Engineered for Addiction: Why Everyday Habits and Pleasures Now Ensnare Us

When we think of addiction, gritty images of drug use, gambling, or self-destructive binging on guilty pleasures all come to mind. However, as our culture has grown increasingly commodified, addiction has gone from a fringe affliction to an almost-invisible, everyday condition. As pleasure-seeking is taken to new heights, it becomes harder to imagine the days of analog culture before endless scrolling and apps built to satisfy any desire on demand.

In our secularized culture, there are few limits on pursuing pleasure. The assumption is that maximizing the quantity and quality of pleasure will boost human happiness. When we consider that, despite the explosion of material culture, many of us are increasingly depressed and anxious, it begs the question of whether we’re on the right path.

Most people won’t admit they have issues with impulse control when it comes to apparently innocuous pleasures. It’s relatively easy to pinpoint the problems with chemical addictions. Alcohol, drugs, and tobacco are obvious in their addictive potential and how they can ruin lives.

What about the less apparent addictive behaviors?

Recent data shows that Americans spend an average of four hours per day on mobile devices, and roughly 70 percent of that time is spent on social, photo, and video apps such as Facebook and YouTube. The top three pornography sites in the world receive a combined 5.8 billion website hits each month. Almost 60 percent of the calories that Americans consume come from ultra-processed foods.

The oft-heard expression regarding managing addiction is “all things in moderation.” But when “all things” are engineered and marketed for maximum addictive potential, is this the best approach? Behavioral addictions can more easily fly under the radar when it comes to these “softer” substances. Is it really different from external substances when the drug is internal—like the neurotransmitter dopamine?

When ‘More’ Becomes ‘Never Enough’

Dr. Daniel Lieberman, a clinical professor at George Washington University, discusses the role of dopamine in behavior and addiction in his book “The Molecule of More.”

“There are few things that feel better than getting a hit of dopamine. It’s what we feel when we’re about to eat a wonderful meal, or we get some good news, or we win a competition. And that good feeling motivates us to get it again and again and again,” he told The Epoch Times.

The double-edged sword of dopamine, according to Lieberman, is that it orients us toward the future. Its job is to drive us toward behavior that will support survival. Dopamine also propels us to maximize future resources.

“It’s looking out for our genes, getting them to survive and reproduce,” he said. “Dopamine is about making the future better, but its role is very, very specific. It’s only focused on the future. It does not process things that occur in the present moment. And so as soon as something goes from the future, the present dopamine shuts down.”

The capacity for addiction today lies in the disconnect between our hardwired biology and so-called supernormal stimuli: modern consumer products and services such as processed food, social media, and pornography that act on these reward pathways to trigger powerful consumptive urges.

“Once an activity triggers dopamine once, it becomes sticky, and eventually we can lose control over our behavior,” Lieberman said. “Now, the people who write code for social media, they know this. In fact, they hire psychologists who are experts in compulsive behavior in order to try to trigger compulsive behaviors in their customers. You know, most of these things that we use in maladaptive ways don’t cost us anything.”

But, as the saying goes, “If you’re not paying for the product, then you are the product.”

But not all of these addictive products are free—or optional. Among these supernormal stimuli is something we simply can’t go without: food.

We Are What We (Over)Eat

When Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Michael Moss began his investigation into the food industry, he was asked by a British tabloid reporter if he thought processed food was as addictive as hard drugs.

“It seemed totally ludicrous to me to compare Twinkies with cocaine,” Moss told The Epoch Times.

In his first book, “Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us,” published in 2013, he uncovered how the food industry manufactured its products for maximum “bliss.”

“They use chemists to manipulate the formulas to make them as attractive as possible. They use experimental psychologists to get in our heads and figure out what emotional buttons to push in us that will get us to eat even when we’re not hungry,” Moss said. “They use lots of strategic marketing in the grocery store in order to get us to sort of drop our guard and shop impulsively rather than stick to a shopping list, which again, is another symptom of a substance being addictive.”

And yet, he says he initially avoided using the term “addiction” to describe what was happening. But, as he continued his investigations and published his 2021 follow-up book, “Hooked: Food, Free Will, and How the Food Giants Exploit Our Addictions,” he concluded that dependence on processed food could indeed become a full-blown addiction. And, in some instances, it can be even more insidious than drugs.

A foundational component of addictions is how they can become implanted in our memory. Moss pointed out that while memories tethered to drugs typically take root in our teenage years, food-related memories form in our earliest years. This is why corporations such as Coca-Cola Co. weave together marketing narratives around the ballpark and the dinner table.

“The memories begin earlier, and they get associated with joyful moments in our life, more than drug memories or tobacco memories,” he said.

Another aspect that can make processed food as, or even more, addicting than drugs is the speed at which we can consume them. Moss said that Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, discovered that one thing that made cocaine so addictive was how fast it reached the brain. Moss noted that this is why addicts will make the jump from snorting cocaine to smoking crack, since the latter hits the brain much faster.

“[Processed foods] are packaged to allow us to rip open those packages really fast and get to the food without delay, which is exciting to the brain. And then the very refined nature of the salt, sugar, fat, which has the ability to reach the brain much quicker,” Moss said.

He concluded that food corporations exploit our instinctual drives related to food in order to make their products irresistible to the average consumer.

Knocking Out Addiction

Ed Latimore, a former professional boxer turned content creator and best-selling author, battled alcohol and pornography addiction in his 20s. Growing up in public housing in Pittsburgh, he struggled with poverty, hunger, and violence but, for the most part, stayed out of trouble.

He won a lottery to attend a high school in a different neighborhood of Pittsburgh than where he lived. He was exposed to a new atmosphere and a new group of students. By the time he graduated, he had grown resentful of his mother for the dangerous and turbulent life he endured growing up, culminating in a swirl of emotions that helped push him into alcoholism.

