4 Things Johann Hari Gets Wrong About Addiction—Updated With a Response From Hari

By Andrew Dobbs 07/29/15

Best known as a lying plagiarist in the UK, the disgraced journalist Johann Hari has remade himself as an addiction expert. Or has he?

Johann Hari Ted Talk

Johann Hari, a journalist and presenter of the June 2015 TED Talk, “Everything You Know About Addiction is Wrong,” has popped up on many a recovering addict’s social media feeds in recent weeks. Hari challenges the carceral model of dealing with addiction, making him another welcome opponent of the War on Drugs. But for those who know addiction from the inside, his title is condescending, especially as Hari has no training on the topic, is not himself an addict, and is infamous for a high-profile plagiarism scandal which cost him his job at The Independent newspaper in 2011.

More troubling, some of Hari’s arguments fly in the face of both common sense and the lived experience of addicts. Here are a few of the things Johann Hari may not know about addiction.

1. Addiction Has a Real Physical Component

Hari spends much of the talk exploring the so-called “Rat Park” study, a late 1970s experiment by psychologists at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia. The experiment sought to correct shortcomings in previous addiction studies in which rats—deeply social creatures—were isolated in tiny cages where they proceeded to kill themselves with overdoses of opium water. The Canadian scientists—led by Bruce K. Alexander—built instead a “rat park” which created an inviting, socially-rich environment for the rats. The researchers found that rats there did not typically become addicted to opium or overdose. The implication is that “the real cause of addiction” is social isolation, not any physically compelling nature to the drugs themselves.

“Professor Alexander began to think there might be a different story about addiction … What if addiction isn't about your chemical hooks? What if addiction is about your cage?” Hari says. “Human beings have a natural and innate need to bond, and when we're happy and healthy, we'll bond and connect with each other, but if you can't do that, because you're traumatized or isolated or beaten down by life, you will bond with something that will give you some sense of relief.”

Such as drugs or alcohol.

While 12-step movements have claimed for decades that addiction is rooted in a “spiritual malady” much like what Hari describes, it is obviously wrong to deny that addiction has a very real physical component on top of its socio-spiritual roots. Hari is right to object to the scare-mongering, drug war-justifying notion that drugs themselves have “hooks” which can make everyone who uses them a hopeless addict. At the same time, certain people—it seems—have a physical predisposition to addiction, and if they use certain substances it can trigger an addictive cycle regardless of how “connected” they may be.

This should be obvious to everyone familiar with one of the world’s most addictive drugs: nicotine. Most people smoke a cigarette or two at some point in their lives, and many people smoke somewhat regularly for at least a little while. The vast majority of these people do not become addicted to nicotine. Some people, however, do become addicted and cannot quit without tremendous effort. Some others continue smoking even after it gives them a fatal illness, and even when it exacerbates painful symptoms.

Does Hari think that only the socially or psychologically isolated become addictive smokers? What about caffeine? The same facts exist for this, even more socially acceptable addiction—clearly the people who can’t function without coffee throughout the day are acting out a physical condition, and not merely a yearning for lovingkindness that only a latte can fill.

Nobody who has been addicted to narcotics or alcohol would ever deny that loneliness is maybe the most important feature of our malady. There are many lonely people, however, who use for a time and give it up easily, and there are many otherwise well-adjusted people who develop serious drug and alcohol problems. The determining factor is almost certainly physical and/or genetic. Hari oversimplifies this situation.

2. Enabling is a Real Threat to Addicts

Hari decries, at one point, the television program Intervention and addiction interventions generally.

“So what they do is they take the connection to the addict, and they threaten it, they make it contingent on the addict behaving the way they want,” Hari said. “And I began to think, I began to see why that approach doesn't work, and I began to think that's almost like the importing of the logic of the Drug War into our private lives.”

Hari adds that he encourages the addicts in his own life to reach out to him for companionship. “And what I've tried to do now… is to say to the addicts in my life that I want to deepen the connection with them, to say to them, I love you whether you're using or you're not. I love you, whatever state you're in, and if you need me, I'll come and sit with you because I love you and I don't want you to be alone or to feel alone.”

This is a powerful, beautiful statement, and it is right. There is also ample room for debate on the value of traditional interventions, but Hari misrepresents the logic behind them. While he is correct in noting that interventions threaten addicts and, in effect, punish them into treatment, this is not their true purpose. Their logic is one that recognizes that for all of the isolation associated with addiction, it is a disease which spreads from addicts to their families and friends, and can only persist through enabling, which itself becomes a compulsion for those who get trapped in it. Interventions are supposed to give the addict’s enablers the opportunity to collectively, publicly establish the healthy boundaries which have been missing in their relationships.

