Why can’t they see what their drinking or drugging is doing to them, and to us?
For family, few things frustrate like the seeming inability of the addict or alcoholic to recognize the extent of their self destructive behaviors. What seems so obvious to us seems not to register with them, and if losing a job, career, family or health won’t convince a using addict to change their ways – what possibly can?
Addiction changes the mind, it is complex and pervasive, and no single phenomenon fully explains the influence it exerts over thoughts and behaviors; but understanding confirmation bias takes us a step closer to understanding the realities of addicted thinking.
Confirmation Bias and the Addictd Mind
Confirmation bias refers to a cognitive process in which we selectively and unconsciously assign more weight to stimuli, information or events that seem to confirm our preconceptions or world-view. We all unconsciously use confirmation bias; it is simply a psychological streamlining for informational processing.
When we read a political editorial that matches our world-view, it resonates more profoundly and influentially than when we read an editorial that opposes our notion of the world – even if both are factually accurate. We are the choir – and we like to be preached to!
Addicts unconsciously use conformational bias as a way to preserve activities (drinking or drugging) that are important to them. It is conformational bias that allows addicts to disregard or minimize negative information that might force them to question their behaviors, and over-emphasize positive information that convinces them to continue their use behaviors.
An addict or alcoholic might process information on a night’s events such as this:
- Pros: HAD A GREAT TIME LAUGHING WITH BUDDIES GOT A PHONE NUMBER FROM THAT CUTE/HANDSOME BARTENDER
- Cons: Vomited in the bar bathroom Was asked to leave Performed badly at work the next day, and was noticed for being hung-over
Alcoholic thinking=A good night’s fun.
Most of us would call such an evening a lesson against excessive drinking, but an alcoholic will assign much more weight to the positive parts of the evening, and gloss over any negative aspects that don’t align with alcoholic thinking.
Alcoholics maintain denial through unconscious conformation bias internalization; thinking that keeps them sure that although drinking may cause a few minor headaches…on the whole it brings more happiness than pain. Addicts are not purposefully obtuse when they fail to recognize how much their use hurts them, it’s a psychological process, and one an addiction hijacked brain makes full use of in defense of its consumptions.
Eventually, if it gets bad enough, most alcoholics and addicts will concede that they have a problem – but it can take a long while and some pretty overwhelming (and often tragic) evidence. Understanding why addicts and alcoholics continue to drink or drug even as things get bad helps family and friends to enact better and more successful interventions – Helps them to realize that just letting an addict see the problems abuse causes won’t necessarily be enough to induce change.
Rock bottom can motivate, but rock bottom is sad; and there is no need for it. Although an addict may not come to an internal conclusion of a need for change, family and friends can help them along, and can help to change their thinking. Interventions work, and they can get some pretty reluctant addicts into treatment. You can wait for an addict to see it on their own, but with conformational bias…it may take a long, long time.