Social psychologist Dr. Stanton Peele, a renowned and controversial writer on addiction issues, made a return visit to Australia in July as a keynote speaker at the 1998 Winter School in the Sun (Brisbane) and to present the Inaugural Stanton Peele Lecture at the School of Psychology, Deakin University (Melbourne). Connexions correspondent Jeff Moss talked with Dr. Peele in Melbourne.
Connexions, October/November, 1998, pp. 16-18
A Provocative Outsider
Dr. Stanton Peele in Australia
He does not believe that any drug is inherently addictive. He is adamant that addiction is not a disease. And he considers interpersonal relationships to be the primary arena where addiction occurs.
Stanton Peele's ideas are as provocative today as they were when he first published them in Love and Addiction (1975) while still in his 20s. They have been embraced by many people - both professionals and the public - and resisted actively by many others.
Dr. Hilde Lovegrove, head of the School of Psychology, Deakin University, which established the new annual lecture series named after Peele, observed that "Stanton has developed an eminence in the addiction field over the last 20 years that is enviable in any profession.
"He has inspired generations of practitioners and researchers who have felt dissatisfied, justifiably, with the traditionally dominant notions of, and approaches to, addictive behaviour.
"More than any other person, Stanton has helped shape the much needed critique of addiction treatment, based upon solid research evidence."
Peele says he has been thinking about addiction since he was a young boy in Philadelphia. As young as five years old, he remembers thinking "quite seriously" about a neighbour who was often intoxicated and musing on "why an individual would place himself in that condition."
"I've always looked for connections," he said. "I saw connections from a very early age between my parents' abstemious behaviour and some addictive behaviour. In college, I connected it to love relationships. As I researched what was known about addiction - by sociologists, psychologists, medical authorities - I came to feel confident that the insights I had arrived at over my lifetime were very supported by the data. So I wanted to come in with a completely different slant, and I took the bold step of doing so.
"Being able to write Love and Addiction was a monumental effort. It had a lot of impact. It was critical for me and has turned out to be a remarkably influential book." (See box: Peele on his books).
For his bachelor's degree, Peele had majored political science, supported by numerous units in psychology and anthropology. In graduate school he focused on social psychology because that meant studying the "confluence of social influences on the individual."
After gaining his doctorate at the University of Michigan, he went on to teach organisational behaviour at Harvard Business School. In 1974, while at Harvard, he finished writing Love and Addiction.
"I hit the addiction field very much as an outsider," Peele recalled. "I came in with a whole model and view of addiction - without coming through the field.
"I published a major work, whole cloth, and it had a mixed review from academics for that reason. Some people have never been able to come to grips with me because I came in by that route.
"To come into the addiction field through writing a mass marketed paperback is an unusual way to make an academic impact. So partly what I became engaged in after writing Love and Addiction was to take those same ideas and spread them to the academic and clinical community to gain intellectual respectability for them because they are not used to getting their ideas from books sold at supermarkets."
Relishing the role
By the 1980s, Peele had developed a substantial focus on alcohol issues. One of these issues was controlled drinking.
Accepting or advocating controlled drinking outcomes, he observed, was tantamount - almost - to being a criminal. "It invited attacks of the most virulent kind because of the pervasive, 12-step outlook and industry which is tied heavily to the treatment industry but is beyond that - it is a fundamental folk movement in the United States. I got into some of my worst trouble in that area.
"[But] what surprised me more was that there was a research group, with information not different to mine, who would cow under them. I maintain the ability to be surprised by the cowardice of the scientific bureaucracy.
"The best you could say about them is that they decided that they would wait and fight an other day. But they're not going to confront this massive industry and folk movement. I guess the academic or bureaucratic mentality is not to seek controversy. It is very rare that people will do so."
All this opens an important door to understanding Stanton Peele and how he sees his role. While talking to Connexions he made an interesting confession: "Psychologically, I know there is a part of me that enjoys being the underdog, that likes being the outsider, and that relishes that role. My mother was a political radical and I guess that part of me - being the critic - really works for me."