It is also irresponsible for Hari to speak to a general audience—more than 1,000,000 views online already—about the need to deepen their relationships with the addicts in their lives without an accompanying warning about addicts’ tendencies to blow through boundaries and take advantage of the people who seek to help them. Maybe Hari assumes that people already know this, but the tens of millions of people enabling the millions of addicts in our society indicates that the word hasn’t gotten out. If Hari had asked me to call him on my worst days, I would have tried to manipulate him for money or other resources until he said no, or until I had borrowed too much to ever pay back. Then I would have been the one cutting him off.

3. Sobriety IS Connection

This brings us to another important point where Hari is not so much incorrect as he is incomplete. Hari’s final line is this: “The opposite of addiction is not sobriety; the opposite of addiction is connection.” What this line packs in rhetorical power, it lacks in real value.

The point is that the most important, most indispensable tool used by the recovery community is connection itself, and that often the only place that a low-bottom addict can find connection is in the community of sober addicts. Working with others is a fundamental principle of every 12-step program, and the traditional response to a particularly unhealthy share from an addict in a meeting is not “you need to leave,” but rather “keep coming back.” To set off connection and sobriety as opposing or separate concepts is to demonstrate a profound ignorance of sobriety and the connections it provides.

Here’s a story to prove the point. My friend Frank died this week. Frank was in his 60s, a transplant to Texas from New York, and he went into cardiac arrest on a city bus last weekend. When he got to the hospital, his wristband said John Doe, and it turned out that Frank had no family left—he had no next of kin to make the crucial end-of-life calls. Frank was an addict and alcoholic, and many of us die isolated, alone, our families gone, unremembered by anybody, totally unmourned. Frank, on the other hand, had so many visitors during his final coma that the hospital staff was almost overwhelmed. Frank’s affairs have been attended to by sober alcoholics, and his memorial service will be full of people who consider him a dear friend. Most of us didn’t even know Frank’s last name until he passed. But we knew his story, and in his sobriety, he found real connection, and we found it in him. Frank died clean and sober, with just over 10 years when he passed.

4. What Hari Knows About Honesty is Wrong

In the end, it turns out that Hari’s plagiarism scandal matters more than he might like in this attempted comeback. The connection and bonding that can produce authentic sobriety like Frank’s can only be reached in a spirit of what 12-step types call “rigorous honesty.” All that boundary busting we did in our active addiction means we’ll need to practice some powerful contrition if we ever want that level of truthfulness; it means taking responsibility for our wrongdoing in an unflinching way. The fellowship of other recovered addicts both demands and makes possible such humility.

Hari, on the other hand, responded to his own serious wrongdoing with excuse-making, minimization, and dishonesty. Hari’s plagiarism was unique—when his interview subjects did not say what he wanted them to, he lifted quotes of theirs from other publications without attribution. He was also caught creating a fake online identity in order to make slanderous changes to his critics’ Wikipedia pages, and accused of making up an atrocity he reported on in the Central African Republic. Hari admitted to all but the last charge, was fired from the Independent—one of the UK’s largest newspapers—and stripped of a major journalism prize.

These are serious wrongdoings by Hari, major violations of the trust the public is supposed to put in journalists. Hari’s “apology,” however, was riddled with excuses and half-hearted “humblebrags”—his career had taken off far too quickly without proper journalism training; it was really all his interview subjects’ fault for not speaking more clearly; he was the victim of a witch-hunt from powerful interests he’d targeted in his reporting, and on and on. Frankly, if a friend of mine in recovery proposed amends of the sort Hari has made, I would think that their sobriety was at risk for lack of honesty. 

Perhaps Hari has failed to explore the facts of 12-step recovery because he fears the power of the rigorous honesty he has so far been incapable of. This has not prevented him from becoming a quick new darling on the addiction and recovery circuit, but in light of his other ignorances, maybe it should.

Recovered addicts believe in forgiveness, but Hari still seems to be selling others’ ideas as his own. He believes he’s saying something innovative by suggesting that addiction is rooted in isolation, but every addict knows this in a way Hari will hopefully never comprehend. We also know things he appears to be ignorant about, like that opening up to an addict without clear boundaries is an invitation to disaster. And for millions of us, we know that the opposite of addiction is a sobriety gained through connection, acceptance, grace, and love, all of which are rooted in radical honesty.

At best, Hari’s TED Talk patronizes recovered addicts, and at worst, he is seeking a return to journalism on the backs of people too marginalized to protect themselves. We may be powerless over our addictions, but nobody should deny us what we’ve learned about our disease; these truths are the most important facts of our lives today. They are, in the end, the real ideas worth sharing.

