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?


stephen

knowledge, learning?

Michael

I don't think the definition is satisfactory. Specifically, I'm wary of the idea that an addictive substance must be something that leads one to "sacrifice everything else in your life to get it." Caffeine and nicotine are highly addictive substances, but rarely lead people to give up everything else in their lives.

Rather, I think it would be more correct to say that a necessary quality of addictive substances is that people feel compelled to consume them even when it is against their best interests to do so. It's undeniable, for instance, that the cons of smoking outweigh the pros, but the cigarette addict lights up another even though it is damaging to his health. The problem gambler lays down another bet despite the damage it is doing to him. It is not necessary that these people will sacrifice everything in order to be classified as addicts. Rather, they can be said to suffer from addictions if they feel somehow compelled to indulge in their vice of choice despite the harmful consequences of doing so.

In this sense, it seems somewhat banal to say that the most addictive thing is people, because in most cases we pursue relationships with others because it furthers our own development and aligns itself with our true desires. Certainly there are cases where people do pursue or stick with others despite their best interests, but generally this is not the case. For most people there is a direct link between their own sense of personal fulfillment, and the relationships they form with others.

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HW

While I agree with #3's point, I'm somewhat entertained by the offense with which non-economists take the terms "consume" and "good" here.

Mike

So, Ted Kaczynski had beaten his addiction?

Joel

I prefer chicken or steak...people are a bit too gamey.

PG

Gonna have to agree with the skeptics here - plenty of people have sacrificed people and love in the name of plenty of other things (drugs, money, fame, power, sex, etc).

I mean, it's cute, but it's wrong.

doug

He's probably correct, however, I know some who prefer the companionship of a dog. I also know some who hate people, so I guess it is an addiction.

CF

@Michael (#1): with some fava beans and a nice chianti of course.

ben

It may be addictive, but more addictive than heroin? Don't crackheads routinely reject people and companionship for crack? Right off the bat I'd say this indicates that cocaine is more addictive, although other factors must be considered.

Anonymous

I'm going to have to vote for air. After I take a breath I just want to take another. I must take like tens of thousands of breaths every day. I just can't stop myself.

Katy

As someone in love, I am in that stage where I deny that the utility of my beloved will ever diminish. As a case in point, I say Becker is wrong. :)

Tim

He's write - why else do we have such large, far reaching and profitable communication networks?

Dan

What makes something more addictive than another; easier to get addicted or harder to kick once addicted? It seems to me that an addiction to people is so easy it happens to virtually everyone. Where an addiction to crack is so strong addicts are willing to give up people.

Brandon J. Mendelson

I'm going to vote for masturbation. Someone had to say it.

Dave

I'm on board with #3.

Mike

If that's what Becker says, he's wrong. Scientific claims need to be falsifiable, and counter-examples are ways of proving a claim false.

There are people who deliberately choose solitude. Monks, hermits, those who merely prefer to avoid others. And when someone is mad how often have you heard them yell "leave me alone!" Is that a cry for human company?

By contrast, find me a heroin or alcohol addict who doesn't suffer when their drug is taken away, who voluntarily walk away without any pangs of regret.

Shaye Horwitz

I was thinking of guessing "information." Or maybe "stories."

Frank

I want some Freakonomic schwag (or Shwag) here, I said "acceptance" and that certainly can only be given by other People.

I hope that this is acceptable to everyone?

ruralcounsel

I'm with the skeptics ...

First, "people" is way too broad, if what you are really thinking is love and affection. And #5 is absolutely right ... once you've built up a tolerance (hit that zone of benign neglect?) it's more likely boredom and seeking different stimulus will occur, not seeking more of the same. Some folks seem addicted to "romance" ... which is why they never settle but keep falling in (and out) of love. Yeah, "people" is definitely weak.

I mean, I like people too, ... I just can't finish a whole one by myself.

matt

People? No. I hate people. They suck. Can barely tolerate them in small doses.

I don't find alcohol or tobacco addictive either. It's all in your head.

Really. Stop whining about addiction. Get over it.