Conference on Addiction

The Mechanisms of Self-Control: Lessons from Addiction, 12-14 May 2010, University of Oxford
13-14 May saw a very successful, oversubscribed conference on ‘The Mechanisms of Self-Control: Lessons from Addiction,’ organised by Dr Nick Shea and Professor Neil Levy, held at Christ Church College, Oxford.  Giving talks were a world class line-up:  Professor George Ainslie, Professor Kent Berridge, Drs Hanna Pickard and Steve Pearce, Dr Natalie Gold, Professor Mark Muraven and Professor Richard Holton.  Each speaker had a discussant, and there was fruitful discussion following each talk.  The audience spanned the UK, Europe and the US.
Conference abstract

Loss of control over some aspects of behaviour is usually held to be a defining feature of addiction. But the loss of control envisaged is somewhat mysterious. The series of actions in which addicts engage in order to procure and consume their drug is not reflexive; should it nevertheless be properly seen as uncontrolled? What mechanisms are impaired in the addict’s behaviour, and how can those impairments illuminate normal agency? This conference will bring together leading thinkers in neuroscience, psychology, psychiatry and philosophy to explore and advance our understanding of the mechanisms of self-control and the way in which they are weakened in addiction.
Audio of each talk where possible can be found within the programme below.
Video of the talk, courtesy of the Science Network, is available here.
Public Lecture: Steven Hyman (Provost, Harvard University)
Meditations on Self-Control: Lessons from the Neurobiology of Addiction
Podcastand video
George Ainslie (Coatesville Veterans Affairs Medical Center)
Money as MacGuffin: How Gambling Conjures Utility out of Thin Air
Discussant: Pat Churchland (UCSD)
The problem of addiction is not confined to a few seductive molecules. Analysis of human motivation in terms of hyperbolic discount curves suggests that addictive preferences are woven deeply into the fabric of civilized life. This penetration is not due simply to payoffs occurring earlier than costs. Sophisticated defense against such payoff patterns entails what is in effect bargaining with expected future selves, leading to categorical (principled) judgments that make choice both more rigid and more volatile. Bargaining considerations confound the instrumental with the hedonic use of belief, and efficiency at reaching goals increases the role of appetite—as opposed to its satisfaction-- as a determining factor of choice. The ultimate result is addictive hedonic choices that are disguised to a variable extent as productive activities, the exemplar of which is gambling.

Kent Berridge (University of Michigan)
Wanting and Liking: Phenomena for Addiction and Philosophy
Discussant: Matthew Rushworth (University of Oxford)
Incentive salience (‘wanting’), a basic form of motivation for rewards generated by mostly subcortical mesolimbic brain systems, is separable from the pleasure of the same rewards (‘liking’), and from learning and from cognitive evaluations about the goodness of a choice. Triggered by encounter with reward cues, and amplified by mesolimbic dopamine-related brain activations, incentive salience ordinarily adds motivational ‘omph’ to conscious desires (wanting in the ordinary sense) that are mediated by higher cortex-based brain systems, but ‘wanting’ can sometimes detach from conscious desires. Permanent hyper-reactivity in the underlying mesolimbic brain systems of sensitized addicts, transiently amplified further by states of drug-priming, appetite or stress, cue-triggered ‘wanting’ may be a mechanism that makes particular temptations especially compulsive. At such moments, incentive salience may compete with and overwhelm opposing cognitive resolutions and choices, even if the temptation was successfully resisted before.

Steve Pearce (Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Mental Health Trust) and Hanna Pickard (University of Oxford)
Addiction in Context: Philosophical Lessons from the Clinic
Discussant: Walter Sinnott-Armstrong (Duke)
Clinical interventions for treatment of personality disorder and addiction suggest that addiction is not a species of compulsion. We argue that an explanation of why addicts struggle to control their use need not depart from the concepts employed in our basic folk psychological understanding of agency. In particular, we appeal to five folk psychological factors to explain addiction: (i) strength of desire and habit; (ii) willpower (iii) motivation; (iv) functional role; and (v) decision and resolve. We suggest that reflection on the trajectory from addiction to recovery reveals that agency, understood as the power to do otherwise, comes in degrees. Addicts are agents: they have free will. But their agency is often minimal: their choices are meager, and their freedom is correspondingly limited. Part of the clinical aim is to augment it. Finally, we address the concern that, if addicts are agents, to whatever degree, then they are blameworthy for harm they perpetrate. We suggest that, if control comes in degrees, so too does responsibility. The very same reasons that reduce control equally reduce blameworthiness.
Natalie Gold (University of Edinburgh)
Framing, Decision-Making and Self-Control
Discussant: John Broome (University of Oxford)

Mark Muraven (SUNY Albany)Self-Control Failure: Depletion and Motivation
Discussant: Owen Flanagan (Duke University)
Research has suggested exerting self-control depletes a personal resources critical to the success of self-control. Hence, after exerting self-control, subsequent attempts at self-control are less successful. However, subsequent research has also shown that motivation is critical to this process, so that highly motivated individuals are less affected (at least temporarily) by depletion. I will explain these effects through a conservation of resources account. Implications for addictions and other behaviors will be discussed. 

Richard Holton (MIT)
Finding Space for an Addict's Self-Control
Discussant: Tim Bayne (University of Oxford)
An account of addiction has to explain both how it can radically change behaviour, and how it can be resisted. I aim to explore an account that puts together an incentive salience approach with a picture of willpower as a relatively autonomous faculty. The central idea is that whilst addiction uncouples desire both from liking and from judgments of good, it leaves the mechanism of selfcontrol still operating: though since desire rages unchecked, exerting self-control is hard work. I explore different ways of understanding the mechanisms that are involved here.


Organised by the Oxford Centre for Neuroethics, in the Faculty of Philosophy and James Martin 21st Century School, University of Oxford.
Generously supported by the Wellcome Trust, the Laces Trust, and the Australian Research Council.

Archive Events