Andrew Dobbs is a writer, activist and recovering addict based in Austin, Texas. Follow him on Twitter at @AndrewDobbsTX.

UPDATED—Johann Hari responds, April 18th, 2016 and again on October 4th, 2016

"I am happy to correct any errors in my book or in my TED talk - I have a section on my website in which over 20 people who have pointed out minor errors are thanked by name, and then thanked in later editions of the book. There's no shame in making mistakes and it should be a point of pride to publicly correct them.

I have gone through the criticisms offered here and sadly cannot issue any corrections since the author attributes to me a series of positions I don't hold, and are in fact the opposite of the positions I lay out in both my TED talk and in my book, which he clearly has not read. He in fact makes more than 4 criticisms, so I'll deal with them each in turn here:"

Andrew’s criticisms are as follows:

(1) The title of my TED talk, ‘Everything You Think You Know About Addiction’, is condescending, since in fact most people with addiction problems know these things. But the “you” in this title, the people who I am addressing, are not just people with addiction problems, but everyone. Most of the people who have viewed this talk, just like most of the people who’ve read the book, don’t have addiction problems. I agree that most people who’ve been through addiction know the points I’m making intuitively. But we have to address a much wider audience if we are going to end this war – that’s why I’m talking to far more people than just people with addictions. And of that “you”, most of them didn’t know this stuff. I was speaking to a TED audience, of whom – I’d guess – fewer than 10% had addiction problems. This is a crucial point. I’m gay. I get to live as an equal citizen because gay people spoke to a much broader audience than just other gay people. That’s how we won our freedom. If we are going to win an end to the war on people with addictions, we can’t just talk to people with addictions. It would be condescending to tell people with addiction problems that what they know is wrong. But the “you” I’m talking to in the speech very clearly – when you watch it – isn’t people with addiction problems; it’s largely everyone else. If, in 1955, I had given a speech saying “Everything you think you know about homosexuality is wrong,” explaining that gay people are not paedophiles etc, you can imagine some gay people might misunderstand and say: “I already knew that. How condescending.” But most would have known that this wasn’t a speech for them – it was a speech for everyone else, to get them to stop persecuting gay people.

(2) He argues I have no training and I am not an addict myself, so my arguments do not have validity, or are diminished. In fact, my insights into addiction come from closely studying the evidence from the social sciences. I was trained in depth in the social sciences at Cambridge University, where I got a double first, the highest qualification you can get; so I have been given the best training in the world at how to assess this evidence. It’s true I don’t have addiction problems. Some of the best advocates for equality for gay people were not gay – whenever a heterosexual person joins the fight for equality for gay people, I welcome them with open arms. Every successful struggle to defend a minority welcomes people from other groups who join their fight for dignity.

(3) He argues that I fail to see that “addiction has a physical component.” He comments: “This should be obvious to everyone familiar with one of the world’s most addictive drugs – nicotine”

In fact, my book lays out the evidence that addiction has a physical component very clearly. Indeed, I use nicotine as a key example. Here’s what it says: “It would be absurd to say the chemicals play no role at all in, say, cigarette or crack addiction. So how much really is due to the chemicals, and how much is due to the social factors? What’s the ratio? As I read more, I stumbled across—in the work of an amazing scientist called Richard DeGrandpre—an experiment that gives us a quite precise answer, in percentage terms. You may well be taking part in it right now.

When nicotine patches where invented in the early 1990s, public health officials were thrilled. They believed in the theory of addiction that almost everyone believes in: addiction is caused by chemical hooks that are hidden in the drug. You use a drug for a while, and your body starts to crave and need the chemical in a physical way. This isn’t hard to grasp. Anybody who has tried to quit caffeine knows that chemical hooks are real: I am trying it as I type this, and my hands are very slightly shaking, my head is aching, and I just snapped at the guy sitting opposite me in the library.

Everyone agrees that cigarette smoking is one of the strongest addictions: it is ranked on pharmaceutical addictiveness scales alongside heroin and cocaine. It is also the deadliest. Smoking tobacco kills 650 out of every hundred thousand people who use it, while using cocaine kills four. And we know for sure what the chemical hook in tobacco is—it’s nicotine.

The wonder of nicotine patches, then, is that they can meet a smoker’s physical need—the real in-your-gut craving—while bypassing some of the really dangerous effects of smoking tobacco. So if the idea of addiction we all have in our heads is right, nicotine patches will have a very high success rate. Your body is hooked on the chemical; it gets the chemical from the nicotine patch; therefore, you won’t need to smoke anymore.

