The hair dryer incident and other addiction systems

I discovered this great anecdote about a hair dryer and OCD and it got the gears turning.


  • Woman has OCD and compulsively worries that she left her hair dryer on and her house would burn down
  • She drives home over and over every day to check
  • It’s ruining her career and her life
  • No treatment, medication, or therapy helps her
  • Finally, someone tells her to bring the hair-dryer with her in the car
  • She’s cured
  • Psychiatrists lose their crap because that’s not how you treat OCD

It’s easy to say “oh those silly psychiatrists” but OCD will find an outlet one way or another. Find a bandaid fix for its current manifestation, and it’ll rear its ugly head somewhere else. So the “that’s not how you treat OCD” argument probably has some merit (says this random guy with zero medical degrees).

Thinking In Systems would call this an “addiction” system, or “shifting the burden to the intervenor.”

Addiction is finding a quick and dirty solution to the symptom of the problem, which prevents or distracts one from the harder and longer-term task of solving the real problem. Addictive policies are insidious, because they are so easy to sell, so simple to fall for.

Donella H. Meadows, Thinking In Systems

The woman is now “addicted” to putting the hair dryer in the car. If she goes on vacation and forgets to bring her hair dryer with her, then that’s going to be a short vacation.

Plus, the real problem still exists, and it will eventually find a new place to manifest. What happens when she starts worrying that she left her oven on?

The trouble is that the states created by interventions don’t last. The intoxication wears off. The subsidy is spent. The fertilizer is consumed or washed away.

Donella H. Meadows, Thinking In Systems

Ever since I read about addiction systems, I see them everywhere.

It’s our classic tendency to frame a problem as the lack of our pet solution. The problem isn’t that we don’t have QA, or don’t have time blocks for code review. Those are addiction-based solutions to whatever the real problems are.

Why are we pushing bugs to production? Why is code review the bottleneck? And what are the why’s behind those why’s, and the why’s behind those? How did we get here? We have to understand the history before we can hope to fix anything. Otherwise we’re shifting the burden to the intervenor.

Now, I’m not saying the hair-dryer-in-the-car idea was harmful. It gave the woman her life back, at least for a while. But shifting the burden is rarely a final solution.

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