The fact that the relationship between addiction and free will is also a controversial topic among health care professionals motivated author Andrew Vonasch, a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, to conduct this research.
“A common narrative among scientists and professionals who treat addictive behaviors is that addiction undermines free will — that a major component of becoming addicted is losing control,” he said. “Before I started studying addiction, I had always assumed that this narrative was true and that drugs can control people’s minds. Some scientists, including my colleagues and me, have begun to question this narrative.”
Vonasch’s research examined the relationship between free will and addiction and included several follow-up studies that pinpointed how people believe addictive substances can challenge their free will. The studies examined whether or not the lack of belief in free will can lead people to view different temptations as more addictive than they actually are, and if most individuals only believe addiction hinders their free will when it is convenient for them to do so.
“My reading of the science suggests that people do have control over many of their addictive behaviors,” he said. “Smokers adjust the amount they smoke with the price of cigarettes — people smoke less when it costs more. Even people who are profoundly addicted are able to control themselves enough to avoid taking drugs in front of a police station or similar places they are likely to be caught. Many people with drug and alcohol problems are able to restrain themselves during the course of the day so that they can hold down a job.”
The results showed that most people do believe that drugs undermine their free will and they also tend to use this perspective to link less free will to actions perceived as negative than to positive actions.
The author also highlighted that people who have strong religious beliefs or are politically conservative tend to believe more in free will and be more against drug use than secular liberals. Those who believed less in free will were more likely to report being a past daily drinker, according to one of Vonasch’s studies.
“Even among former daily drinkers, people with stronger beliefs in free will were more likely to have successfully quit,” he said. “[These findings] are consistent with meta-analyses of successful treatments of addiction. If people do have control over their addictions, this has important implications for how to help people stop their addictive behaviors. One implication is that telling people who are struggling that they lack control may actually be counterproductive, because thinking it’s impossible to quit may make it harder for people to quit. People who think addiction limits free will seem to be more likely to give up and not try to stop their addictive behaviors.”
Vonasch emphasized that some of the most effective approaches to addiction treatment focus more on encouraging people to quit after they recognize the severity of their problems than on treating the symptoms of the substance use disorder.
“Other types of treatment are most effective when people really buy in because they really strongly want to quit,” he added. “Just because people have free will does not mean it is easy to quit or that everyone will succeed. It’s difficult, and support and understanding from their community will help them. Stigmatizing and criminalizing addictive behavior is unhelpful and likely to be counterproductive. Quitting is possible, especially when people have support from others, and they truly believe they are capable of quitting.”