addiction is pretty hard to understand if you’ve never been there. the crazed lust, the desperate longing for whatever it is that your are hooked on – from heroin to alcohol to overworking to shopping to sex to codependency – whatever it is, if it’s not your thing then all you can do is shake your head uncomprehendingly.
it turns out that even those who are addicted tend to underestimate the strength of their cravings. at least that is what george loewenstein of carnegie mellon university found. he found that even long-time addicts didn’t correctly evaluate the influence that drug cravings have over them.
george loewenstein carried out a study that involved 13 heroin addicts who were treated with the maintenance drug buprenorphine (BUP). in the course of the 9-week study, participants were repeatedly asked to choose between varying amounts of money or an extra dose of BUP, both when they were craving the drug and when they were not.
the major finding was that addicts valued an extra dose of BUP about twice as much when they were craving it (right before receiving their normal dose of the drug) than when they were currently satiated (minutes after receiving the BUP) – even when they knew they would not receive the extra dose until five days later.
this study also has implications for treatment and relapse. individuals who are in treatment may think that they will be OK out of treatment. but once they’re out of treatment, they are often not prepared for the intensity of the cravings, combined with the increased availability of the substance of choice.
loewenstein adds: “people generally decide to go on a diet right after eating a satisfying meal; to start saving right after splurging; and to quit drugs, such as cigarettes, right after smoking one. but all of these plans tend to be unrealistic because they are made when people aren’t in a craving state and, as our results show, can’t predict what it will be like once they start craving again.”
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