The Categorical Imperative

Live your life as though your every act were to become a universal law

- Immanuel Kant

Because each of us inhabits a living creature that is much more sensitive to the immediate payoffs than to the long-range consequences of our actions, we humans are vulnerable to the PIG. Incentive use is only harmful when it causes you to trade something of greater value for something of lesser value; if the benefits of incentive use outweighed the price, I'd encourage you to continue using it.

The tragedy occurs when an individual ends sacrificing health, relationships, or money for the trivial but immediate payoffs that the incentive delivers. Addicts continue to make this self-sabotaging trade, because the cause-and-effect principles that determine their choices favor the PIG. To over-ride the path of least resistance that leads to bad outcomes, you have to develop an understanding of cause-and-effect in your subjective world and exercise your will to follow your path of greatest advantage.

Among the most important cause-and-effect principles that pertain to addictive disorders and loss of control has been elegantly described by George Ainslie*:  "Consider an addict trying to quit, who currently has a clear preference for abstaining in the future, but an equally clear awareness that her own future self poses a threat to this current preference. She may be expected to behave strategically towards the competitive interests of her future self, that is, to precommit herself to her current preferences."

Sadly, despite their sincere desire to change their ways, most people fail to adhere to their precommitments and relapse. The high relapse rate following treatment for Incentive Use Disorders indicates a failure to appreciate the true nature of the problem rather than the impossibility of solving the problem. To prevent relapse, you must train the entity who will be present during future high-risk situations to act in accord with your interests and principles — even when that entity wants to defect. The method to achieve this outcome is called "puppy training," and is composed of the two components listed below:

  1. Appreciate the cause-and-effect principles that cause you to react as you do during high-risk situations. This is accomplished by the Rational Processing System doing the personal research described throughout this course. The fact that you have gotten this far through this demanding material suggests that this is the easy part for you. You likely have the cognitive gifts to understand the important cause-and-effect principles that maintain your addictive trap, and to develop creative and effective solutions.

  2. For most high-functioning addicts, the hard part is executing the solution during high-risk situations. Responding effectively to complex challenges during highly stressful moments is difficult - consider martial arts. Much practice is required so that the intended response can be performed spinally — i.e., with little conscious guidance. The method of practicing a procedural skill to the point that adaptive reactions occur automatically is called "puppy training." Your ability to kindly and patiently train the creature you inhabit is the key determinant of good long-term outcome.

Philosophy of the Puppy Trainer

Once people recognize they have a problem they want immediate gratification of their desire to be free of it. They decide to change and, despite previous failures to adhere to such vows, believe that their current sincerity will be sufficient to carry them through moments of stress and temptation. Our team understands that during a crisis, you will be driven by different motives than you are now. The problem our collaboration must solve is influencing the actions and choices of this future, impulsive self so that you follow your path of greatest advantage — regardless of local conditions.

Aristotle said that impulsive choice, ‘‘akrasia,’’ was the result of choosing according to ‘‘particulars instead of ‘‘universals." Kant said that the highest kind of decision-making involved making all choices as if they defined universal rules —  the ‘‘categorical imperative." The fundamental insight is that you increase your self-control by choosing according to category rather than on a case-by-case basis (e.g., a preference for leading a sober life, even as you would prefer to get smashed at this particular moment).

According to behavioral psychologist Howard Rachlin, the foundation of self-control is the perception of the act as part of a larger and attractive pattern rather than as a particular and isolated act. "Failure of self-control results from failure to see acts as part of larger patterns, and success emerges once this more global level of analysis is realized."

Naturally, the puppy is not capable of analysis or taking on a global perspective. The puppy lives in the here and now. Asking it to choose between a small but immediate payoff and a large but delayed one is not fair, because the puppy is so much more sensitive to the delay than to the magnitude of the payoff. Because we can predict that the puppy will be taken in by the PIG during the high-risk situations, we have the opportunity to prepare for the predictable traps that your future contains.

Dog owners who live near a road are wise to teach their pet to avoid cars. There are predictable dangers waiting for you in the future. Your primary responsibility is to prepare this creature you inhabit to cope successfully with the crises that we know lie ahead. This preparation includes taking care of the creature so that it is strong, happy, and performs well, and training the creature to react adaptively to external events and internal state that promote relapse.

Characteristics of a world-class puppy trainer:

  1. Focused on actualizing your Core Motivation

  2. Seeks to understand and apply the principles of cause-and-effect that operate in your subjective universe

  3. Maintains unconditional positive regard for you

Self-Reference & Self-Sabotage

Positive feedback is an important component of most self-sabotaging traps — including addictive and neurotic traps [anxiety, depression, chronic anger]. Our reactions to the things that happen, and our reactions to our reactions, are part of the cause-and-effect sequence that maintain and may even exacerbate the problem.

To shut off the positive feedback, change your default perspective from that of the puppy to that of the puppy trainer. Naturally, you will absentminded fall back into the puppy's perspective, so you will have to keep reminding yourself that it is imperative is to shift your perspective from the category of the puppy to the category of the puppy trainer.




* - The picoeconomic approach to addictions: Analyzing the conflict of successive motivational statesy JOHN MONTEROSSO & GEORGE AINSLIE - Addiction Research and Theory April 2009; 17(2): 115-134)

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