In a book sure to inspire controversy, Gene Heyman argues that conventional wisdom about addiction - that it is a disease, a compulsion beyond conscious control - is wrong. Drawing on psychiatric epidemiology, addicts' autobiographies, treatment studies, and advances in behavioral economics, Heyman makes a powerful case that addiction is voluntary. He shows that drug use, like all choices, is influenced by preferences and goals. But just as there are successful dieters, there are successful ex-addicts. In fact, addiction is the psychiatric disorder with the highest rate of recovery. But what ends an addiction? At the heart of Heyman's analysis is a startling view of choice and motivation that applies to all choices, not just the choice to use drugs. The conditions that promote quitting a drug addiction include new information, cultural values, and, of course, the costs and benefits of further drug use. Most of us avoid becoming drug dependent, not because we are especially rational, but because we loathe the idea of being an addict.
Heyman's analysis of well-established but frequently ignored research leads to unexpected insights into how we make choices - from obesity to McMansionization - all rooted in our deep-seated tendency to consume too much of whatever we like best. As wealth increases and technology advances, the dilemma posed by addictive drugs spreads to new products. However, this remarkable and radical book points to a solution. If drug addicts typically beat addiction, then non-addicts can learn to control their natural tendency to take too much.
Gene M. Heyman is a research psychologist at McLean Hospital and a Lecturer in Psychology at Harvard Medical School.