Peele runs his own consultancy-cum-private practice and, symbolically, has never been employed as an addictions professional - theorist, researcher, or psychologist - by any institution.
Essence of addiction
When asked to summarise his current view of addiction, his response made it clear that nothing, in essence, had changed since the writing of Love and Addiction 25 years ago.
"Addiction cannot be defined biologically," he said. "People become addicted to a wide range of involvements.
"The most useful way to conceive of this is to understand that addiction takes place with regard to an experience. An experience that is highly involving but which has an overall negative impact on your life will ultimately be an addictive one.
"At the roots of that experience are individual characteristics, but those characteristics shift over a person's lifetime with changes that they initiate and also [are influenced by] variations in the settings they arrive at.
"Given this experiential definition of addiction - which I feel is the only way to deal with research on drugs - you immediately come to the fact that addiction does not have to be drug based and that drugs are not the only things that people become addicted to.
Addictive experiences are marked by a person's full involvement and immersion in an experience accompanied by their lack of sensitivity to other aspects of their life around them. It becomes detrimental to their ability to cope with life and therefore creates a greater reliance on the addiction.
"This applies whether the whole focus of the person is on getting heroin or the person is completely immersed in another person.
"It is a closing down and a focusing, which makes the person disproportionately reliant on the drug or the other person, and increasingly so because of that cyclical aspect."
Dr. Peele lives in Morristown, New Jersey, with his colleague and wife, Mary Arnold. Further information can be obtained from his website: wwwpeele.net.
Aside from his addictions work, Stanton Peele keeps the wolf from the door in a variety of ways, including consulting on market research and forensic testimonial work. In May 1997 he graduated with a law degree, entering the bar of New Jersey last December and the New York bar in March this year. Currently, he is working for the Public Defender's Office.*
* At the time of this article, Stanton Peele worked as a pool attorney for the Morris County (NJ) Office of the Public Defender, be he no longer does so.
Peele on his books
Stanton Peele has published seven books - all of them addiction-related - and is working on an eighth about genetics. He reflected on each of them:
Love and Addiction (1975): Written with Archie Brodsky, Peele sees Love and Addiction as "the real announcement of a paradigm shift. It is a monumental treatise that rethinks a basic problem. You're only young once. You come at something full force and put a whole different perception on things. It was the opener of the door of perception. It is the classic book. Eventually it got some of both the popular and academic attention that I thought it seriously deserved."
How Much Is Too Much (1981): This book was "an attempt at being popular but the publisher was more of a specialized publisher that didn't have the clout."
The Science of Experience (1983): While a valuable volume which "brought together all of my academic work" up to that point, "it wasn't particularly successful."
The Meaning of Addiction (1985): "The Meaning of Addiction was an answer to the dilemma that Love and Addiction wasn't taken seriously enough in academic circles. In defining what addiction really is, I decided that I better write an academic work. So The Meaning of Addiction is the most strictly academic of my books. It is regarded by many as a classic and it still sells."
Visions of Addiction (1987): "I was the editor and pulled together other people's work as well as my own. It includes what I think is a classic of mine, A Moral Vision of Addiction, which looks at the extent to which addiction is created, driven and maintained by people's value systems. It's had a role."
Diseasing of America (1989): This "message" book dealt with "my impatience and anger about [the United States] not only having a bad idea in the disease model of alcoholism but that now we were applying it to everything else - another especially bad idea. I ask why do we do this and explore that tendency. It had a lot of clout and is still being published."
The Truth About Addiction and Recovery (1991): "The first half of this book is an analysis of each main type of addiction. My publisher said that I was saying such radical things - that addiction isn't a disease and that people can be cured on their own - they felt I needed to include scientific backing in the exploration of each separate area covered, such as gambling, eating, smoking, drugs and alcohol. The second half is a model for self-help based on the most successful treatment and my own analysis of the literature on natural recovery. It is a major work and it continues to sell." The book was co-authored by Archie Brodsky, with the assistance of Mary Arnold.