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Dangerously Addictive. Why we are biologically ill-suited to the riches of modern America?

Author(s): Peter C. Whybrow

Journal: Neuropsychiatria i Neuropsychologia
ISSN 1896-6764

Volume: 4;
Issue: 3-4;
Start page: 111;
Date: 2009;
Original page

Keywords: markets | economics | consumerism | addiction | dopamine reward pathways | migration

For the past quarter century we have worshiped the“free” market as an ideology rather than a naturalproduct of human social evolution. Under the spell ofthis ideology and the false promise of instant riches, theAmerica’s immigrant values of thrift, prudence andcommunity concern – traditionally the foundation ofthe American Dream – have been hijacked by an allconsumingself-interest.That the human animal is a curiosity-driven pleasureseeker easily seduced is of no surprise to the behavioralneuroscientist. “Overloading” the brain’s ancient rewardcircuits with excessive stimulation – through drugs,novel experience, or unlimited choice – will triggercraving and insatiable desire. When desire is lost we callit anhedonia – or depression – and consider it an illness.But when the brain’s reward circuits are overloaded orunconstrained, then desire can turn to craving and toan addictive greed that co-opts executive analysis andcommonsense.Adam Smith – the eighteenth century Scottishphilosopher and capitalism’s patron saint – believed that“self-love” (instinctual self-interest) within the give andtake of a market framework would create a selfregulatingeconomic order. Today the tethers that gaveus Adam Smith’s enduring metaphor of an “invisiblehand” balancing market behavior, have been weakenedby an intrusive mercantilism that never sleeps.Before 1985 American consumers saved on averageabout 9% of their disposable income but by 2005 thecomparable savings rate was zero as mortgage, creditcard and other consumer debt rose to 127% ofdisposable income. America had transformed itself fromthe world’s bank to a debtor nation. With the nation’sfinancial system at the brink of disaster we foundourselves rudely awake.Now with reality challenging the laissez faire ideologyof recent decades we have the opportunity to take stockwith a renewed self-awareness, to curb our addictivestriving and to reach beyond immediate reward to crafta vigorous, equitable and sustainable market society –one where technology and profit serve as instrumentsin achieving the good life and are not confused with thegood life itself.

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