Speaker: Sheena Iyengar
“It is a mistake to assume that everyone thrives under the pressure to choose alone.”
The contentious debate between whether or not drug addiction is a choice or a disease has a long history. Research has shown that there are many reasons leading up to a person making the choice to take drugs or not take drugs. These reasons include genetics, family history, personal history, social context, and how old the person is when he/she begins using drugs.
Therefore, for example, a person’s genetic make-up may make him/her more inclined to choose to drink or use drugs than another person with a different genetic code. Another example is, if one or several people in a person’s family are heavy drinkers, alcoholics, abuse drugs or are drug addicts, then that person is more likely to choose to do drugs or drink than a person from a family where none of the members drink or do drugs.
When it comes to addiction, the element of choice is only one part of the equation. The second half of the equation comes in after the person has made the choice to drink or do drugs, at which point, the person’s brain takes over, and based on the contributing factors listed above, it is more or less likely that the user will become addicted to drugs or alcohol. But that doesn’t mean that the idea of drug addiction choice should not be more carefully considered or researched. As we see by the above TED talk, the idea of “choice” has many different meanings around the world and could contribute more insight on why a person chooses to do drugs or not.
The complexity and analysis of addiction should not stop at knowing the distinction between drug addiction as a choice versus drug addiction as a disease. The study of choice as a concept has as many complexities, yin and yang qualities, and chicken and egg questions as the study of addiction. Sheena Iyengar’s TED talk looks at choice in different cultures. She specifically analyzes the assumptions American culture uses to approach choice and shows that these assumptions about choice are not the same in other cultures.
As specified in the TED talk, the concept of choice and how culture influences the choices a person makes should be a factor when considering the reasons why a person chooses to do drugs or drink. For example, knowing the culture an addict comes from and how that particular culture approaches choice could give insight into why he/she chose to do drugs.
For example, in the TED talk Iyengar says Americans assume:
“If a choice affects you, then you should be the one who makes it. This is the only way to insure that your preferences and interests will be most fully accounted for.”
In American culture, the center of choice is the individual. Regardless of what other people want or recommend, Americans’ give all the power to the individual to make their own decision in order to be “true to yourself.”
While American culture assumes the individual is empowered by making his/her own choice, this assumption can also have the opposite, negative effect of isolating the individual so that he/she is completely alone. This is seen when a person becomes an addict, the ultimate responsibility is (more or less) solely placed on him or her. Also, the addict’s recovery is almost entirely dependent on his/her choice to do so and is considered (myth or not) something that he/she must “choose” to do. Not all cultures assume that the individual should be the center of empowerment and/or responsibility.
Iyengar did an experiment to see if choice was viewed in a different way by a different culture. Three groups of Anglo-American and Asian American children were told to do an anagram based on their own choosing, a teacher’s choosing, or their mothers’ choosing. While the Anglo American children completed the most anagrams based on their own choices, the Asian American children were most successful when their mothers chose.
From this experiment, Iyengar found that the Asian American children were most successful because they “created harmony by deferring to the decision of someone they trusted in their community.” Iyengar concludes that their preferences were shaped by the preferences of others.
In many countries, such as Bangladesh, Turkey, even Australia (to name a few), talking about drug addiction is taboo. Therefore, when considering the drug addiction choice, the influences that impact a person’s choice are full of nuance that must be considered when talking about effective rehabilitation and treatment.
From the TED talk, we have more questions about how choice impacts drug addiction beginning with the initial choice to first take drugs or drug to how choice impacts rehabilitation.
Does a person take drugs because he/she wants to be a part of the family or apart from the family? In what way do the family’s actions a cause of the addiction? According to this TED talk, it could be both.