I read about a fascinating attempt by scientists to “inoculate” the public against misinformation about a variety of important but anxiety-producing issues, such as vaccination and climate change.

Of course, we in the addictions field are accustomed to people who at first refuse to believe what we tell them. It’s something of a default state for many who enter treatment. Whether it’s called “denial” or “precontemplation”, it remains a real barrier to a positive outcome.

It’s a form of self-deception based on the need to suppress anxiety. The goal isn’t to fool the counselor. Ultimately, it’s to fool oneself.

That’s a quality found in some of the very best salespeople: an ability to believe in the product, no matter how flawed it may be.

Years ago, ┬ámisinformation about addiction came from other users, or sometimes from peers at support meetings. But now we have the Internet, a whole new source of ‘false expertise’ that distorts the discussion.

It’s no longer enough to impart new information. We needed to directly address the misinformation that was already in place. It’s a process we came to call unteaching.

It helped if we took the time to review the various discredited theories and wrong turns that society took in its struggle to understand and cope with the very ancient, remarkably complex phenomenon of addiction. Our goal was simply to reframe the discussion in a way that supports rather than undermines personal change. Education should be directly related to experience, with the aim of showing the newcomer how to live without intoxicating substances.

By relying on education instead of confrontation, we avoided triggering the anxiety that often shuts down the learning process.

It’s a small change that can yield big gains.

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