Most compelling of all is that if media normalisation was the cause of addiction then it wouldn’t be inheritable in any way… it would vary according to media exposure and entirely independently of whether or not there was any family history of addiction. Yet the research unambiguously shows that 40%-60% of alcoholics have a genetic link to addiction (this excludes any environmental factors). Societal and media promotion of alcohol may encourage us to drink more but that is not the same as causing addiction.

#3 Addiction is caused by trauma.

The statistics are clear that people with trauma in their history are significantly more likely than the general population to suffer from addiction. But correlation is not the same as causation, and to claim that trauma causes addiction is an over-reach because not all addicts have trauma in their history and not all people with trauma in their history become addicts. If trauma was the cause of addiction then, for example, most of those that lived through the London blitz would have become alcoholics… but they did not, and nor did the soldiers that fought in the trenches in WW1. And again, the inheritability of addiction contradicts trauma as the sole “cause” because if addiction was only caused by trauma then it would not run in families.

What all three of these do is they claim to be the cause addiction but in each case the claim is refuted by the fact that only a minority of the respective sample becomes afflicted. Not everyone that drinks alcohol will become addicted; the great majority do not. Alcohol marketing and societal approval may encourage us to drink more, but most that experience this media and social encouragement to drink do not become addicted. And we may drink to relieve the distress from some traumatic event in our past, but most that suffer trauma do not become addicted. These three claims are not the only contenders for what causes addiction. The data shows that drinking from a young age is a risk factor for alcoholism, as is being raised in a heavy drinking environment as well as having alcoholic parents.

Each of these has proponents that hold them up as the cause of addiction but clearly it is not that simple because none of them covers every case, yet each of these scenarios represent a higher than average incidence of alcoholism… so what is the commonality? What they all do is they raise the amount that we drink, but again, not everybody that drinks heavily for a while becomes addicted… so what is different about those that moderate their drinking again and those that cannot? The very clear evidence is that most of the population keeps their drinking to a moderate level. They may occasionally have “a big night out” where they drink to excess, and they will suffer the consequences of that. But they do not repeat that in a few days’ time, it may be months before they drink to excess again. Addicts however, even in the full knowledge that a bad hangover will follow, will drink excessively just a few days later. Regular drinkers keep their drinking in a state of equilibrium whereby they will still enjoy the benefits of alcohol (elevated spirits, and increased sociability) but largely avoid the downsides (hangovers and debilitation). Addicts however cannot maintain this balance. This is not that they wilfully choose to drink despite knowing the consequences that will follow; it is that they lack the means to moderate their drinking. This inability to drink moderately is not just present in some cases of addiction, it is always present. Every addict, regardless of the drug, knows that they cannot use it moderately, and they know this because they have tried hard to do so and have failed time after time. So when we look at addiction and try to identify what causes it we are actually looking in the wrong place, we should be not be looking for a cause, we should be searching for why we lack the means to moderate our drinking like everyone else does.

The ability of the majority of the population to spontaneously mange how much they drink is self-evident. It is so self-evident that we don’t stop to examine how this is achieved but we should because alcohol is addictive, so how come everybody that drinks doesn’t become captured by it?

How our brain motivates us towards consuming alcohol is thoroughly studied and well understood and the important word here is “motivates”. When our brain directs us to drink it isn’t just an idea it is a chemically instructed compulsion to behave in a specific way. The directive comes from parts of our brain collectively called “the reward system”. The reward system isn’t something unique to humans; it is an evolutionary advance the occurred about 150 million years ago and was so successful that all creatures with a brain comprising two hemispheres have it. The reward system encourages us to do things that are beneficial to survival and discourages us from doing things that are harmful and it does this by learning from our experiences and then directing our behaviour accordingly. Our brain makes special note of events that turned out well or badly and it constantly scans our surroundings to see if those circumstances are present again. We are encouraged to do the things again that were found to be good and we are encouraged to avoid the things that had turned out to be dangerous or harmful. The reward system evolved long before our human capacity for analysis and judgement and long before language, so it does not use language to direct behaviour it uses a direct chemical release that urges us to either repeat or avoid the previously remembered action. That chemical is called dopamine, and when it is released in our brain we are motivated to either approach, if the previous encounter with this circumstance was a good one, or move away if the previous experience was bad. This is how it works:-