The pharmacology of nicotine patches works just fine—you really are giving smokers the drug they are addicted to. The level of nicotine in your bloodstream doesn’t drop if you use them, so that chemical craving is gone. There is just one problem: even with a nicotine patch on, you still want to smoke. The Office of the Surgeon General has found that just 17.7 percent of nicotine patch wearers were able to stop smoking.

How can this be? There’s only one explanation: something is going on that is more significant than the chemicals in the drug itself. If solving the craving for the chemical ends 17.7 percent of the addictions in smokers, the other 82.3 percent has to be explained some other way.

Now, 17.7 percent certainly isn’t a trivial amount. That’s a large number of people with improved lives. It would be foolish and wrong to say the drug has no effect—tobacco cigarettes are considerably more addictive than menthol cigarettes, to give just one example. But it would be equally foolish to say what we have been saying for a century—that the chemicals themselves are the main cause of drug addiction. That assertion doesn’t match the evidence.

This point is worth underscoring. With the most powerful and deadly drug in our culture, the actual chemicals account for only 17.7 percent of the compulsion to use. The rest can only be explained by the factors Gabor and Bruce have discovered.”

So I in fact make the very argument he accuses me of not making. I had also made this argument in many interviews by the time he wrote this article.

(4) He argues that I say loneliness is the only cause of addiction, and that this is not the case. Here, Andrew is arguing against a case I have never made. When I talk about disconnection being a cause of addiction, I am not just talking about disconnection from the people around you – I am also, as I lay out at length in the book, talking about disconnection from meaning and purpose and other deeper forms of disconnection. Loneliness is a significant component; but I have never said it is the only one. If I had, Andrew would be right to criticize it.

(5) He says with addiction, “the determining factor is almost certainly physical and/or genetic.” He asserts this without evidence. While there are physical and genetic components, I go through the evidence in the book that suggests this view that it is the “determining factor” is incorrect. I would urge Andrew to read the work of Professor Marc Lewis, Professor Carl Hart, Stanton Peele, and others who have engaged with this in depth. The claims he says is “almost certain” is in fact massively contested, and there is no evidence for it. (These factors are real, but they are not “the determining factor”, above all else.)

(6) He says I fail to acknowledge that “enabling is a real threat to addicts,” and then explores the problems that can emerge if somebody facilitates destructive behavior by addicts. Andrew is again arguing against a position I don’t hold. I have always made clear that it is possible to develop destructive relationships with people who have addiction problems, and that this can be bad for both the addicted person, and the person who believes they are helping them. All I said is that I’m against cutting off people with addiction problems, or threatening them, as a first resort, or as anything other than an absolute last resort. That doesn’t mean I’m in favor of giving every person with an addiction anything they ask for, or tolerating anything they try to do. I’ve never said that, and I’ve never done that. It would be right to criticize anyone who said that; but that person isn’t me.

(7) He says it is “irresponsible” of me to speak to people about the need for them to strengthen their relationships with addicts, without at the same time warning that people with addiction may not respect boundaries. In a short twelve minute talk, I couldn’t say everything. There is nobody in Western culture who doesn’t know that addicts can be chaotic, ask for too much, or behave destructively. They don’t need me to spell it out. When I sit with people who are trying to love someone with addiction, I do discuss this topic, and how I’ve tried to deal with it in my life. But if you give me twelve minutes to talk to a large audience, I won’t focus on reiterating points literally everyone knows.

(8) He says I fail to acknowledge that “sobriety is connection.” He makes the case that for many people, they discover connection precisely through discovering communities of other sober people who are recovering from addiction problems. I agree with Andrew that sobriety, for many people, can be a route to connection. It’s one I have urged for some of the people I most love. But I do not believe that sobriety is always connection. I know lots of sober people who are profoundly disconnected, and it manifests as depression or anxiety. So I don’t think it is true to say “sobriety is connection”, as an invariable rule.

(9) He then argues that I have never apologized since 2011 for some serious errors I made many years ago in some of my journalism. In fact I explored these questions in depth, four months before Andrew wrote this piece, in an interview in the Guardian with Decca Aitkenhead, and apologized in depth. If he had googled my name, it would have been one of the top results, so I am puzzled about why he made this claim.

I am sure Andrew will, if he looks at evidence, correct the errors in his piece, about me not acknowledging any role for physical causes for addiction, or not having apologized since 2011.

I’d be happy to engage in a dialogue with Andrew on any of the wider philosophical points on which we disagree, or with anyone else."

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Andrew Dobbs is an Austin, Texas-based organizer and writer whose writing has appeared in the Daily Beast, the New York Observer, War is Boring and the Huffington Post.