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IMAGE: Georg Emanuel Opitz Der Säufer, 1804
It’s funny. I was recently asked to give a talk to undergraduates interested in psychology. I was told to pick any topic I wanted, but advised to pick something that sums up the overarching theme of what I study. Until that moment I’d never thought about the congruence of the ideas I’m professionally interested in. I study drugs, I teach courses on sexual behavior, I work as a therapist – with my most adored clients being those who choose extremely abnormal (statistically speaking) lifestyles.
I’m fascinated by the strange, the obscene, the deviant, and all things that have the potential for risk. In formulating my talk I became a little taken aback by this epiphany.
Am I some kind of weirdo? Why am I interested in such oddball things?
The truth is, I’m not alone. As a society we are fascinated by – and also engage in – all sorts of activities that we know are really not in our best interest. You can pretend that you don’t, but you know (I know you know!) that there’s shit you do that’s bad for you. Binge drinking, anyone? Blowing a line of untested coke? Jumping out of an airplane for the thrill? How about dating that dickhead, piece-of-shit, asshole you know is going to burn you again because he’s “super cute?” These are not healthy behaviors.
So why do we do it? Was Freud right? Are we motivated by an underlying death drive? Do we have some creepy unconscious and perverse need to covet our parents?
I seriously doubt it. But what could be going on here to explain such an array of deleterious endeavors?
My research has turned up a few unsurprising but still enlightening reasons why we put ourselves continually at risk – why we don’t all eat perfectly nutrient rich and organic foods all the time, and don’t instantly seek out the “nice guy” at the bar. It seems that there are at least three factors at play for why we do bad things:
1) It’s developmentally abnormal not to,
2) It’s SUPER reinforcing in all the right regions of the brain.
3) It’s fun.
Allow me to explain.
It’s Abnormal Not To. There’s an evolutionary basis for wanting to see and experience new things. It makes sense that we should want to leave home at the time in our lives when we are at our most fertile. If we as a species had never wanted to venture out away from our tribe, our options for reproduction would have been severely limited. Yup, I said it, inbreeding galore.
Obviously this would have spelled trouble. So it has become evolutionarily adaptive for humans to possess a need for adventure – a drive to experience the unknown. It is developmentally appropriate.
And what is more unknown than experiencing a new and altered state of consciousness (i.e., doing copious amounts of drugs)?
In fact, research on substance use suggests that not experimenting with alcohol or drugs is developmentally abnormal. I think we’re all familiar with the statistics that show that most Americans have tried an illicit substance by the end of their college age yearsl nearly all Americans have drank alcohol, and most have “been drunk”. We are hardwired to do it.
It’s Reinforcing. That’s right, even rats are naughty. Many of the things we do aren’t consciously calculated, but still guided by potential pay-off.
Studies on reinforcement schedules tell us that the rate and timing of how we receive rewards for our efforts effects whether or not we continue to engage in said behavior. For example, a rat who receives a food pellet every time he/she presses a lever is absolutely going to hit the lever more than the rat that didn’t get any pellets for the same lever-pushing behavior. However, eventually the first rat will get sick of the food pellet, realize that he/she can get food whenever it wants, and the bar hitting behavior will begin to decrease. Also, if that bar ever stops producing food what do you think will happen? That’s right. The rat stops hitting the stupid, useless bar.
However, if the rat gets a food pellet only some of the time after hitting the lever, then what do you think happens? It smacks the shit out of the bar! The rat literally WILL. NOT. STOP. We see the same phenomenon in humans. We get more enjoyment from behaviors that produce a reward at an unpredictable rate than from those that do so at a predictable one.
In fact, this is the very basis of gambling addiction. It also explains why some people date assholes. If a person is normally cold and dickhead-ish and then is spontaneously nice to you, the pleasure you experience in that moment is typically higher than if they were nice all of the time. The experience of random acts of kindness is incredibly rewarding because the reinforcement is on an erratic schedule.
It’s Fun. I know, you really needed someone to tell you that. But really, there’s a neurological reason why continuing to engage in behaviors that you know aren’t good for you is so enjoyable. And it actually goes back to this idea of reinforcement.
When something is positively reinforcing (rewarding) it acts on a region of the brain called the mesolimbic dopamine reward center, specifically the VTA. We are talking about a region that we refer to colloquially as the “reptilian core.” This area is responsible for regulating some of our most basic functions. Our drive to find reward encompasses one of these basic functions, as it is vital to the survival of our species that we seek out things like food, water, and sex—all positively reinforcing stimuli.
So when an activity or substance activates this reward system it’s game on! We will put ourselves at serious risk to get the prize. And what substances do you think activate this region? That’s right, booze and drugs.
Certain risky activities can do the job as well. Endorphins are also SUPER reinforcing. When we find ourselves in a dangerous situation (like when we’re standing on the edge of the bridge getting ready to jump off the highest bungee jump in the world!) our body undergoes a rather abrupt neurochemical change. Our brain releases endorphins—the body’s natural opioid—as a means of counteracting the humongous amounts of adrenaline we release as an artifact of being faced with imminent danger. Interestingly, alcohol also releases endorphins during binge drinking episodes. Endorphins feel great, meaning that they’re completely reinforcing, which leads us to want to engage in these incredibly dangerous behaviors again.
My talk wrapped up with a question to the class: “So what does it all mean?” I’d hoped that what the students would take away was the idea that maybe we aren’t as stupid as we think we are for putting ourselves in dumb situations. In fact, it’s probably normal. It is developmentally appropriate to rebel and act reckless at times and our brain is set up to respond accordingly. Not allowing the impulse to go unchecked, however, is key.
At the end of my talk my partner, who conveniently happened to be listening at the back of the room, approached me.
Me: “How’d it sound?”
Him: “I’m conflicted”
Me: “Oh no, why?”
Him: “Two things. One, there’s a lot of talk of men acting like jerks and assholes. That wasn’t directed at me, was it?”
I laughed. “Of course not. And two?”
Him:“Well, I guess now I’m wondering if maybe I should be.”
Me:“Should be what?”
Him: “You know, acting like a jerk.”
Me: “Wait. What? How did you get that?”
Him: “Well that’s what you’re suggesting, isn’t it? If erratic reward is more reinforcing than continuous, than doesn’t it follow that I should only be variably nice to you?”
I guess — just please don’t let that be what you take away from this article.