If a bird finds berries in a bush, eats them and finds them to be nutritious then its brain recognises that this bush gave good food. It remembers this bush and also remembers “that was good, do it again”. The memory it forms of that particular bush is what we call a trigger. The next time the bird sees that bush then its reward system recognises that this is the one matching its trigger and it actively encourages the bird to approach and partake by releasing dopamine… the bird gets a craving. But the reward system also recognises that all berry bushes are not equal, some bushes yield more fruit than others, and it adjusts the craving sensation the bird gets to encourage it to go to the one that gives more fruit. The way it does this is that if a trigger is successful (i.e. fruit was found) then the vigour of that particular trigger is raised, and the stronger the trigger then the more dopamine it releases. This means that the bird will be urged more strongly to visit a bush that has more often yielded fruit rather than another. The more often a trigger is successful then the stronger it gets and the stronger it gets then the stronger is the intensity of the craving that it launches. The bird visits the bushes most likely to yield good fruit more often than the ones less likely but it doesn’t make a conscious decision to do this, it lacks the capacity to do that. It is the bird’s reward system that directs it where to go and it does so entirely automatically.

Animals don’t have the same cognitive functions as we do but our reward system works the same way as theirs and with regard to alcohol it works like this: – When we first drank alcohol we enjoyed the experience, it was fun and we felt good, so our brain records a trigger: it remembers the circumstances and it remembers “that was good, do it again!” The next time we see alcohol then our brain recognises that it matches a trigger and it launches a small craving to drink again. What additionally happens in us is that when our mind detects the craving then it moves to interpret, rationalise, and verbalise it. Our mind prepares a reason why we should do what the craving urges, and it prepares a reason in support of the craving because this instruction has come from the reward system and is therefore an action that is important to our survival. There is no conscious judgement, analysis, or choice involved in any of this; it happens completely automatically. Each time we drink in a circumstance that we have drunk before then we strengthen its related trigger, so the craving launched by that trigger is more intense, and each time we drink in a new circumstance then we create a new trigger. We have triggers for the sight, sounds and smells of alcohol, places that we drink, people that we drink with, certain times of the day, certain times of the week and many more. Every time we drink we either strengthen an existing trigger or create a new one. But we also acquire some triggers that are unrelated to times, people and places: we build powerful triggers for certain emotions. When we are stressed and have a drink then alcohol relieves us and we feel better. Our brain recognises this and it promptly creates a trigger for it. We create emotion-based triggers in the same way for depression, anxiety, fear, anger and loneliness. Once these triggers have formed then we are urged to drink simply by experiencing the emotions, and every time we drink in response to these triggers then the cravings they induce get more powerful. We drink in response to the cravings launched by our triggers and every time we drink our triggers get even stronger and our reward system enters an ever intensifying state that demands we drink more and more often. This is how our drinking triggers form and strengthen but it raises a very important question. How come everyone that drinks doesn’t end up with an out-of-control intensification of the compulsion to drink?

One of the defining characteristics that is included in all contemporary definitions of alcoholism is that its sufferers continue to drink despite repeated adverse consequences, and this is particularly instructive. The reward system motivates us to repeat doing the things that aid our survival, and to refrain from the things that harm us. So, in precisely the same way that good experiences with alcohol create triggers to drink it again, bad experiences motivate us to move away from it; but we alcoholics fail to make these quite spectacularly. Most people drink and from time to time they will drink enough to get a significant hangover. This consequence forms (or reinforces) a trigger to avoid excessive alcohol consumption in future. It discourages them from drinking so much that they may not repeat that experience for months. When regular drinkers are in a drinking occasion then their reward system will actively motivate them away from alcohol after a while, and this motivation is rationalise and verbalised. They get a mental explanation for this repulsion and it will be something like “that’s enough now or you will suffer tomorrow”. We however will drink enough to get a hangover and then do exactly the same again within a few days. Bad experiences motivate regular drinkers away from alcohol but we do not get the same motivation; we are only ever motivated towards it and this has catastrophic consequences.

Triggers are strengthened every time the craving they launch is successful in gaining the subject of the trigger. This means that every time we drink in response to the craving that a trigger launches then that trigger gets stronger and the next craving to come from that trigger will be more intense. But there is another property of triggers that is extremely important with respect to addiction.

