Addiction and Shortened Time Horizon

Weekly I/O#80


When thinking about the future, drug addicts project 9 days into the future while healthy people consider 4.7 years forward. Addictive drugs can shorten our "temporal horizon".

Book: Dopamine Nation

When thinking about the future, how far ahead do people usually plan? In a study, researchers asked groups of heroin addicts and healthy individuals to complete a story that began with the line: "After awakening, Bill began to think about his future. In general, he expected to..." The goal of the study was not to analyze the content of each participant's response but rather to examine the timeframe each individual envisioned for their future.

While the control group projected stories an average of 4.7 years into the future, heroin addicts only looked 9 days forward. This stark contrast shows how addictive drugs can narrow our "temporal horizon".

Conversely, when Dr. Anna Lembke, a psychiatrist specializing in addiction, asked her recovering patients what the deciding moment for them to try to quit drugs was, her patients usually shared insights with a long-term perspective. One patient said, "I suddenly realized I'd been using heroin for a year, and I thought to myself, if I don't stop now, I may be doing this for the rest of my life."

I feel like people with depression or with depression or those reminded of their mortality may also tend to have shortened time horizons and insensitivity to future consequences. If we are uncertain about surviving another day, it may be hard to envision some moments far in the future, and prioritizing immediate rewards over delayed ones becomes more rational.


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