Gary Becker Thinks the Most Addictive Thing Is …

Over 600 blog readers took a shot at guessing what Gary Becker thinks the most addictive thing on Earth is.

Lots of folks threw out things like crack and caffeine, but do you really think I’m going to offer a blog quiz with an obvious answer?

While not the answer I was looking for, there was something poetic about Deb‘s guess:

A yawn. A smile. Salt.

Before I give the answer, it is worth thinking about what it means for a good to be addictive. At least the way I think about it, an addictive thing has the following characteristics:

1) Once you start consuming it, you want to consume more and more of it.

2) Over time you build up a tolerance to it, i.e. you get less enjoyment out of consuming a fixed amount of it.

3) Pursuit of that good leads you to sacrifice everything else in your life to get it, potentially leading you to do ridiculous things to try to get the good.

4) There is a period of withdrawal when you stop consuming the good.

No doubt alcohol and crack cocaine fit that description well. In Becker’s view, however, there is something even more addictive than substances: people.

When he first said this, it sounded kind of crazy to me. What does it mean to say that people are addictive?

Then I thought more about it, and I think he is right. Falling in love is the ultimate addiction. There is no question that in the early stages of attraction, spending a little bit of time with someone makes you desperately want more. Infatuation can be all-encompassing, and people will do anything to make a relationship blossom. They will risk everything and often end up looking utterly foolish. Once in a relationship, however, the utility one derives from time with the beloved diminishes. The heady excitement of courtship gives way to something much more mundane. Even if a relationship isn’t that good, for at least one of the parties there is a painful withdrawal period.

To get the exact answer I was looking for took until comment number 343, when Bobo responded “Other People.” Many others were close. Jeff (comment 13) said “Society or human companionship.” Laura (comment 47) said “Love.”

I’ll declare all three of them winners.

So what do you think? Is Gary Becker right or wrong?


I like the "shorter me" answer in #93, but think it is important to distinguish between addiction and craving.

A hack into the pleasure center may well qualify as an addiction if the hack becomes preferable to the default stimulus, human interaction. An addictive substance or behavior takes command of the pleasure center, shoving aside both rationality and instinct.

Cravings, by contrast, can be fulfilled by human interaction without addictive consequences. People vary in the dosage that satisfies a craving for company, the point being that the craving is satisfied, while an addiction is not.

So maybe we are honing in on a more rigorous version of Becker's surmise. Post #69 is a good start.


I'll buy that humans in general are social animals, they crave companionship, and they suffer without it, but...

One does not build up a tolerance (in addiction terms) for people. I don't require more people around me now than I did 10 years ago. If anything, the opposite is true. That peaks around puberty.

And even if you're talking about a specific person rather than "people", says who? Sure, half of marriages end in divorce, but that means half of them DON'T. Plenty of friendships last a lifetime too. That'd be the equivalent of taking a shot of tequila staying drunk for the rest of your life. Plus, you don't see every widow/widower/divorcee walking around with the shakes, jonesing for another person.

Clever, but I just don't buy it.

Now some people seem to serially hop from relationship to relationship in some sort of weird binge/purge cycle, but is that for the people? Or are they using the people to fulfill some other need? They may derive personal validation or self esteem or ego or dopamine from being in a relationship, and the other person is simply a means to an end. Plus, how do abusive relationships fit into this? If we're addicted to people, and this person is a complete jerk, and there's ten bazillion other people available, what on earth are they doing with the jerk?

It's a clever answer, but I just don't buy it.

If "most addictive" means the most people addicted to it, I'd have to say caffeine simply because it's ubiquitous and doesn't really have a social stigma.

If "most addictive" means hardest to kick the habit, I'm guessing it's got to be some chemical dependency like heroin, cigarettes, and whatnot.

If we're going with the fuzzy broad non-scientific answers like "people", I'd have to go with "being needed". If you choose to interpret it this way, it covers relationships both good and bad, plus pet ownership, plus the drive to create dependant children, plus the drive to work 80 hour weeks, and that general human thing where we say "yes" when somebody asks a favor even though we don't really want to do it. We need to be needed.



Wow, I am really disappointed with Becker and Levitt's sloppy reasoning. Their answer should be stated as "another individual" not "falling in love." Those are two very different concepts.

