Tuesday, 5 March 2013

Lost innocence: what do addiction, anorexia and Milgram's electric shocks have in common?

I recently heard several recovering substance abusers giving a talk about how they had become addicts.

All said that they had begun taking smaller amounts and/or 'safer' substances. At the start, none thought they were the kind of person who could take heroin. I asked if there was a moment at which they were aware that they were moving on from 'softer' drugs to heavier stuff but each said that there wasn't - they took a range of substances and it happened gradually.

Drugs such as cocaine can lie on the border between perceptions
of soft/hard drugs.  Image by Foxtongue.

Gradual change in behaviour

This gradual change in behaviour and attitude reminded me of other areas of psychology where behaviour and attitudes gradually shift:
  • The staged electric shocks of the famous Milgram experiment - where participants began by giving a low level of shocks - 15V - to a stranger. Nobody thinks they would give the maximum 450V shock to a complete stranger, yet in Milgram's original study, 65% did (Milgram, 1963). Add in peer pressure, and that amount rose to over 90% (Milgram, 1974).
  • Eating disorders. With extreme dieting as with addiction, people are compelled to do 'just a bit more'. None would expect, at the start, that they would ever be willing to starve themselves to death.  But the horrible truth is that many do - anorexia nervosa is the most deadly of psychological disorders.
In every case, the person starts as an innocent, unwilling to comtemplete the extreme behaviour, but becomes gradually sucked in by degrees.


There is a tendency in psychology to divide things up into areas - developmental psychology, social psychology, etc. Perhaps we should focus more on the similarities, and work towards theories that apply to a multitude of situations.

There could be many more examples of people's behaviour gradually shifting - people getting used to abuse, becoming indocrinated in cults, breaking laws... Please post your thoughts in the comments.


Milgram, S. (1963). Behavioural study of obedience. The Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 67(4), 371-378.

Milgram, S. (1974). Obedience to Authority: An Experimental View. New York: Harper and Row.

This post is part of #BlogFlash2013 - 30 days of flash blogging - using
the prompt 'innocence' http://bit.ly/Y2BMEc


  1. An interesting article. I'm happy to say the drugs I'm most addicted to are caffeine and nicotine and the latter is definitely the lesser.

    1. I'm a bit of a caffeine addict too.. The physical come down from harder drugs sounds horrific.

  2. Very interesting! Now that I think of it it makes sense. The whole "just a little bit more" thinking. I can relate.

    I get addicted mostly to stuff like games etc. Although I also get bored with them pretty fast and move on to the next thing (if anything).

  3. Yes - just a bit more. Very hard to resist that. We are not great at drawing a line and sticking to it. What we are doing becomes normal and then we are ready to do a bit more :/

  4. We tend to get into a lot of trouble because of the "little bit more". It's hard to make the drastic leap from A right to Z, but oh so much easier if it's A to B to C, etc...

    The more we get used to doing, watching or eating something, the easier it is to move on the next step. While this is good if you are developing good habits, it can be self-annihilation in terms of addictive substances such as drugs, porn or even violence.

  5. Thanks Michelle, that's very true.. good point about how it can have a positive side too.

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