#55: Identifying your hidden money addictions

4th October, 2021

Welcome to the Idiot Money newsletter. This week, becoming wiser with money by understanding that your hidden addictions are leading your wallet astray, including:

  • what’s wrong with the conclusions commonly jumped to from the ‘give drugs to rats’ experiment;

  • the limitations of addiction ‘cures’; and

  • how the problem of being a bit dumb with money isn’t about the world, or your nature, but how your decision-making machinery determines how you make the most of your wealth of opportunities.

Friends, this one's important.

Society’s story of addiction is all wrong. Understanding how can help you treat your hidden money problems. Because your story of your addictions (or perceived lack of them) is likely all wrong too.

You’ve probably heard about the ‘give rats drugs’ experiment. If not, it’s pretty simple.

You plop a rat in a cage with two water bottles, one of which is laced with heroin, or cocaine, or Fox News. Pretty quickly, the rat drinks itself to death from the drugged water.

Moral of the story: rats are weak and silly and drugs are bad and evil.

This experiment is responsible for a lot of how we think about how addiction works.

And this is a problem.

Because the conclusions we’ve drawn from it are spectacularly wrong.

Below, we’ll see how they’re wrong, how they apply to the more mundane but vastly more important ways we screw up with money, and what we – whatever our class of poison – should be doing instead.

When it comes to our financial decisions, we’re all living under a haze of addiction. The more you think this doesn’t apply to you, the more it probably does. Not only are we far more afflicted by addictions than we believe, but we’re addicted to ignorance of our addictions, and therefore end up more likely to label them as ‘treats’ than to treat them.

Idiot addiction therapy: scorch the earth

In Idiot World, addiction is part of the all-consuming war between good and evil.

Addiction is about a chemical reaction between a compulsive desire and a person too morally weak to deal with it.

To treat the addiction, you must therefore lock the chemicals in a cupboard and the person in a prison.

Clever addiction therapy: cure the addicts

In Clever World, you realise that, after a multi-decade, multi-country, experiment, the way of the warmongers hasn’t worked very well.

In Clever World, addiction is still a chemical reaction between a compulsive desire and a person too weak to deal with it, but the treatment plan is a bit more personable; running away from compulsive desires doesn’t work, so the answer must be to have a better compulsive desire to run towards.

Less war, more counselling.

Let’s return to our rat experiment.

The original experiment was rubbish. So a clever chap called Professor Bruce Alexander, a professor of psychology in Vancouver, came along, made it better, and noticed something pretty cool, as Johann Hari explains in this TED talk:

‘Ah,’ [said Professor Alexander] ‘we're putting the rat in an empty cage. It's got nothing to do except use these drugs. Let's try something different.’ So Professor Alexander built a cage that he called ‘Rat Park’, which is basically heaven for rats. They've got loads of cheese, they've got loads of coloured balls, they've got loads of tunnels. Crucially, they've got loads of friends. They can have loads of sex.

They’ve got the same two water bottles. You may be able to guess what happened next [my emphasis].

In Rat Park, they don't like the drug water. They almost never use it. None of them ever use it compulsively. None of them ever overdose. You go from almost 100 percent overdose when they're isolated to zero percent overdose when they have happy and connected lives.

When you start a rat in the boring, isolated, drug-addict cage and move them to ‘Rat Park’, they even wean themselves off the chemically enhanced water.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could do a similar experiment on humans? Perhaps put some people in an isolated environment with easy access to heroin, say, and then transport them to one with good-enough access to heroin, but with other stuff to do too?

Luckily (in a way), we have just such an experiment. It’s better known as the Vietnam War.

In Vietnam, 20 percent of all American troops were using loads of heroin, and if you look at the news reports from the time, they were really worried, because they thought, my God, we're going to have hundreds of thousands of junkies on the streets of the United States when the war ends. It made total sense. Now, those soldiers who were using loads of heroin were followed home. The Archives of General Psychiatry did a really detailed study, and what happened to them? It turns out they didn't go to rehab. They didn't go into withdrawal. Ninety-five percent of them just stopped.

Maybe, think the people in Clever World, the chemicals aren’t that objectively addictive after all. In which case, they conclude, the ‘problem’ must be the people.

