by Nick Roy
Stromberg begins his argument by discussing the delicate nature of the word “agency.” The word has been used in various contexts throughout history. Stromberg settles on using the phrase “sense of agency” which is defined as the feeling of being in control of one’s own actions and one is ultimately responsible for one’s own actions. The presence of other humans, each with their own sense of agency, creates the need to be able to anticipate the plans and actions of others in order to navigate the complex social lives of humans. One way the human brain handles this complexity, according to Stromberg, is the phenomenon of joint attention where a person can simultaneously attend to someone and the object that someone is attending to. Stromberg then argues that the increased capacity for group projects in humans led to more flexible social structures that necessitated a subjective sense of a lapse of agency in order to control the more complex social structures.
Stromberg continues his argument by discussing the American sense of agency. He argues that the idea that people are not entirely in control of their actions poses a threat to American assumptions of individual responsibility and achievement. As a result, lapses in agency are often regulated to the realm of politics and psychopathology by Americans. However, even with the presence of a strong, autonomous sense of self in America, there does exist lapses in agency in American culture that can either be described as positive (being lost in a good book) or negative (drug addiction and other severe pathologies). These lapses are often the source of confusion in American society as to what causes them.
Stromberg’s core argument rests on the data he and his team collected on young adult cigarette smokers in college. He argues that some of the activities his sample reported performing when they first started to smoke were similar to the ritualistic activities Durkheim reported in his The Elementary Forms of Religious Life. Stromberg argues that the excitement caused by large and energetic social gatherings combined with imitating other smokers and the emotional arousal generated by the whole context constitute what Durkheim called a “collective effervescence” whereby the act of smoking is associated with the excitement and positive feelings of the surrounding social context in a manner similar to religious rituals. According to this model, the act of smoking becomes associated with the feelings of the wider social context. According to Stromberg, these thoughts and feelings are powerful enough to overpower a smoker’s sense of agency creating a situation where they feel that they are unable to control their actions.
Stromberg describes this collective effervescence in three parts. First, many of the young adult smokers he had interviewed reported that they started smoking habitually at parties which were characterized by high-energy interactions between friends. Second, interviewees reported a sense that when someone started smoking they felt they needed to as well. Third, large and energetic social gatherings, like parties, tend to arouse states of emotion that do not usually arise in an individual and are often interpreted as coming from beyond one’s body. These factors can act to weaken an individual’s sense of agency and may lead to lapses in agency.
Stromberg’s argument may seem controversial, especially in America, for the same reasons he described in his article. As a society that is in many ways built on the ideas of personal responsibility and achievement, the idea that many of the actions people take may not be freely chosen is confusing at best and disturbing at worst. Stromberg argues that the social context young smokers find themselves in can lead to them being “swept up” into the social activities and lose their sense of agency amid the excitement and emotion of the gathering. Furthermore, in a manner described by Durkheim, smokers come to associate the act of smoking to the increased arousal that surrounded their smoking.
While I would have liked to see more recent data and there is an issue in generalizing the findings of a study which used a sample of college students broadly to describe all Americans, I found the study interesting and in need of further elaboration. Specifically, I am interested if similar effects exist for other drugs such as alcohol. I find the discussion of contextual reasons why people may start becoming habitual smokers far more enticing than the ongoing deterministic/free-will philosophical debates that often frame theories of addiction. I think that this look at the psychological processes which underlie much of our social interactions is a promising avenue for future research in addiction and dependency.