Debating Addiction and Evolutionary Psychology on Bloggingheads

Robert Wright, the journalist and science writer, was kind enough to invite me over to to discuss research on internet addiction. Neither of us liked a recent paper on “genes for internet addiction” that got a lot of public press. We then went on to debate our respective approaches to understanding addiction: evolutionary psychology vs. neuroanthropology.

I’ve tried to embed the video here, but the PLOS site isn’t liking the flash player. So for the full 50 minute glory, head over to; you can even navigate between different sections with handy embedded links there.

You can also see a five-minute piece that popped up over on Slate with the title, The Psychology of Constantly Checking Twitter.

Wright is the author of books like Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny and The Moral Animal: Why We Are, the Way We Are: The New Science of Evolutionary Psychology. He also maintains an active blog over at The Atlantic.

The whole shebang started with recent headlines like “German scientists find ‘internet-addiction gene’” and “Caught In The Web? Blame Your Genes“. The journalists were reporting on the supposed results from this 2012 paper, The Role of the CHRNA4 Gene in Internet Addiction: A Case-control Study. A relevant piece of the abstract:

Recent studies from Asia provided first evidence for a molecular genetic link between serotonergic and dopaminergic neurotransmission and Internet addiction. The present report offers data on a new candidate gene in the investigation of Internet addiction-the gene coding for the nicotinic acetylcholine receptor subunit alpha 4 (CHRNA4)… A total of 132 participants with problematic Internet use and 132 age- and sex-matched controls participated in the study. Participants provided DNA samples and filled in the Internet Addiction Test Questionnaire. The T- variant (CC genotype) of the rs1044396 polymorphism on the CHRNA4 gene occurred significantly more frequently in the case group.

Wright actually paid the money to access the whole paper, and wrote about it in his piece Do You Have the ‘Internet-Addiction Gene’?

I really liked this part from his first piece on internet addiction:

Here’s what the German scientists found: People who reported heavy dependence on the internet–including feelings of unhappiness when denied access to it–were more likely to have a certain gene than comparable people who weren’t so internet-dependent.

One thing that would be nice to know, before we decide how excited to get about this result, is: How much more likely? Do 90 percent of internet addicts have this gene whereas only 15 percent of non-addicts have it? Or is the difference much less dramatic than that? …

It turns out that the numbers are underwhelming: 27 percent of the people identified as internet addicts had the gene, whereas 17 percent of non-addicts had it. In other words, the “gene responsible for internet addiction” isn’t found in most people who are addicted to the internet! And the chances that a non-addict will have the gene are, relatively speaking, pretty high–63 percent as high as the chances that an addict will have it.

Not all that impressive, we both agreed. It gets worse. As I talk about on bloggingheads (yes, direct to the relevant section!), the scores the researchers used to qualify someone as an “internet addict” on the Internet Addiction Test Questionnaire actually indicate that the person is an “online user with complete control.” The updated guidelines for the test are easily found, um, online.

So, where was the debate? Wright went on to pen Why We All Have ‘Internet-Addiction Genes’. It was standard evolutionary psychology, an argument from universal psychological dispositions, with evolutionary medicine and environmental mismatch (our different modern environment) added to explain our vulnerability to drugs of abuse.

Here, our evolved genes explain our present behavior: “the biochemical mechanisms (including genes) involved in chemical addictions will naturally be the mechanisms involved in habit formation more generally since habit formation is what they were originally designed for.”

Wright explains the evolutionary logic at greater length:

Human beings are biochemical machines “designed” by natural selection to, among other things, form habits. In particular, we’re designed to form habits that helped our ancestors survive and get genes into the next generation — such habits as eating meat or fruit or having sex with auspicious mates or impressing people or even gathering tactically useful information about people (i.e., gossip). The habit-forming machinery involves the release of reward chemicals, such as dopamine, that make us feel good upon attaining these goals–upon eating fatty food, sweet food, having sex, hearing people laugh at our jokes or marvel at our exploits, hearing good gossip, etc.

Now, the environment that natural selection designed us for — a hunter-gatherer environment — didn’t feature endless and readily available supplies of tasty food, and it didn’t present constant and easy chances to mate or impress peers or pick up good gossip. Our ancestors had to spot their opportunities and then do some work to get these things–and only then, upon achieving these goals, would they get the chemical rewards that would bring pleasure and thus encourage them to repeat this work in the future. So it took some effort to reach that magic moment when, with your goal attained, chemically mediated gratification would ensue.

