Sign-Tracking Procedures and Responses

Sign-Tracking Responses Resemble Drug-Taking Responses:

Sign-tracking responses are aimed at objects paired with reward.  They are poorly controlled and strong enough to prevail over the intention of the subject.  Drug-taking responses are also aimed at objects paired with reward, and repeated acts of voluntary drug-taking aid the development of sign-tracking responses.  Consider, for example, the alcohol user who enjoys drinking alcoholic beverages from a cocktail glass.  Repeated pairings of the cocktail glass with alcohol’s rewarding effects provide conditions that favor the development of sign-tracking responses, such that when the user is in the presence of the cocktail glass, the user will approach the cocktail glass, contact the cocktail glass, then drink from the cocktail glass.  In this way, the cocktail glass comes to trigger the user to automatically drink an alcoholic beverage, and this sign-tracking form of alcohol drinking occurs outside the realm of the user’s self-control.  The sign-tracking form of alcohol drinking is well camouflaged to resemble the intended form of alcohol drinking, so it is virtually invisible, as the well-kept secret of the drug addiction process.

The drug-taking of the addict resembles several aspects of sign-tracking responses.  Notably, the drug-taking of the addict is out of control.  Addicts are unable to control their drug-taking, and may take drugs even when they are trying not to do it.  Thus, the user will perform sign-tracking of drug-taking, despite their best intentions to restrain themselves.  In this way, sign-tracking provides an explanation for the issue at the very heart of drug addiction … “Why can’t I control my drug use?  “Why can’t I quit?”

The scientific short stories of The Sign-Tracker Trilogy illustrate how sign-tracking procedures induce the disconnect between action and intention, and how repeated acts of voluntary drug-taking recruit the development of sign-tracking of poorly controlled drug-taking.