Confirmation Bias: This Is Why Your Sobriety Won’t Stick

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It’s called confirmation bias, and it’s the reason we humans are so tribal. When we see others repeat an activity or opinion that we embrace, the “others” solidify our belief system.

 

I know what you’re thinking. Awesome, this guy is going to write about politics and how broken our society is because of tribal stubbornness and because we only listen to people who sound like us, right? Wrong! I’ve got news for us all. Confirmation bias impacts a lot of aspects of our lives beyond the polarizing issues of politics. In fact, your confirmation bias might just be the biggest hurdle keeping you from long-term sobriety.

 

I’m a high-functioning alcoholic now in permanent sobriety. The clinical definition of high-functioning alcoholism talks about maintaining career, family, finances, cleanliness, a running automobile and a working knowledge of civility and etiquette in spite of an abusive relationship with alcohol. In other words, when I was a drinker, I looked like I had my shit together. Maintaining that appearance was of the utmost importance to me and my immediate nuclear family – all of whom were in on the denials and lies of normalcy.

 

If I was going to pull it off and ooze the perception of happy averageness, I was certainly going to emulate the drinkers I admired. You know them – the people who drink a couple, or even more than a couple, while maintaining poise and confidence as they glide through life seemingly unfazed by reality. They call themselves quaint names like moderate drinkers or social drinkers, and they were my tribe for a very long time. They confirmed by bias about the unmatched value that alcohol brought to my life.

 

No matter what my personal reality said, my friends, 100% of whom drank alcohol, told me that consumption of the liquid poison was esteemable and a sign of successful adulthood. No matter how debilitating my alcohol-induced depression got, no matter how clear the association between drinking and my anxiety became, I still had all of my friends, neighbors and adult family members there to bring me back to my senses and keep me on my socially desirable date with alcoholic destiny.

 

You know that advertisement where eight out of ten dentists recommend a particular brand of sugar-free gum? That’s 80% of dentists. How about this: I just read survey results that reported more than three of every four Americans believe wearing masks will slow the spread of COVID-19. Those are big numbers: 80% and 75% of anything is compelling. I thought masks helped, and when I chew gum, it’s always sugar free. It’s nice to have my beliefs so overwhelmingly confirmed.

 

Now think about the influential people in your life. In my case, 100% of them drank, and thus, confirmed my belief in the importance of alcohol in my life. That’s ten out of ten or four out of four. At least those two rogue dentists could talk to each other about the reasons they didn’t recommend sugar-free gum. When I was considering sobriety, I had no one to talk to. I had systematically and strategically, over years and decades, surrounded myself exclusively with drinkers. How about you?

 

The idea that mature, responsible, funny, interesting and entertaining people existed who did not consume alcohol was beyond reason for me. The only sober people I knew of were the sad-sacks who moaned about their problems in the secrecy of church basements sitting in their cultish circle of cold metal folding chairs and chain-smoking cigarettes while double-fisting stale doughnuts. Believe it or not, that perception wasn’t enticing me into the rooms. No thank you, I’ll keep trying to fit in with the cool kids with the frothy golden-amber elixir in their hands.

 

The gap that separates us drinkers, with our bias toward drinking having been confirmed by personal experience and every facet of popular culture for centuries now, from the enlightened transformation into sobriety is the reason alcoholism is an epidemic.

 

Alcohol is not more physically or psychologically addictive than the other drugs readily available in society. Yet, there are more alcoholics than people addicted to all the other equally brain-hijacking drugs combined. Why is that? It’s confirmation bias. The gap that separates drinkers from the belief that life after alcohol is worth living.

 

I went on a walk a few weeks ago with a friend who doesn’t drink. She is not an alcoholic, she just has never really gotten into drinking. During our walk, she told me about the summer she bicycled across America. We talked about her mission to replace chemical and sugar-laden food in Colorado schools with nutritious, life-sustaining real scratch-made foods. She is making impressive progress, and I was astonished to hear what she had to say.

 

This past weekend, I talked to another friend who is trying to quit drinking. He told me of a motorcycle ride he took recently where he drank because all the other guys were having beers. He went on to tell me of some serious withdrawal symptoms he is experiencing, and of all of the work he is missing while he tries to climb from the hole he has dug.

