so far in my life my addictions cascade goes something like this:

sugar -> unsuitable boys -> cigarettes ->work ->alcohol.

there may have been a little internet shopping habit in there for a while, too, kind of mixed up with the alcohol. I have a very pretty chair I would never have bid for on Ebay if I were sober. it’s the one thing I have to thank Wolfie for 😉

(running? so far dancing on the edge of addiction. conscious that edge is there, though. compelled, even though… if I am injured, for example…)

all the above are behaviours which have done me considerable dis-service in the past.

so, why do we choose behaviours that do not serve us? when we know jolly well that they don’t?

picoeconomics is a term used by the psychologist George Ainslie to describe the tendency for people to have a stronger preference for more immediate payoffs relative to later payoffs.

humans are said to discount the value of the later reward, by a factor that increases with the length of the delay.

in his catchily titled work, ‘Picoeconomics: The Strategic Interaction of Successive Motivational States within the Person (Studies in Rationality and Social Change)’, Ainslie proposes that just as classical economics describes negotiation for limited resources among institutions, and microeconomics describes such negotiation among individuals, so picoeconomics describes interactions that resemble negotiation among parts that can be defined within the individual for control of that individual’s finite behavioral capacity.

it’s a subject near to many ex-boozehounds’ hearts – how can we make ourselves appreciate the joys of jam tomorrow rather than jam (or Jack Daniels) today? the tendency otherwise to act against our own long term interests is called akrasia… as in the FYC song... “she drives me akraisy, and I can’t help myself…”

Caitlin Moran has a phrase for this selection of immediate gratification over that of the future. she describes those living in poverty as electing to choose the ‘immediate cheap, hot, sweet treat’ over less definite future benefits, which they have no certainty of achieving.

have been mulling over this tendency to heavily discount the value of future benefits, and seeing that it goes hand in hand with the tendency to become overly anxious about future events. so I don’t value the good and I inflate the fear? no wonder I drank, to be honest. it’s amazing that I ever came out from under the duvet.

these are just a couple of the ways in which our minds mislead us in decision making. these cognitive biases hold enormous influence over us. trying to make sensible decisions while labouring under such biases is like trying to parallel park a horsebox while wearing reading glasses. everything we see is distorted by them. we lose our perspective and are too reckless or too careful…

what I’m thinking about here is the percieved benefits of a range of behaviours, and how they are affected by timing. so, how does this help us in recovery?

firstly, by recognising that the power of a large and seemingly vital future goal may not be sufficient to keep us on track. when I was in my last months of attempting to moderate my alcohol consumption I laid it at the feet of all I held dear. at my faith, at my family, at my career. not one of those things was enough to keep me from drinking. because however big that intrinsic future value was, when compared with the immediate value of a bottle of wine staring at me from the corner shop shelf, it was not enough. there are indeed studies showing that the heavier the drinker, the heavier the temporal discounting (eg see here). my conclusion, when the thoughts of my children’s faces were not enough to keep me from drinking, was that I was a bad person. this made me in turn more likely to want to drink. cycle of shame, anyone?

secondly, by artificially inflating the immediate rewards associated with sobriety. I genuinely believe I would not be sober today without Belle and her wonderful concept of sober treats: as she says:

  • plan your 30 day, 60 day and 90 day treats now. go online to amazon and put them in your shopping cart.
  • daily treats for the first 2 weeks, and then treats every two days thereafter.

(btw if you are in the first days of sobriety that post tells you everything you need to know. do the stuff on that list. it bloody works.)

because it has to be said that many of the rewards of sobriety are distinctly long-term. and as such they DO NOT SHOUT AS LOUDLY as the immediate rewards of alcohol. by providing short-term rewards for sobriety we redress that balance that otherwise can end up with us standing at the grocer’s counter with that bottle in our hand, the one we swore we were not going to buy.

lastly, how am I doing on the treats front? can my recent squirrelly behaviour be ascribed to anything other than a surplus of mince pies and a deficit of alone time? am not taking any chances so have just given my Amazon wishlist a New Year’s workout 😉

if you’d like to read more about picoeconomics then Ainslie has a very good website here, with full texts of a number of related published articles together with a rather fetching illustration of Eve, munching an apple whilst ‘swinging on the universal discount curve from delayed rewards.’

our persistent motivational conflicts may well have been around since the time of Eve, and are only exacerbated by the sledge-hammer effect of alcohol upon the limbic systems of our brains.

I truly believe that once we stop hitting ourselves around the head with that hammer, in the sweet silence afterwards we can begin to distinguish and unpick our underlying cognitive biases, in a way that will stand us in good stead for our future saner and freer lives.

so, well done for getting to the end of this post! here – have a photo of a cute kitten. we’re all about the rewards, round here 😉