An elderly man is found unconscious at the wheel of his idling car in the median strip of a busy interstate. Miraculously, he struck no other vehicle when he careered off the highway. When roused by the police, he blows a blood alcohol level of .18, leading to his third DUI arrest.

A young meth-addicted woman thinks her reflection in a store window is watching her, so she hurls a brick at it. A terrified customer calls the police, who arrest her for shattering the window and spraying the store’s customers with glass shards.

In some people’s eyes, the millions of people like the above examples who come into contact with the criminal justice system each year are dangerous monsters who should be sent away for long prison terms. Others view these same people as helpless and hapless, innocent victims both of a disease and a cruel criminal justice system. From this it follows that the legal system should back off entirely and let health care professionals offer needed treatment.

These two camps argue with each other endlessly, usually in debates about whether society should respond to addicted offenders with punishment OR treatment, whether intoxicated violence should result in accountability and monitoring OR immediate forgiveness and therapeutic support, and whether substance dependence is a public health OR a public safety issue. My own view is that both sides lose every one of these debates, because they have framed the question is a way that makes both permissible answers wrong. People addicted to alcohol and other drugs do indeed suffer terribly; they also do physical and emotional harm to millions of other people each year. Trying to decide whether this population needs help OR whether the rest of us need protection from them is as sensible as trying to decide whether to provide your child love OR limits.

I have long wondered why many intelligent people — even people who have seen the population of interest up close — are so strongly committed to seeing addicted offenders either as villains or victims rather than as a mélange of both. Cognitive psychology research suggests that it may have something to do with the impact of emotion on perception and reasoning.

Remarkable research by Professor Paul Slovic shows that human beings have a preference for affective consistency. Uncomplicated emotions towards people and things we observe are more comfortable than conflicted ones, and human beings will do various cognitive gymnastics to preserve that peaceful simplicity. For example, if a car excites us because it looks fun to drive, but then we find out the scary fact that it has a poor safety record, we will tend to persuade ourselves either that it’s not really that fun to drive after all, or, that the safety data are wrong. There is nothing logically impossible about a car being both fun to drive and high-risk, but emotionally, we don’t want to deal with that complexity so we edit out the facts that generate it, making it hands down a “good” or “bad” car in our minds.

People have a range of strong feelings about addicted offenders: rage, fear, pity, compassion and disgust. Those emotions may drive stereotyped, over-simplified views of this population and what to do about them. If you are scared and angry, addicted criminal offenders may seem like thoroughgoing monsters who belong in prison. If you feel pity and compassion, the same individuals may seem like misunderstood martyrs who couldn’t possibly pose a threat to anyone. If you feel both such feelings, you may be driven to edit out the subset of facts that complicate your emotions.

I understand the desire for emotional simplicity because I have struggled with it myself. In interacting with addicted people, I have at times felt angry at them, disappointed in them, caring of them and sorry for them at the same moment. It’s a challenging emotional swirl that even after many years in the addiction field, I have never come to enjoy. I try hard to help my students accept the emotional contradictions, rather than seeing addicted people either as sociopathic blackguards or innocent lost lambs. But I recognize that I am asking a lot of my mentees, as I am advising them to voluntarily maintain an unpleasant emotional state when a simpler view would be more satisfying (if inaccurate).

Emotional complexity is a hard sell for emotionally charged issues in any event, even moreso perhaps in our soundbite-oriented political culture and the “make a snap judgement and then click away” world of the Internet. But without some ability to tolerate the dual nature of addicted offenders and the emotional complexity that brings, we will keep lurching back and forth between destructively draconian and laughably lax responses to this troubled and troubling population.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

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Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is a Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and served as Senior Policy Advisor in the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy in the Obama Administration. @KeithNHumphreys