If we discovered a strawberry patch (for example) that had good fruit then when we ate some we would enjoy that experience and a trigger would be established to encourage us to go there again. The next time we are near that strawberry patch then we are motivated to approach it again and take some strawberries and this strengthens that trigger, and the urge to approach will be stronger. But if we eat too many strawberries then we will be sick. So while we have one trigger that encourages us to approach and eat the strawberries we have another that motivates us not to over-indulge… or at least most people do. But the reward system is even more sophisticated than this. If the strawberry patch stops producing fruit (because its season is over for example) then we would forever waste our time if we continued to approach that patch every time we were close. So the reward system evolved to alter the significance of a trigger if the anticipated circumstance fails to occur. If we see the strawberry patch then we are urged to approach it, but if there are no strawberries there then the trigger fails to return the object sought (the strawberries) then the effort was wasted. Our brain evolved to make us use our energy efficiently effectively, but on this occasion that effort was wasted, and our brain revises the importance of this trigger. If a trigger fails to deliver its subject then the strength of that trigger is reduced. This means that we will get a smaller motivation to approach that strawberry patch the next time we are near. This is incredibly important feature of triggers in relation to addiction: when a trigger fails to deliver its objective then the intensity of the next motivation it launches is reduced. Triggers are never forgotten because they may become useful again in the future (like when a fruit comes back into season) but the importance of a trigger, the intensity of the craving it launches, is changed by how successful or unsuccessful it is.

We alcoholics only make alcohol-avoiding triggers very weakly and we can confirm this with the simplest piece of self-inspection. We have had hangovers many times so we should have formed strong alcohol-avoiding triggers and be motivated away from drinking more when we’ve had a few, but we are not. While drinking we are often aware that we’ve had enough for a hangover to follow, but even knowing this information we still carry on. We are still urged to drink more and the thought that a hangover will follow is not compelling to us because it comes as simple information without any motivating feeling. There is no accompanying urge to stop and there is no verbalised explanation of why we should do so. Indeed if we are somewhere in the presence of alcohol then the very opposite happens. We get triggered to drink more and our mind moves to support that craving. Regular drinkers get something like “that’s enough now, I’ve got work tomorrow” coming into their mind whereas we get “there’s just enough time for one more”. The consequence of only making alcohol-avoiding triggers weakly is dramatic. Regular drinkers have times when a drinking trigger will prevail as the stronger motivator and other times when an alcohol-avoiding trigger will direct their behaviour. In them the triggers are balanced and this keeps their drinking moderated. In us however there is no balance. We only make drink-avoiding triggers weakly so if we are in the presence of a drinking trigger then we are urged to drink regardless of any other circumstances. Even if we have a trigger motivating against drinking in this particular circumstance (like have to drive later for example) this trigger is weaker than the drinking trigger, so the drinking trigger prevails. If we respond to this motivation by drinking then the drinking trigger is strengthened even more but it also means that the alcohol-avoiding trigger has failed to deliver its objective, so it is weakened. Over time our drinking triggers grow in strength and our alcohol-avoiding triggers, such as they are, lose strength. This tips our reward system into a runaway condition whereby our drinking triggers get progressively stronger which causes us to crave alcohol more urgently, so we drink more, and our drinking triggers strengthen even further. It is a self-amplifying loop and in the absence of alcohol-avoiding triggers there is no mechanism to moderate its progress. The absence of alcohol-avoiding triggers is why the condition gets progressively more severe, and the absence of alcohol-avoiding triggers is why we can’t moderate our intake, because once we have started drinking (and placed ourselves in the presence of alcohol) then drinking triggers will relentlessly urge us to drink more, and they do so unopposed.

We build powerful drinking triggers for all aspects of our like. We have triggers for certain times of day, certain times of the week, certain people, the places we drank regularly, the places we bought alcohol regularly, these roads that lead to each of these and so on. We also have powerful drinking triggers for all of our adverse emotions; fear, anger, loneliness, low mood, shame and frustration. We are even triggered by hangovers as we are urged to drink to relieve the shakes, anxiety and guilt of the previous night’s drinking. Once our reward system has entered this runaway condition then we are drinking in response to a multitude of triggers, but there is another change that cements this in place.

