by Jon Elster
MIT Press, 2000
Review by Christian Perring, Ph.D. on Nov 10th 2001
In this book, Elster gives an account of emotions, addiction,
and human choice. He is known for his admirably clear work on
the social sciences and the dynamics behind people's irrational
behavior. Strong Feelings is based on a series of lectures,
and so has a directness and simplicity that much literature in
this field lacks.
It's high time that a thinker of the caliber of Elster applied
himself to the issue of addiction. There is a vast amount of empirical
work on addiction in psychology, sociology, and even neuroscience.
But there has been little good work on how to make sense of all
the data and what it means for our understanding of addicts. Elster
has in recent years edited several books on addiction, as well
as written this one and another on emotions; Addiction,
Alchemies of the Mind.
Much of this work is synthesizing and summarizing. He does not
engage in the often fruitless philosophical enterprise of finding
precise definitions of emotions. Rather, he looks for useful generalizations.
He is a scientist at heart, but he realizes that science cannot
tell us everything about the human mind, and so he is ready to
get information and ideas where he can, including anecdote, introspection,
and novels. He is not uncritical of scientific theories either;
while he sees the importance of animal studies, he does not pretend
that they can be simplistically extended to understand humans;
nor does he think that the speculations of evolutionary psychology
about the purpose of various emotions are convincing.
His own classification of emotions is quick and dirty. For example,
he defined shame as "a negative emotion triggered by a belief
about one's own character," and guilt as "a negative
emotion triggered by a belief about one's own action." (21).
The difference between shame and guilt here does not correspond
with dictionary definitions or ordinary usage, and it's very unclear
how they either would compare with embarrassment. Similarly, he
defines sympathy as "a positive emotion caused by the deserved
good of someone else," and pity as "a negative emotion
caused by the undeserved misfortune of someone else" (22).
Again, these definitions are only loosely connected with ordinary
usage. But little hangs on these definitions: the names are just
placeholders for whatever emotional state has the causal role
specified in Elster's definitions. Nothing Elster says rules out
the possibility of far more sophisticated definitions for emotions
such as shame that might do far better at capturing ordinary usage.
Elster discusses some of the characteristics that are purportedly
essential for emotions, such as
and so on. He finds some of these have are somewhat important
criteria, while others are not. His method is somewhat Aristotelian:
to discuss methodically what others have said on the subject,
to assess what they have said, and then to come to his own views.
- qualitative feel
- sudden onset
- unbiddgen occurence
- brief duration
- triggered by a cognitive state
Elster provides a parallel discussion for addiction. He leaves it an
open question whether addiction is essentially a physiological
phenomenon, or whether it can be largely or solely psychological,
and thus leaves it open whether addiction must always be to a
substance or whether it can be to an activity or an emotion. Nevertheless,
he makes addiction to substances his primary focus. He discusses
the phenomenological features and the causal features of addiction,
with a commanding understanding of the scientific research, which
is especially important for the causal side. He distinguishes
primary effects of drugs of abuse on the body, the feedback effects,
the feedforward effects, and sensitization.
Moving on, Elster devotes a chapter to examining the relation between culture, emotions,
and addiction. Again, he is summarizing a great deal of information
in a short space. In this chapter, as in the previous ones, there
is not much to take issue with, since his aim is to present the
existing data in a balanced, integrated, and simple way. He acknowledges
a diversity of views within the social sciences and gently shows
their strengths and weaknesses.
It is in chapter five, where he comes to the issue of personal
choice and its role in addictive behavior, that he starts to face
difficult philosophical issues. It's here that Elster's approach
of making stipulative definitions and broad generalizations may
run into trouble, because this does not fit well with the necessary
hair-splitting of philosophy. Thankfully, Elster shows a sensitivity
to the philosophical issues that leaves open the possibility that
his argument may be compelling. He opens saying that addiction
often involves actions made with rational or minimal choice, but
there may be some cases of actions without choice.
Choice implies sensitivity to expected rewards and punishments
(135). Elster says that some actions may be performed with no
choice, but nevertheless such actions would still normally be
voluntary -- "a deliberate bodily movement for the
purpose of obtaining some goal" (136). He contrasts this
with a piece of reflex behavior or a mere event. This signals
a potential worry, because it sounds self-contradictory to say that a voluntary
action can be made without choice.
Here Elster discusses an article by Gary Watson, ("Disordered
Appetites" in Addiction)
in which Watson argues that the concept of action without choice
makes no real sense. Watson compares the compulsion of one person
by another to the compulsion in addiction. Neither is an irresistible
desire like being pushed by a boulder. In addiction, practical
reason is corrupted, or seduced, rather than overpowered.
Elster suggests that we can still make sense of the concept of
an irresistible desire. His suggestion is that addicts may become
so preoccupied by their addiction that they are unable to pay
attention to alternative actions and long-term consequences. The
craving makes some options and consequences "disappear from
the cognitive horizon of the agent." (138). Elster says that
even though this account is coherent, it is not clear if it is
Another account of what is going in addiction is in terms of "a
temporarily enhanced rate of time discounting." Here the
agent remains aware of the available options, but is less sensitive
to temporarily distant rewards. Again, he thinks this could be
part of the explanation, but it is unclear whether it could provide
a complete explanation of addiction. Elster speculates that the
issue could possibly be resolved by neurophysiological evidence,
"which will not be forthcoming soon." (139). As a result
of the difficulty of knowing, he proposes "that we characterize
behavior as reward-insensitive if current experimental techniques
cannot show the contrary." (140).