In the modern world, there are shortcuts to getting these rewards: Just ingest chemicals — nicotine, cocaine, heroin, whatever — that intervene directly in the chemical reward system, sometimes by mimicking neurotransmitters.

On Neuroanthropology Facebook, I wrote a lengthy reaction. In the end, my reaction wasn’t so much about the evolutionary logic (see this pdf for my views), but about the innate psychology approach that undergirds this type of approach. So here’s my post We’re in for a Long Fight. I made some light edits for readability.

We’re in for a long fight. That was my realization this morning. Here’s why.

Robert Wright, author of books such as Nonzero and The Moral Animal, rightly criticized a story this week about people having genes for “internet addiction”. It was a quick response, focused on the actual data:

“The numbers are underwhelming… The chances that a non-addict will have the gene are, relatively speaking, pretty high–63 percent as high as the chances that an addict will have it.”

So the “internet gene” story was sensationalist, and the scientists took part in promoting it that way, so it was good that there was some journalistic pushback from a respected source.

Then yesterday Wright had to publish his defense for why even talking about “having an internet gene” is problematic. And that’s where my problems started.

Wright uses a typical evol psych model, without too much “module” talk – we’re designed by evolution to have habits, habits are often rewarding because of “reward chemicals”, and we have a modern environment that permits “easy indulgence.” I won’t go into how to build a better evolutionary approach to addiction (see the pdf of my 2007 chapter); rather, I want to focus on why we’re in for a long fight.

(1) Psychology rules over anthropology
(2) The brain is this biochemical machine

Wright early on says:

“Whether heavy internet use deserves to be called an addiction or just a hard-to-break habit is a question about a behavior pattern and its attendant psychological states. To answer it we ask such things as how strong the cravings for the internet are, what lengths a person will go to in order to satisfy them, and so on.”

So here’s the psychology trump card. Take a human behavior, say, internet use. The way to explain that becomes a question about “psychological states” and cravings and “what lengths a person will go.”

And, yes, that’s the way we often think in the United States. It’s the meme to break all memes – our minds explain who we are, and exist independently of environment, culture, and all the rest. We become “a person” – no history, no body, no meaning – and our psychological states determine what we do.

Now onto the biology. In Wright’s world, the psychological states can be reduced to biochemical patterns in the brain and attendant genetic variation:

“Whether it’s a habit or an addiction, it is going to involve pleasure-dispensing biochemical mechanisms of the sort that can get us addicted to such chemicals as nicotine and cocaine–because, again, it is through such pleasure-dispensing mechanisms that habits in general form…

“The internet, like a pack of cigarettes or lots of cocaine, lets you just sit in a room and repeatedly trigger reward chemicals that, back in the environment of our evolution, you could trigger only with more work and only less frequently. That’s why an internet habit, like a cocaine habit, can reach dysfunctional levels.

“The above-listed forms of internet dependence–porn, Facebook, TMZ, Twitter, YouTube–are just a few of the possible ingredients of any one case of internet “addiction.” And each of these ingredients itself involves God-knows-which neurotransmitters and neuronal receptors and, by extension, God-knows-how-many genes.”

It is so frustratingly simplistic – a nice pat story. Pleasure = reward chemicals = genes. And don’t worry, we all have those genes! So we can all get addicted to TMZ.

Neuroanthropology gets considerable purchase by short-circuiting the hard-wired brain view, and arguing directly from the brain about how we actually work. And that’s good.

But there’s a bigger fight. And it’s revealed there in Robert Wright’s first move – right to psychology as the way to explain ourselves. We just have to find that one internal factor that must be what caused it. Pavlov’s reinforcement, Freud’s unconscious, the modern brain’s hard-wired habits.

And then that internal factor can be generalized across individuals – “a person” has it or not, or if you’re a bit more sophisticated, perhaps in varying amounts.

Psychology – individualist, internal, and making the world safe for really mindless explanations for over one hundred years. Anthropology still has a lot of work to do to get people to actually recognize people as people, and not just floating disembodied “psychological states” disconnected from any reality.

I wrote that over on Facebook as part of the micro-blogging we do there. More of an off-the-cuff piece, and one that I wouldn’t necessarily write the same way here on the PLOS blog. A bit too snarky. So I was both surprised and pleased when Bob invited me to talk about the “internet gene” research and our different approaches to addiction on I hope you enjoy the conversation.

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