Why We May Never Beat Stigma

By Maia Szalavitz 01/16/13

Dumbing down addiction to apply to any bad behavior gives jerks a free pass. But when the label loses its meaning, real addicts also lose credibility as people with a disease.

Diederik Stapel photo via

When public figures want to display penitence for their bad choices—see under "Woods, Tiger" and "Gibson, Mel"—they go to rehab. Whether the problem is extramarital affairs, plagiarism or even racism, crying addiction has become an all-purpose excuse.

This month saw the “Lying Dutchman”—a top social psychologist who was found to have published over 55 fraudulent academic papers, including one in the prestigious journal Science—release a memoir calling his data fakery an addiction. At the same time, another columnist went as far as to blame conflicts of interest in medical research on doctors’ “addiction” to taking money from Big Pharma.

I’m tempted to call the problem here an addiction to addiction, but that would make matters even worse. Labeling any type of bad behavior that anyone seeks absolution for an addiction makes the term completely meaningless. It also makes attempts to destigmatize genuine addiction impossible. If any monkey business that provokes guilt or shame when it is exposed can be put down to addiction, why shouldn’t the public be skeptical when actual heroin addicts claim, “My hijacked brain made me do it?”

Indeed, the Lying Dutchman’s story seems to be a classic example of how getting a thrill from getting away with something is mistaken for addiction. Diederik Stapel of Holland’s Tilburg University began faking studies right at the start of his career—but he apparently experienced few if any negative consequences from it until an investigation began in 2011. Then, he was ultimately fired and his papers retracted. The damage he did to his field and to psychological research more generally is immeasurable: It reduces our already shaky trust in science, which is the best method we have for understanding how to help people, and can lead to millions of dollars in misplaced research priorities as others attempt to build on earlier work that has now been proved erroneous.

If any type of monkey business exposed can be put down to addiction, who wouldn't be skeptical when heroin addicts claim, “My hijacked brain made me do it?”

Reviews of his new book Ontsporing (disclosure: it is only out in Dutch so far, so I have not read the book itself. The title translates as Derailed) describe how he started small by fudging a few numbers, went undetected and gradually began making up results from entirely imaginary research.

As reviewers in Psychological Science describe it:

Stapel minutely describes how these small steps led to the habit of changing data and, later, to the fabrication of complete data sets. In Ontsporing Stapel explains the etiology of his fraud by likening it to addiction, although he admits that it is probably a combination of different factors, including: “The need to score, ambition, laziness, nihilism, want of power, status anxiety, desire for solutions, unity, pressure to publish, arrogance, emotional detachment, loneliness, disappointment, ADD, addiction to answers” [!]. He also describes various unsuccessful attempts at quitting his “drug.”

That admission of a laundry list of “other factors,” however, does nothing to actually undermine his addiction analogy: indeed, many of those factors play a role in real addictions. The problem here—and in cases of many who say they have “sex addiction”—is that the behavior he describes overwhelmingly brought him positive results, not negative ones. He didn’t behave compulsively in the face of negative consequences: He simply chased rewards.

Very few people who successfully cheated their way to the top would describe themselves as addicted to cheating if they never got caught; similarly, people who have multiple affairs without being detected and losing their primary partner will rarely see themselves as sex addicts. If you are making yourself miserable with attempts to stop and avoid exposure, you may qualify as some type of addict: but virtually no one with a real addiction tries repeatedly to stop if everything’s going well. Why would you?

He blames "the need to score, ambition, laziness, nihilism, want of power, status anxiety, desire for solutions, pressure to publish, addiction to answers."

Addiction really takes hold when you want to stop using but can’t—but almost no one wants to stop if the results of the allegedly addictive behavior are power, fame and pleasure. Simply having an ongoing experience of reward can’t define addiction because otherwise it would be no different from rational pleasure seeking.

A data-faking addiction like Stapel describes might be possible if you kept doing it in spite of reprimands and job loss; it might even be possible if you were plagued by guilt that interfered significantly with your life, yet you still couldn’t stop. But if we define addiction so loosely that it can occur when you are acting compulsively because of positive consequences, what makes it pathological? Isn’t doing what effectively leads to success and happiness the definition of healthy behavior?

If the only pathology is that you are involved in some type of unethical, illegal or culturally inappropriate activity, addiction is no different from old-fashioned sin, and stigma will inevitably accrue. To make sense as a disease or disorder, addiction has to involve irrational—not simply unethical or immoral—behavior. If it’s simply doing wrong, it makes sense for society to want to criminalize and demonize addiction. So if we want to fight stigma, we can’t let people define addiction down and use it to excuse any type of bad behavior. The correct label for people who act like Stapel is asshole. There's no need to drag addiction into it.

Maia Szalavitz is a columnist at The Fix. She is also a health reporter at Time magazine online, and co-author, with Bruce Perry, of Born for Love: Why Empathy Is Essential—and Endangered (Morrow, 2010), and author of Help at Any Cost: How the Troubled-Teen Industry Cons Parents and Hurts Kids (Riverhead, 2006). 

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Maia Szalavitz is an author and journalist working at the intersection of brain, culture and behavior.  She has reported for Time magazine online, and is the co-author, with Bruce Perry, of Born for Love: Why Empathy Is Essential—and Endangered, and author of Help at Any Cost: How the Troubled-Teen Industry Cons Parents and Hurts Kids. You can find her on Linkedin and  Twitter.