Once we drink regularly and heavily then we become impaired by alcohol for significant portions of our waking life. The primary effect of alcohol on the brain is that it slows it down and a secondary effect causes the elevated spirits and sociability. This slowing down of our mental function is potentially dangerous so our brain alters the way it works to try to correct it. What our brain does is it speeds up its processing, but it doesn’t just do this for the times of the day that we drink it applies this adjustment across the whole 24 hours. This leaves us with a racing mind, on high-alert for potential dangers, a pounding heart, and wide-awake. It also has an impact on our mood. The racing mind makes us agitated and restless, and we feel anxious, alone and low. These are the changes out brain makes in response to regular and heavy drinking but there is something we can do that will relieve every single one of these symptoms and that is to have a drink, and sooner or later we do. When we do this then we end up with triggers to drink that are themselves the consequences of drinking and we become trapped in the self-reinforcing loop. Our drinking causes changes in our mood (anxiety, depression, loneliness, hopelessness etc) and these trigger us to want to drink whenever we are sober. Then we drink more which strengthens the triggers and strengthens our brains response to alcohol impairment… things get progressively worse. At this point the original “cause” of our drinking becomes completely irrelevant because we are now drinking in response to the consequences of drinking: no additional stimulus is needed. Doing something at this stage about the original cause does not change how or why we are drinking now in any way.

The preceding paragraphs have described how the reward system gets tipped into a runaway condition if alcohol-avoiding triggers are only formed weakly… but what causes this to happen? It turns out that the reason a significant proportion of the population fails to make these alcohol-avoiding triggers strongly is remarkably simple and is to do with how we perceive the value of acquiring things in relation to how close they are to us in time. Much has been said about the properties of the reward system, and here is one more. The reward system encourages us to take advantage of opportunities as they are available. If we were to come close to a strawberry patch that had fruit then we would be motivated to go to it and eat strawberries now; that is what the reward system does. But what if we were told that we could have twice as many strawberries later as long as we didn’t take any now? Some people would take that deal and some wouldn’t, but it depends on how long the delay is. If we are told to come back in five minutes and we would get twice as many strawberries then most many do that, but if we are told we had to wait until tomorrow, or the day after, or a week, then progressively fewer and fewer people would take that deal. Our mind reduces the perceived importance of things the further away they are from us in time but this “delay-discounting” as it is called is not the same in all people; some people discount the value of things over time more quickly than others. Some would wait a few minutes for the extra strawberries, but not wait a whole day, whereas others would wait the whole day or even longer, and this is the quality that determines how successfully we form alcohol-avoiding triggers.

In the same way that the perceived value we see in a reward diminishes over time so does the significance we give to any penalty, but some people discount these more quickly than others and this has a profound effect on the way that triggers form. If we get the benefit of an action very quickly after undertaking it then we rank this as more significant than if the benefit is later, and we do exactly the same with penalties. If the penalty for an action comes quickly after performing the action then we consider it more significant than a consequence that follows significantly later, and the later it is the less significant we perceive it to be. For those that delay-discount aggressively then the significance of these later penalties is reduced even further. The speed at which we discount the importance of things over time isn’t uniform across the population; it is variable, like height for example. Some people reduce the value of things quicker over time than the average, and some slower. Those that delay-discount more slowly form stronger alcohol-avoiding triggers, and a single bad experience with alcohol can deter them from ever drinking heavily again. Also, their drinking triggers never gain any significant strength because they are often deterred from drinking so they don’t drink regularly to reinforce them. Multiple studies have demonstrated unambiguously that alcoholics and addicts delay-discount significantly more aggressively than the population average. We greatly value something now over something later, and the benefits of drinking occur while we are still drinking. But most of the adverse consequences of drinking happen significantly later than when we drank and this is why most of our alcohol-avoiding triggers are so feeble. So not only do our alcohol-avoiding triggers form unusually weakly, our drinking triggers are abnormally strong. We over-value the benefits of alcohol and we under-value the down-sides. Our triggers relating to alcohol are not faithful representations of good and bad experiences; they are heavily biased in favour of drinking. This results in us being motivated to drink more often that we are motivated away from it and this further strengthens drinking triggers and weakens our alcohol-avoiding triggers. Over time the motivation to drink gains in intensity and our reward system enters a runaway condition whereby the act of drinking further strengthens the urge to drink and the motivation away from alcohol rarely, if ever, opposes it: our predicament becomes progressively more severe. This cannot happen to those that devalue rewards and penalties slowly over time. In them the consequences of drinking too much make powerful alcohol-avoiding triggers and these firmly motivate them away from drinking a lot. These people can never have their reward system tipped into the runaway condition that we experience because their drinking triggers will never achieve significant strength.