If "falling in love" were really the most addictive thing then we would probably see a lot more adultery. And if other individuals were the most addictive thing then we would see much less adultery. Unfortunately, under either interpretation the data does not seem to support Becker's claim.

Also, try aggregating "work" and "leisure" into the ultimate consumption good: "life". While it is unclear when you choose to start consuming it, or how the consumer makes trade-offs (so I guess I am being sloppy too), withdrawel is definitely difficult.



the most obvious of all.

whats addictive is pringles...



Who's addicted to people? I'm not. I can quit whenever I want.


Gary Becker has obviously never smoked crack.

If passionate romantic love is the only form that this addiction to "people" ever takes (and it does seem like most of our non-romantic relationships with other people do not fit the criteria for addiction), then I recommend giving this addictive substance a more specific name than "people." Perhaps "romantic partners?"

denis bider

As a sufferer of serial "addiction with people" in the past, I might agree. No type of addiction is equally strong for every person. I happen to be built in a way that what everyone considers drugs has no appeal to me. However, pointless infatuations ruined the better part of my youth. There were quite a bit of suicidal thoughts, and I wasted some 15 years of what could have been happiness in the process.

Whether Becker is right when he says that "people" are the most addictive, it depends on what criterion you're measuring with "most". Absent a well-defined criterion, it seems as good a proposal as any, and one that puts things in perspective, too.


Winning the Nobel prize is great, but it doesn't mean that Becker is now the final definitive source on this - like the “World Book Encyclopedia” was when you were in grade school.

Yes, people can be additive, but again, why are they the MOST addictive. People sometimes fall into the criteria you put forth, but not always, whereas others things do – e.g. morphine. I can walk away from some people for ever with no regret, but many drugs and other things mentioned in the long list yesterday fit the bill better. I thing Becker was just musing and trying to be cute.

olga lednichenko

sex, chocolate, the french, religion.... of course.. there are others who would do anything for money, women, power, fame.


People keep talking about the difficulty of giving people up. I'm getting flashbacks to the last time I was rickrolled.


I guess Mr. Becker is one of those people that feed off the company of others. There are those of us who can only take human company in moderation, requiring a measure of solitude from time to time.


Tim Harford on Becker, Schelling, and addiction:

In 1988 two economists, Kevin Murphy and the Nobel laureate Gary Becker, published what became a significant theory of smoking in which they described a “rational consumer” of addictive products who knowingly hooks himself on cigarettes or heroin because he calculates the pleasure will outweigh the pain.

Schelling’s view of the addict was different. In his 1980 essay, “The Intimate Contest for Self Command”, he tried to understand the smoker “who in self-disgust grinds his cigarettes down the disposal swearing that this time he means never again to risk orphaning his children with lung cancer and is on the street three hours later looking for a store that’s still open to buy cigarettes”. For Schelling, the addict was neither perfectly rational nor irrational and helpless - he was a rational being at war with himself, who could deploy strategies to help him win that war.

Schelling thinks he had what Becker and Murphy lacked: personal experience. He quit smoking in 1955, but started up again in 1958 when he bought a cigar in a London restaurant (”thinking I was immune”) and spent the next 15 years trying to quit. It was many decades before Becker and Murphy formulated their hypothesis but Schelling says “I learned then that they don’t know what they’re talking about.”



So Barbra Steisand had it right all along "People who need people ... are the luckiest people in the world, and are real freakonomics folk" if you can get the metre right, it fits the tune.


Didn't Sartre have something to say about this?


Okay, but why is this the MOST addictive thing..?


Sex would have been among the things I would have guessed. "People" is a much nicer way of putting it, and it's probably more accurate. People do lots of strange things for attention from other people that isn't sexual.

Another thing I would have offered as a possibility is sleep.


Mr. Becker has been consuming too much magical pixie dust and unicorn-generated rainbows. This is evidenced by his conclusion which, while lovely, is utterly asinine.


You could make the agrument that you don't do crack because you don't want to even risk losing your friends and family.


How often do interventions work? The idea behind them is you care about people more than the drug.


As Sam Harris likes to point out, our need for social contact is so strong that even in a maximum security prison full of murderers, rapists, etc., the ultimate punishment is depriving an unruly prisoner of their company via solitary confinement.