Addictive behavior


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Slides for this module (draft)

Let’s start this module with two quotes from my favorite book, Confessions of Zeno by Italo Svevo. Zeno, the principal character, wants to stop smoking and his many last cigarettes provides the running gag throughout the first chapter “Smoke.” Knowing that a cigarette will be his last causes him to enjoy it all the more, and smoking it at some significant date and time (numerically or anniversary-wise) should insure he upholds his vow.

“I believe the taste of a cigarette is more intense when it’s your last. The others, too, have a special taste of their own, but less intense. The last one gains flavor from the feeling of victory over oneself and the hope of an imminent future of strength and health. The other have their importance because, in lighting them, you are proclaiming your freedom, while the future of strength and health remains, only moving off a bit.”

Zeno and his contradictions provide deep insight into the psychology of addiction.

Now that I am here, analyzing myself, I am seized by a suspicion: Did I perhaps love cigarettes so much because they enabled me to blame them for my clumsiness? Who knows? If I had stopped smoking, would I have become the strong, ideal man I expected to be? Perhaps it was this suspicion that bound me to my habit, for it is comfortable to live in the belief that you are great, though your greatness is latent.” … “Like that old doctor described by Goldoni, can I expect to die healthy, having lived with illness all my life?

What do we know about addiction? What does it happen in our body and braing when we consume (or crave) addictive substnaces? The following video describes how our brains respond biochemically to various addictive substances and behaviors and where those responses have come from, evolutionarily speaking.

In short, individuals with addiction problems have impaired control of their decisions and this produce misbehavior with harmful consequences.

Please answer the following questions before proceeding.

Questionnaire 3.1

Economists focus on a good being addictive if an increase in the stock of past consumption results in an increase in current consumption, ceteris paribus. In particular, an economist is interested in rationalizing the observed behavior of an addicted individual. Rationalizing means to seek an explanation which identifies the individual’s objectives, preferences, and constraints so that a rule can be derived to predict the behavior. Our focus is to rationalize harmful addiction (increasing consumption of a good or activity which has, for example, detrimental future effects upon one’s health). Of course, theories of addiction can explain also beneficial addiction (e.g.. reading of one’s favorite novel over and over again could be perceived as a beneficial addiction if a deeper understanding of the story results in even greater appreciation of its quality). All behavioral theories of addiction assume that the amount of addictive good consumed in the past has lasting effects of some sort. in other words, higher past consumption may result in a modification of the consumer’s preferences, that is, the extent to which he or she ‘likes’ to consume the addictive good.

Herrnstein and Prelec (1992) explain why individuals may deliberately choose a path of increasing consumption of a harmful good or activity.

The melioration theory of addiction is criticized for assuming that an individual is unable to anticipate future consequences of his activities. How increasing consumption of a harmful good is possible among individuals who are fully aware of their current choice is addressed by Becker and Murphy (1988) in their theory of rational addiction.


Please answer the following questions before proceeding.

Questionnaire 3.2

So, there are different models of addiction that try to capture the charactheristics of addiction. Please read the suggested papers to get all the details of these models and to discover if evidence confirmed the predictions of these models.


Discussion: Listen to the podcast We’ve addicted an entire generation (lenght: 48:17). Connect to my Zoom on Wednesday, August 12 at 16:15. We will discuss together about this podcast and I will answer your questions.

Summary of Module 3:

  • There elements of addictive behavior: reinforcement, tolerance and withdrawal.

  • Different models of addiction (rational addiction, melioration theory and hyperbolic discounting) based on different assumptions and with different implications

  • Empirical research can test the validity and predictive power of these theoretical models.

Suggested movie for tonight: Trainspotting (1996)



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