The phrase ‘negative consequences’ is abundant whenever and wherever addiction is discussed and yet the relationship between consequences and behavior is not clear. There is an assumption that negative consequences change behavior, an assumption that pretty much goes unchallenged. In one sense, the assumption suits society’s narrative of how things should be. It seems only rational that a negative consequence will steer a person away from an unwanted behavior. This conviction influences our rules of conduct as well as our disciplinary framework. It begins early in life; if you don’t share your toys, your visiting playmate will be sent home. If you are late for soccer practice, you will not be able to play in the next game. If you don’t turn your assignment in on time, your grade will be dropped. There are endless examples of consequences set up to alter behavior. We say things like ‘that will teach him a lesson,’ or ‘she will learn from her mistakes.’ So it makes sense that we are bewildered when negative consequences do not alter behavior. Instead of questioning the assumption, we dig in our heels. If the consequences don’t work, then what the person needs is more consequences.
Maia Szalavitz, former heroin addict, author of “Unbroken Brain,” and leading journalist covering addiction, said the following: “…….I came to find out that addiction is basically defined as compulsive behavior despite negative consequences. And the irony here is that we use punishment, which is just another word for negative consequences, to try to stop addiction. And if that actually worked, addiction wouldn’t exist.” I have to agree. The person receiving a fifth DUI did not alter his or her behavior despite the consequences which include losing one’s driver’s license, heavy fines, possibly law suits and serious jail time. When an addict refuses to change his or her behavior, we turn to a simple explanation which is ‘the consequences were not bad enough,’ or they have yet to hit ‘rock bottom.’ For whatever reason, we seem incapable of considering the possibility that negative consequences do not work.
You may get the impression that I am personally against consequences, that I never think that punishment is appropriate or perhaps you think I have a chip on my shoulder. Not true. I simply cannot help observing that punishment or negative consequences do not seem to counter addictive behavior! I am not saying that addicts do not recover. Many do. I just don’t think it was punishment that enabled them to get sober and stay sober. It was something though. Something clicked, some light went on, some something that made them able and ready to recover. And whatever it was, it is out there ready to be tapped. But identifying it requires us to look at a problem from a new perspective. It requires us to think differently, to explore other options and engage in research. But unless we can let go of the punishment model, we will not solve this problem. In fact, it will only get worse.