 

Which of my friends would you like to spend time with? During my twenty-five years of active alcoholism, that answer was easy. The guy with the Harley and the unquenchable thirst for hops and barley spoke my language. In fact, my biggest fear would have been about my ability to keep up with him and be cool enough to be worthy. The woman who bicycled across the country without a flask to celebrate each night’s ride? No thank you. And I would not have been able to hear about her mission to end the cycle of processed food addiction over the roar of the Harley’s engine. She would not have confirmed my bias, so I would not have given her the time of day.

 

If you know you need to get sober, you’ve got a huge hurdle in front of you. I’m not talking about the cravings for alcohol, the power of your well-trained subconscious mind or your brain’s broken neurotransmitter receptors. I’m talking about your belief that alcohol is desirable. Your jealousy of moderate drinkers who can keep it under control is far more dangerous than your addiction. Your shame that something is wrong with you because you became addicted to one the world’s most addictive substances – that’s the real threat.

 

You don’t believe alcohol is a poison in any quantity because that concept flies in the face of everything you’ve learned about alcohol since your first adolescent sip made your toes tingle. And if you don’t believe in the power of confirmation bias, try convincing someone wearing a red MAGA hat to take it off his head. Logic and reason is no match for programming that is constantly confirmed by the people with whom we surround ourselves. If he does take that hat off, you’d better pucker up, because he might try to shove it up your…

 

As I was saying, confirmation bias is powerful, and it separates alcohol from meth and opioids and the other drugs we have arbitrarily deemed dangerous and illegal while we keep liquor stores open during a pandemic. If you want to get sober, breaking the addiction is only a fraction of the battle. At least eight out of those ten dentists drink, and they’re not going to help you quit.

 

The bad news is that there are over 15 million American alcoholics. But the good news is that there are only over 15 million American Alcoholics. The disease hasn’t taken everyone yet. And while the vast majority of adult Americans drink, there are those of us out there who do not drink for a variety of reasons from recovery to lack of interest in brain-cell toxification.

 

We are out there, and we are speaking up in increasing numbers. If you want to find us, you don’t have to tuck your tail between your legs and slink into a church basement. You can be proud of your sobriety. But then again, that takes a while, because our bias toward the lameness of sobriety has been confirmed over and over again.

 

When you are ready, you are welcome to join us. The sober people I’ve met in my sobriety are engaging, funny, entertaining and impressively doing great things to make this spinning orb a better place. And I’ve met many wonderful people from the rooms of AA who put that perception of lameness to rest. Really, honestly, the humans out there reaching their potential and helping others don’t have chunks of their brains unavailable because they are regularly intoxicated.

 

And the sober ones – we’ll all be happy to confirm your budding new bias toward the awesomeness of sobriety.

 

If you’d like to meet dozens of us right now, please consider joining our SHOUT Sobriety program for people in early recovery from alcoholism. We’ll help with the cravings and the brain chemistry and the connection. But most of all, we’ll change your perception of sobriety and crush that bias that’s keeping the stigma alive.

SHOUT Sobriety

If you believe in our mission to crush the stigma of alcoholism, and you want to be part of this soberevolution, please consider making a financial contribution to our fully-tax-deductible nonprofit, Stigma. Please donate now!

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4 Comments
  • Reply
    Mark Bailey
    July 29, 2020 at 8:28 am

    Absolute truth here…I never realized just how prevalent it was in our society until I found sobriety and left the “culture of drink”. Thanks for another very insightful piece, Matt – your work is wonderful!

    • Reply
      Matt Salis
      July 29, 2020 at 11:45 am

      Thanks for the feedback, Mark. The cult of drinking is spot on!

  • Reply
    Anokhi
    July 30, 2020 at 9:24 pm

    Great article. How much of this confirmation bias is perpetuated by the fact that we as Homo sapiens are always looking for displays of strength to improve our esteem and rank in the village? By that I mean, drinking is a way of saying “look at me, I am immune to the effects of XYZ addictive substance and have the best genes.” Same as we have the notion of “look at me, I woke up this gorgeous and don’t even try.” At least, that’s what I consider to be the deep rooted source of my shame. The pretending ends once you can’t maintain the facade anymore as you described. Always enjoy reading your perspective!

    • Reply
      Matt Salis
      July 31, 2020 at 7:34 am

      I love how you speak the truth here, Anokhi!

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