Maybe, think some people in Clever World, we shouldn’t even talk about ‘addiction’, as this excerpt from a review of Addiction by Design, a book about gambling addicts, explains:

Peter Cohen in the Netherlands said maybe we shouldn't even call it addiction. Maybe we should call it bonding. Human beings have a natural and innate need to bond, and when we're happy and healthy, we'll bond and connect with each other, but if you can't do that, because you're traumatized or isolated or beaten down by life, you will bond with something that will give you some sense of relief. Now, that might be gambling, that might be pornography, that might be cocaine, that might be cannabis, but you will bond and connect with something because that's our nature. That's what we want as human beings.

This is a lovely thought – who wouldn’t support a ‘more hugs’ policy? – but it’s the sort of plan that’s going to be knocked out when the world punches it in the face the second it steps in the ring.

Maybe, just like moving to Rat Park, if you’ve got a clear-enough choice between stuff that makes your life better and stuff that makes your life worse, you’ll choose the Good stuff.

But we don’t live in Rat Park. Rat Park didn’t have billboards, or ‘influencer’ rats.

A ‘cure’ that ‘works’ in the lab but not the wild doesn’t work. The ‘perfect’ plan you don’t stick to is worse than no plan at all, because it sells you the illusion of progress, and entrenches your belief, when things don’t go according to plan, that it was you or the plan that was at fault, rather than how well the two dance together.

Recall how diets based on denial not only don’t work, but can’t work, because they build on, rather than beat, the defective belief that all along you’re wired to actually want cake.

All show is no flow

Outside of places like North Korea, we have better access to all the necessary elements of a Good Life than ever before, and our opportunities to bond with our soul’s matiest mates are as good as unlimited.

But what have we done with these opportunities? What sort of world have we collectively constructed and advertised as the ‘Good Life’?

Is it one built on playing with our ratty friends in the ball pit and hanging out in the complimentary cheese room?


It’s a huge goddamn isolationist lair. Something fit less for Bonding and more for Blofelding.

In Hari’s talk, he related a study, which…

…looked at the number of close friends the average American believes they can call on in a crisis. That number has been declining steadily since the 1950s. The amount of floor space an individual has in their home has been steadily increasing, and I think that's like a metaphor for the choice we've made as a culture. We've traded floorspace for friends, we've traded stuff for connections, and the result is we are one of the loneliest societies there has ever been.

The irony, of course, being that one of the main reasons people crave so much floorspace is to ‘host’ or show off to their friends, forgetting that we only ever show-off our insecurities, and therefore if you need to show off to someone, they’re probably not a friend in the traditional sense.

The art of fighting without fighting

Clever World’s recognition that addictions are neither about especially compelling products is great.

But it still fails to see that it’s not about especially compulsive people either.

It’s about seeing the world through a narrow, distorted, self-deceptive, lens.

A lens that leads to a belief that there is no alternative.

Easy access to unhealthy food isn’t a problem to a healthy body that clearly and instinctively ‘sees’ its likely reaction to consuming it.

Work well enough on your vision, and your fighting skills become irrelevant.

As we saw in Idiot Money #52:

Those that spend hours a day moving, meditating, and contemplating will tell you that it doesn’t take time, it creates it, because they’re now able to easily and happily ignore all the distracting, de-energising crap that blinds other people into believing they don’t have time for anything else.

If you’re thinking this sounds a lot like the First Noble Truth, that ‘all of life is threatened by self-deceptive, self-destructive behaviour’, then you’re spot on!

And how do we treat this self-deceptive narrowing of vision?

It’s not with a series of isolated steps – tips, tricks, and hacks. It’s with a system. ‘A web-like network, or an ecosystem that you cultivate in conjunction with changing circumstances.

There’s no need to go to war with addiction, or advertising.

War says either you or your circumstances are flawed and you must fight against those flaws.

But you can’t win a battle that never ends.

We’re not short of chances to earn or spend money in ways that make life better.

We’re not short of superb bonding opportunities.

We just choose to use our resources elsewhere.

We choose poorly.

We need to improve not our circumstances, or our ‘selves’, but our choosing.

We’ll look at Wiser World addiction therapy next week.

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