You know the story … you hear about a person who has messed up, again. Everyone starts talking about it. “Why are they so dumb?” “Didn’t they know this was going to happen?” “I just can’t understand why they keep doing this?” Our instinct is to immediately jump on the person for the choices they have made because we can see how poorly thought out the situation is, shouldn’t they be able to? Isn’t it obvious that nothing good is going to come from that situation?
Nowhere is this more prevalent than in the world of substance use, where the consequences of use are pronounced and there is a deep cultural belief that if you struggle with a substance problem it’s your own fault. The common thought is, since most people who moderately drink or recreationally use drugs don’t have any problems, if you have consequences because of your use, you must simply be screwing up in some way or not being careful, or thoughtful enough. Maybe you are not taking things seriously. You must be the problem.
There’s a flaw with this line of thinking. Human beings (and pretty much all living things, for that matter) live by a set of basic rules that are hardwired into our brains. If something is reinforcing, meaning we benefit from it in some way, we tend to do that thing again and again. If it is not reinforcing, then we stop doing it. This is basic behaviorism: we do things that feel good, and when they stop feeling good, we stop.
When it comes to people and animals, behavioral reinforcement works in two ways. Positive reinforcement is the addition of something that you like or that feels good. If you give a dog a treat, you have positively reinforced it (the dog received something that it likes). If you only give that positive reinforcement to the dog when it has done something specific, like sitting down, then the dog pairs sitting down with getting a treat, so it is more likely to sit. This is true for humans as well. If a child is praised for sitting in their chair during dinner and given some of their favorite foods, they will be more likely to sit during dinner moving forward.
The other type of reinforcement is more misunderstood. It is called negative reinforcement, but it’s probably not what you think. Negative reinforcement is the removal of something that you don’t like. So, if in a moment of intense anxiety and panic, someone gives you a hug that reduces that anxiety and panic, you have been negatively reinforced. This concept is really important because this is very often the way substances work to reinforce people, they remove feelings, emotions, and thoughts that are both unwanted and uncomfortable to people. Substance use also eventually removes withdrawal symptoms once someone has become physically dependent.
When we hold this concept of negative reinforcement (the removal of unwanted and uncomfortable things from your life), we can look at the benefits of substance use through a different lens. But, before we jump into substances, let’s take lying as an example of how this works. Sometimes when a person lies, it’s clear to everyone around them that they are just digging themselves a deeper and deeper hole. You want to scream out, “we know the truth, just admit it!” But they don’t, and you can see the agony building on their own face as the lie continues to grow and change.
So, what could they be getting from the lie, if it’s just leading to worse and worse outcomes and more pain in the moment? Well, perhaps it’s avoiding the punishment (even if it’s only avoiding it for a moment). Or perhaps it’s playing into a fantasy that they will escape the situation altogether (which feels good, by the way!). Maybe it started out with a rush of adrenaline when the first lie was told, and it was followed by more lies which relieved the person of the worry that they would have to tell the truth soon. While all of these are only temporary reliefs of discomfort, they are enough of a reinforcer for the human brain to want to go down that path again and again.
In this scenario, the person is possibly being reinforced in several ways, both negative (the removal of the worry of punishment) and in positive ways ( adrenaline rush associated with getting away with it). And, when they get reinforced like this, on a neurological level their brain is encoding this data and coming to the conclusion that lying is actually a good thing. It is reinforcing, and therefore we should do it again. Suddenly, from a behavioral viewpoint, lying is totally understandable!
In the world of neurological reinforcers, few things compare to the reward capabilities that substances can offer. When a person uses a substance, its effect on the brain is noticeable, quick and for the most part consistent. Over time, the expectation that the substance will have a desired effect (e.g., this drink will calm me down) is deeply encoded in the brain’s memory system. We learn that the drink works to calm anxiety, and we do it again and again. It works, it works every time, and it works quickly. The behavior makes sense. And even when the consequences of drinking and drug use start to pile up, the fact that using can make those thoughts, feelings, and uncomfortable physical sensations go away (negative reinforcement), even just for a minute, is a huge reminder to your brain that this action has benefits.
So the next time that you’re looking at someone who is struggling with a behavior that doesn’t seem to make sense, whether that’s eating too much or too unhealthy, or using drugs and alcohol, or even just plain old procrastination and avoidance, remember that they are benefitting from this behavior, and that their behavior makes sense (even if it doesn’t to you). When you look at it through this lens you can find ways to help and respond to the problem constructively instead of just thinking its a dumb person doing dumb things.