Q: What is salience?

Salience simply put, means that something stands out in a desirable way to us. Salience increases the more positively we think about something, and decreases the more negatively we think about something. Often salience is tied to identity: when we feel that drugs, drinking, or smoking make us feel ‘rebellious’, ‘counter-culture’ or ‘cool’, it increases their salience to us. So we must look at why we need these feelings in order to feel safe or good about ourselves.

How prominent something is to our attention, drive, and focus, is determined by salience. An often overlooked part of the picture of addiction is the positive or negative association we place on things. How salient something is perceived to be, determines largely on your emotional associations toward it. This determines the amplification of the endorphin 'reward' (the body's natural opioids). The more negatively you feel about something, the easier it becomes to halt the behaviour (the less rewarding it becomes). The more positively you feel about something, the more likely you are to continue to engage in it (the more rewarding it becomes). Again, identity plays a huge role in addiction here because of salience. If we identify with a group of individuals who love to go to Vegas and gamble in the casinos for their vacation, stopping the addiction to gambling becomes harder because our identity is at risk; it's no longer just the gambling itself. because we feel so positively about those friends, those trips, or even about being "very talented" at gambling. If something has a salience of feeling powerful by doing the addictive behaviour, and a person's identity is wrapped up in that sense of power, it will become very hard to quite the substance unless the ideas and feelings of what seems powerful become disassociated.

So the catch 22 is that one must genuinely feel positively or negatively about something due to the biochemicals that are activated with those thoughts and feelings. You can't trick yourself into 'disliking' McDonald's cheeseburgers because they make you gain weight, if really, deep down inside you tell yourself you love the taste of cheeseburgers.

Negative Association also works best before the substance or activity becomes an addiction, and becomes harder once it has become ingrained. Exercise is a great example: some people are highly addicted to it, and others hate it. If the deep-set belief is that going for a jog is an unbearable chore, then every time they slip on their running shoes, they'll never get that 'runner's high' that jogging addicts describe, because their brain is too busy ruminating with negative thoughts and feelings about having to go jogging. Smoking is another great example: if there is a deep-set association with smoking and looking cool, or that they "just really love having a cigarette", then even if the smoker sees the cancer warnings on the label, they will have difficulty registering the negative results in a personal context.

If you think and feel negative about something, you will avoid doing it; the salience simply will not be there. You will not engage in that behaviour because you think it is gross, dangerous, unappealing, etc. This is the most powerful explanation for why a child of an alcoholic may not become a drinker - they felt so negative about alcohol, they never let themselves even begin to enjoy it. They had too many negative emotions they associated with it, which effectively block oxytocin, serotonin, and other endorphins. Luckily, you can begin this 'negative-association' feedback loop by teaching your brain to feel negatively about something, but it requires a lot of effort, as our habits, compulsions, and addictions are highly interweaved with our sense of self, our friends, and our belief systems.