But what about the people that have average delay-discounting? Can they get their reward system tipped into a runaway condition simply by drinking a lot? No, they can’t. People with average delay-discounting still form alcohol-avoiding triggers normally. Their individual circumstances might be distressed for a period some reason and drinking for relief from that distress may cause them to drink more heavily and strengthen their drinking triggers, but if that distress is removed or significantly reduced then their alcohol-avoiding triggers will, for most people, spontaneously cause their drinking to moderate. Except there aren’t only these three states of delay-discounting, it exists in the population as a continuous scale from one extreme to the other. Those that delay-discount aggressively are susceptible to the reward system entering the runaway condition of ever strengthening drinking triggers if they ever drink regularly: they are susceptible to addiction. Those that delay-discount very slowly are never at risk of addiction. But some of those in the higher mid-range of delay-discounting might have their reward system tipped into this runaway condition if they drink regularly and heavily.

People that delay-discount aggressively are susceptible to alcoholism if they drink at all and people that delay-discount more aggressively than the norm are susceptible to addiction if they drink heavily and regularly for an extended period. These are the conditions that will set the reward system into a runaway condition. But in exactly the same ways as peoples’ height is distributed across the population so is this quality. We might be born with strong delay-discounting through random variation but we are more likely than normal to have this characteristic if one or more of our parents had it. Aggressive delay-discounting can occur by natural genetic variation or it can be inherited. This is why addiction can appear to be inherited but it is also perfectly common where there is no family history of addiction. But in all cases of addiction the pre-requisites are the same: we have to be susceptible to our reward system entering a runaway condition, and we then have to drink sufficiently to engage that susceptibility. Once the reward systems begins to strengthen its drinking triggers in a self-reinforcing loop then the condition becomes progressively more severe and the consequences of alcohol-tolerance follow; lowered mood, increased anxiety, distorted memory and so on. We end up drinking in response to the consequences of drink and these lock the runaway condition in place.

There are many reasons that we may want to understand what causes our addiction, but right at the head of this pack is that if we can find someone or something to blame for our addiction then we can avoid the shame that society will otherwise impose on us. This is because shame is only attributable where the action is freely chosen. If that action is forced on us then no shame is attributable. So finding a “cause” on which to hang our addiction is enormously appealing as it lifts our shame, but apart from that it doesn’t help us much at all, indeed, it can be very damaging to our prospects of achieving long-term recovery. If we identify the cause of a problem then we can work on that cause to fix it. But if we identify the wrong cause then we misdirect our effort to where it will bring no benefit. Some popular “causes” were specifically mentioned at the beginning of this piece; alcohol is an addictive substance (alcohol is the problem not us), promotion and normalisation of drinking in the media and society, and significant distress from either past trauma or current circumstances.  

Yes, alcohol is addictive, but it is not addictive to all, it is only addictive to a minority of the population. To say that everyone that drinks is at risk of addiction is incorrect. Railing against the alcohol industry will not fix this problem because our issue is an unhelpful personal characteristic and the remedy lies with us not the beer barons. Societal and media endorsement of drinking may encourage drunkenness but that does not of itself cause addiction: what it does is it encourages drinking and in some people that will engage their susceptibility to addiction, but for the majority it will not. And finally, drinking for relief from distress, whether it be from our current circumstances or from some trauma does not cause alcoholism. What it does is it makes us very likely to drink more and this may engage the susceptibility to addiction where it exists. But once addiction is engaged and becomes self-fuelling then the original cause becomes immaterial in its progression. Blaming our job, or our finances, or an abuser does not change the subsequent problem in any way.