“I was drinking because of my environment; I didn’t like who I was. I didn’t feel capable. I felt this was a way for me to fit in. … It was a way for me to open up my personality. And that makes it easy because it does that. … But, it does it at a steep cost,” Latimore told The Epoch Times.

Meanwhile, he also grappled with dependence on pornography.

“Porn hijacks your natural inclination. … Porn is ‘safe.’ Going out and talking to a girl is not,” Latimore said. “You get rejected, you waste time, she might not look the way you want her to look. In fact, she probably won’t. It’s very easy to fall into that.”

He was also a burgeoning amateur boxer. He realized his addictions were holding him back. In January 2013, he enlisted in the National Guard to develop his employable skills and earn money for college. In the same month, he had his first professional fight.

After facing long-term sobriety in basic training, he decided to put down the bottle for good. Concurrently, Latimore wrote routinely, held down a job, completed his bachelor’s degree in physics, and spent quality time with his girlfriend. All this came together to leave little room for aimless socializing or indulging.

“I replaced what I was doing for fun with a purpose. I stopped just killing time, and it was real time being put in,” he said. “You don’t have time to go out when you have a purpose. … I would rather get my degree and [I had] boxing. And then, everything else supported it. … These were vital components.”

Ultimately, Latimore said forging a purpose can replace the need he sought to fill with addictions. He stressed that this new purpose needs to demand time and energy from us to be fulfilling, but it must be in a different domain from that of a given addiction. For example, if you’re hooked on porn, aiming to be a professional gamer won’t work, nor will a recovering alcoholic find much success in becoming a nightclub DJ.

“You have got to figure out what you’re looking for and really be ruthless about getting that. … I call my sobriety a habit,” he said. “I spent time building that up.”

Latimore routinely shares his story of overcoming dependence. He also coaches others on how to finally quit. Regarding everyday addictions, he sees modern supernormal stimuli as so prevalent that it can be difficult to put up barriers.

“I believe you can get a person to stop almost anything. But, if that thing is ubiquitous, if it is everywhere, if it is easy to get, they don’t even have a chance to build up the discipline,” he said. “It’s a hyper-experience, and you’ve got to recalibrate to life.”

The Illusion of Control

Whether we’re addicted to social media, pornography, or food, freedom begins with divesting ourselves of illusions.

“There’s this illusion that we are in control inside of our heads, and nothing could be farther from the truth,” Lieberman said. “So the first step is to accept that other people have the ability to profoundly manipulate your thoughts and your behaviors. The second step is to pay attention to when you’re doing things that make you either unhappy or physically ill.”

It can be dizzying to comb through the possibility of pleasures that may reel us in, but a simple barometer lies in whether a product or service is marketed as “convenient.”

“These adversarial companies are constantly telling us … life can be easy. You know, Amazon’s gonna deliver you that package by drones. You don’t have to wait 24 hours. Everything is about making things easy, easy, easy. And we lose our ability to make sacrifices and do hard things the more we indulge in easy,” Lieberman said.

Deliberate Change

In response to growing awareness about behavioral addiction and dopamine, the “dopamine fasting” fad has become popular, especially among the Silicon Valley crowd. As typically conceived, it can involve anything from days-long retreats to weeklong abstention from digital devices.

For Lieberman, the trend is largely a gimmick; he emphasized that the brain adapts very slowly. Instead, he recommends something like a Dry January, a 30-day period of abstention, usually from alcohol.

Taking a cue from how alcoholics recover, he said it takes up to 12 months for cravings to go away, but 30 days is long enough to begin to feel positive changes that can motivate people to stick with their lifestyle change.

Lieberman also pointed to religion as an institution that “supports our ability to make sacrifices and exert self-control.” He cited research that showed that religious people were less likely to experience anxiety and depression, major risk factors for addiction. But the benefits were seen primarily in those who attended communal worship, he said.

“Most religions, if not all, give us a philosophy of sacrifice, right? It says ‘sacrifice pleasures now for future benefit.’ That’s very helpful when struggling with maladaptive dopamine. And it also gives us that social support to reach our higher aspirations, rather than giving in to our lower cravings. I think that the deterioration of religion, especially organized communal worship services, plays a role.”

To help break away from processed food addiction, Moss suggests starting by cooking one’s own food.

“If you can find any way to start cooking a little bit of your food, it has this kind of miracle side effect of causing you to slow down and think about the food and probably even eat less,” he said.

Moss also suggested analyzing one’s pattern of cravings and getting ahead of the urge for processed food. For example, if you typically have a bag of chips at 3 p.m., take a walk or eat an apple at 2:50 p.m.

In addition to honing in on one’s life purpose, Latimore stressed the importance of changing one’s environment, including the company one keeps. He believes that, in many cases, we are not only addicted to the substance but also to the pattern of behaviors surrounding it.

“It’s not that you take a recovering alcoholic to a bar, and they’re going to twitch and be like, ‘I got to drink.’ It’s that it’s a familiar place with a familiar set of behaviors,” he said. “And they fall into the ritual a lot of times. It’s the ritual that you’re addicted to almost as much as the actual substance.”

Once we decide to tackle everyday addictions, we must keep in mind that experts and recovering addicts tend to agree that it won’t be easy. It may be the most difficult thing we ever do. This represents a departure from a culture fueled by the expectation that all ills can be cured with the latest pill, product, or app.

This brings us to a crossroads: We can get on the conveyor belt of easy dependence and deterioration or begin the trek up the steps of holistic health and freedom. Choose wisely.

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Jano Tantongco is a writer and digital creative based in New York. He covers health, culture, and politics. Find him on Twitter: @JanoTantongco.
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