Elster's treatment of addiction raises important issues. First, his suggestion
that we can give an account of irresistible desires in terms of
a narrowing of the cognitive horizon seems very odd. To suggest that one can explain addiction at least partly in terms of a narrowed cognitive horizon is itself quite plausible,
but that is very different from the the standard understanding of explaining the addict's actions as a result of
powerful cravings. Elster's proposal does not rescue irresistible
desires, but rather replaces it with something different.
Second, given the difficulty of working out which mechanisms of
addiction are operating, it is puzzling why we should assume in
the absence of experimental evidence that they are ones that make
our choices reward-insensitive, rather than simply admit our ignorance.
So, while Elster has given an interesting discussion of how we
could act without choice, it is not completely satisfying.
He moves on to the case of minimal and rational choice, which
are reward sensitive. Elster argues that rationality is subjective
in a rather weak sense, that which option is the rational choice
depends on the available to the agent: Elster insists that "people
make the most out of what they have, including their beliefs and
their preferences." (145). This makes room for the idea that
addict's addictive behavior can be rational. So, for example,
if an addict's preference is to discount future consequences of
her actions, then her action is in accord with her preference.
Their preference may not be our preference, but it does not follow
that it is irrational, according to Elster. But if an agent who
previously did admit the importance of future consequences of
her actions changes her policy under the influence of some craving,
Elster argues that this would be irrational.
Elster moves on to the relation between emotions and choice, and
is firm in his contention that emotions generally come unbidden.
Nevertheless, it is possible to control one's emotions in some
ways, such as placing oneself in contexts where one can avoid
or provoke emotions, or by recalling certain evocative events.
Emotions also affect one's choices. They can possibly trigger
instinctual behavior (maybe fear is an example), action without
choice (fear again, and possibly anger), or reduced rationality,
by distorting one's understanding of a situation. Emotions can
leave practical reasoning unhindered, and they might even help
in some circumstances, although Elster is skeptical about this
Elster's section on addiction and choice goes through some of
the issues quickly. He cites the evidence that shows that addicts
can often control their behavior, given incentives, and alcoholism,
for instance, decreases when the price of alcohol increases. This
makes the idea that addictive behavior is caused by irresistible
desires seem implausible.
It is clear that addictive cravings can reduce people's rationality;
what is less clear is how rationality is affected. Elster sets
out the idea of hyperbolic discounting of future rewards, favored
by George Ainslie as an explanation of addiction. The basic idea
is that distant rewards, although greater, get less weight in
people's assessment than immediate rewards, and so addicts will
choose pleasure now over the benefits of abstaining that they
would experience later. Another important effect is cue-dependence,
where a person is likely to value a reward that he can experience
over one that is presented more abstractly. Both of these lead
to preference reversal in agents.
Elster distinguishes between different varieties of weakness of
will, using the work of Davidson, Aristotle, and David Pears.
He also refers to the "cold" and "hot" mistakes
in belief-formation identified by social psychologists, and summarized
in books such s R. Dawes' Rational Choice in an Uncertain World and
J. Baron's Thinking and Deciding.
Different kinds of addicts and irrational agents display different
kinds of distortions in their practical reasoning.
There are also issues of how to explain why people become addicts
in the first place and how they manage to quit or cut back. Again,
Elster sets out different models, and discusses their strengths
and weaknesses. All of this summarizes well-known material and
does not address more theoretical or philosophical debate. Notably,
he disagrees with the work of Becker & Murphy, and Becker's
later book, Accounting for Tastes,
where it is argued that addiction is rational. Elster agrees that
some addiction can be explained as a result of human practical
reasoning, but, contra Becker, he emphasizes the distortions
that occur in that reasoning.
The final short chapter does a fair amount of summarizing of the
previous ones. He does point out that the philosophical issue
of the possibility or irresistible desires makes little practical
difference -- presumably because we have no way to test when a
desire is irresistible; what is clear that "emotions and
cravings can induce an agent to disregard alternatives and consequences
much more than he would under other circumstances." (198-9).
He is skeptical of an argument by LeDoux in The Emotional Brain that
the shrinking of the cognitive horizon purported to explain addiction
may be an evolutionary adaptation to help us respond to danger.
Indeed, it is a strength of Elster's approach that while he is
not in principle opposed to evolutionary psychology, he views
its wild speculation with a great deal of caution.
In all, Strong Feelings is an important book for philosophers
because it is likely to bring more philosophers into the debate
about how best to explain addictive behavior. But Elster's discussion
of irresistible desires is disappointingly short, and he says
nothing about the moral issue of the responsibility of addicts
for their actions. Most of what Elster writes about emotion does
not directly intersect with the philosophical discussion of the
nature of emotion. Elster is clear that cognitive states have
strong causal influences on emotions, but he does not discuss
whether emotions are in themselves at least partly cognitive states.
So philosophers will have to use the book as a starting point
and a guide to the empirical literature.
© 2001 Christian Perring. First Serial Rights.
Ph.D., is Chair of the Philosophy Department at Dowling College,
Long Island. He is editor of Metapsychology Online Review.
His main research is on philosophical issues in psychiatry.
He is especially interested in exploring how philosophers can
play a greater role in public life. He is available to give talks
on many philosophical or controversial issues in mental health.