The cause of alcoholism comprises two parts. First we have to have a susceptibility to addiction, and then we have to drink sufficiently to engage that susceptibility. Our social circle, abusive relationships, our upbringing, our life circumstances or past trauma might all cause us to engage that susceptibility, but that is only us because other people can experience these same circumstances and not become addicted. These circumstances initially affect one component of addiction but become irrelevant as the condition progresses. Changing them does not change the progression of the condition once the reward system has entered a runaway state and is not a remedy to the problem. If these circumstances were truly the cause of our addiction then if they were removed then we should be able to drink normally again but this is never the case. If we are susceptible to addiction then we are forever susceptible to addiction because it is quite literally written into our DNA. If we are susceptible to addiction then we can never safely drink again. This is an unwelcome message for anyone struggling with alcoholism but it is an absolute truth. If we lack the means to control alcohol then we can never develop it because we cannot suddenly gain the means to form alcohol-avoiding triggers.

Understanding the nature of what causes addiction allows us to focus our effort exclusively where it is needed. But this does not mean that we can completely disregard the things that originally made us drink. If we originally drank for relief from some distress then this this trigger has long been overtaken by others and no longer propels our decline. But if we stop drinking and remove the vigour from other triggers then this one will still remain. Understanding the original cause of drinking does not help us stop, but it can most definitely prevent us from staying stopped. Stopping drinking is a stern challenge under any circumstances and doing so while still enduring ongoing and severe distress is extremely unlikely to endure. If there is distress in our life that we drank to escape from then we need to do something about this distress or it will forever direct us to drink again. Unrelenting distress corrodes resolve and this causes relapse, so we need to do something to gain relief from this if we are to achieve long-term recovery. If this means engaging with self-help community groups, counselling, or therapy to gain some relief from this distress then so be it because we will not succeed in our recovery without it.

Addiction occurs when the reward system enters a runaway state whereby the act of drinking always strengthens the urge to drink. This occurs in in people that over-value the benefits of drinking and undervalue its consequences, but it only happens if they also drink regularly. This unbalanced perception of the relative merits and demerits of alcohol occurs in people that discount the importance of things over time significantly faster than the norm and this characteristic can either be inherited or it can occur by chance; either way it is not uncommon. But this characteristic isn’t either on or off, it is a continuous scale. Those that most aggressively delay-discount over time will become addicted from almost their first experience with alcohol. The enjoyment that alcohol gave in comparison to the near-absence of perceived consequences causes their drinking triggers to strengthen and their limited alcohol-avoiding triggers to remain weak. Drinking further strengthens the drinking triggers but not the alcohol-avoiding triggers and the condition becomes progressively more severe. Those for whom delay-discounting is significant but less aggressive may not enter this runaway state by social drinking alone but may be pushed into it by drinking to relieve some persistent distress. These people create some alcohol-avoiding triggers, albeit not powerful ones, but relief from distress outweighs the penalties that drinking brings so they persist and this further strengthens the drinking triggers. If the source of the distress is removed then those that form significant alcohol-avoiding triggers will moderate their drinking spontaneously, but those that don’t will not. For them the weak alcohol-avoiding triggers do not overcome the now strengthened drinking triggers and the self-reinforcing runaway condition continues. People that delay discount at around the average will moderate their own drinking so that drinking triggers and alcohol-avoiding triggers remain in a balanced state. They will only usually drink immoderately if the circumstances permit it. People that delay-discount more slowly than the norm create strong alcohol-avoiding triggers and never build strong drinking triggers. These people can be positively alcohol-averse and may choose to not drink at all.

Susceptibility to addiction is proportional to how aggressively we discount the benefits or demerits of things over time. Addiction is caused by people engaging that susceptibility by drinking and some will need to drink more persistently to tip the balance of their drinking triggers than others. We stop drinking by repeatedly not drinking in response to the cravings launched by drinking triggers. This makes them lose their vigour but triggers are never removed. If we drink again then our drinking triggers recover their former strength very quickly and the runaway imbalance of the triggers returns. This is why we can never drink safely again. Addiction is not something we choose, it is imposed on us. Yes, we have to drink to become alcoholic, but we didn’t drink differently to others around us, and they did not end up addicted. We had no way of knowing that our drinking would end up being uncontrollable. If we delay-discount aggressively then the only way we could avoid becoming alcoholic is to never drink at all because we do not lose control slowly over time, the deeper truth is that we never had it in the first place. We were trapped into alcoholism by a characteristic we were born with that we didn’t know we had and it is that characteristic that is the problem we have to overcome. Our fight is not with the bottle, it is with our own mind.

©Copyright David Horry. 2021.

Share this page