Fair Play?
Evil Unmasked

The Addiction to Victory

How can we be confident that our ethics are correct? The danger of myside thinking is that we always predicate this assumption, whatever our beliefs, and the arguments of our opponents are seen merely as something to attack. This is why the appeal to historical cases can be so intoxicating: by making an analogy with a moral conflict already considered settled we project to a future world where our side has already won the current conflict. But we do not and cannot know the future in this way, and moral arguments must be rooted in the present if they are to be fair. Appeals to possible futures and analogies with the past are ways of avoiding the difficult process of reconciliation and compromise. They are ways of convincing ourselves we are right. They cannot be convincing to those who believe differently.

Part of the brains of almost all animals is concerned with habit formation, a biological system that rests on the chemical dopamine. There is, of course, a gene for this. But like any such gene, it simply provides a tool for the organism – it does not dictate how that tool will be used. We may form good habits, in which dopamine is released regularly, or we may fall into addiction of many kinds, where the pursuit of a bigger hit of this reward chemical comes to dominate our behaviour. Many of these kinds of addiction are well recognised, but some are not. The biggest dopamine hit of all comes from attaining victory in a struggle, and even imagining a winning outcome provides a small release of the reward chemical, helping to motivate perseverance.

I work in the videogames industry, and the question of the addictiveness of this medium is something of a hot button topic. It is true that certain games can be compulsive, and indeed that certain players become addicted to the pursuit of victory within them. But it is important to keep perspective here: soap operas, gossip and sports are also addictive. The issue is not whether certain pursuits are addictive so much as it is whether individuals are able to incorporate them into their lives in a healthy manner. Watching professional sports is tremendously habit-forming, but we are not likely to ban this vicarious enjoyment of winning any time soon.

We need to recognise that the pursuit of victory can present a damaging addiction in many contexts far outside of our usual assumptions in this regard. In particular, it will be helpful to recognise that partisans of any kind (political, scientific, metaphysical or ethical) are especially at risk to a peculiar kind of addiction. When truth is seen as a battleground, as it is in Western culture, then being right is winning, and as David Brin has noted, the excessive demand for partisan victory in politics is an addiction like any other. This addiction to winning obscures moral judgement, and combined with the various cognitive biases it renders politics impotent.

Part 22 of 23 in the Pentenary series.


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I just got home from an extreme experience, having spend two days in an innovation workshop. We were introduced to different processes and tools, all very useful, but one case in particular blew my mind. (sorry for the rambling, there is a point to this)
The group was at a stage were we had chosen one idea out of three, having specified only the area to go more in depth with, the form and content had not been discussed.
Now we were put through a new exercise in which we had to build the idea out of random materials (paper, colours, plastic mugs, straws etc.). We had 30 minutes but for the first 15 we were not allowed to speak to each other while building.

Within these first 15 minutes our group had managed to develop a viable concept using no words. Each of us had to make an effort of understand what the others were building to this, we were forced to "listen" in order to create together.

I think, the reason this was so successful was because the attention had shifted from "winning" into "creating". In the beginning of the idea generating process you fight an urge to "be right", to win the argument by presenting the best idea, knowing well that it is counter productive for the process.

Through this exercise it became obvious, that if either of us were to disagree with a suggestion, or dismiss it because of a lack of understanding, we would have to physically take away parts of the creation. So in essence the desire to "win the argument" was replaced with the joy of creating, because at that particular moment it made the most sense.

The problem, as I see it, is that most of the time going for the victory seems to be the most obvious. The environment in which we must choose between "fight to win" and "observe to create" seem to point towards the former, even though they are equally rewarding.

Thanks for this anecdote, Malene! I do believe there is a time and a place for fighting to win - it is the single minded focus on this goal to the exclusion of all else that concerns me, and which seems very much to appear as an addition to victory. Replacing creativity with conflict might help in a great many situations.

All the best!

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