Stereotypes are pretty dangerous things. They bias opinion about a group of people, and are the basis for racism and bigotry. Massive amounts of research is available on stereotype threat, where the mere mention of a negative stereotype is enough for people to react based on internalized negative beliefs. However, when it comes to “addicts”, the stereotypes are so ingrained that if you don’t want to accept them, then you are considered in denial and not ready to get help.
In the September 16th issue of the NY Times, John Tierney writes about the research of Dr. Carl Hart, an experimental psychologist at Columbia University who has done some very interesting research on addiction and the behavior of “addicts.” In the article, Mr. Tierney describes Dr. Hart’s research bringing regular users of crack and methamphetamine into a lab to research the kinds of decisions they make. According to traditional stereotypes, these “addicts” should be unable to control themselves when given the option to use more of their drug of choice. However, this is not what happened. Instead, when given the option of using versus delaying their own gratification to get a monetary reward at the end of the study, several weeks away, the participants showed an overwhelming response against typical “addict behavior” and chose to take the money several weeks down the road.
What Dr. Hart’s work shows is that not all addicted people act as stereotypically “expected”, and lumping together ideas about people with substance abuse issues is a way to perpetuate stereotypes. “Addict behavior” is nothing more than a way of suggesting that “they” behave differently from “us” and therefore we are not alike. This is, however, not true! People struggling with substances make decisions using the same reward/consequence model that we all use, and the more that we can find and see the similarities between “us” and “them”, the easier it will be to help get everyone the treatment that they need.
Some people find words like “addict” helpful, and if that is the case for an individual, then I encourage its use! However, for many people, the insistence that they accept the label in order to get help is a significant barrier. By applying that label and the associated stigma to over 23 million people, we reinforce negative stereotypes that are, as in the case of Dr. Hart’s studies, not accurate for the individuals. We recognize the damage of stereotyping other groups of people; let’s widen our recognition to people who struggle with substance use.