Friday, November 14, 2014

Tango addiction - a metaphor or a Dx?

Rémi Targhetta. "Dans la Musique"
Discover magazine "craziest and funniest research" section has just reviewed a scholarly paper about the addictive potential of Argentine tango. And of course it's now cited and shared all over the tangoverse. 

We like, occasionally, to muse about our "tango addiction", just like some others may play with the badges of "political junkies" or "snowboarding addicts". When you enjoy your fav activity, and spend much time doing it, and it just happens to be an activity only appreciated by a minority of your relatives and neighbors, then the metaphor of "addiction" always comes handy. The weirder the better. (They wouldn't talk much about "hamburger addicts" or "laundry junkies" because eating burgers or house cleaning are supposed to be everybody's normal things to do).

At the very least, the tanguero was simply seen as "possessed", depicted as a vampire in TangoClay's / Arturo Newman's "movie plot" or as a hollow-eyed skull-calavera in the classic letras of Trasnochando (translated here by late Alberto Paz).

But here we have a study which claims that "tango addiction" isn't just a poetic metaphor - that it is an actual clinical diagnosis. You can see the paper (published a year and a half ago) here. The authors (one of whom, Rémi Targhetta, is an old tanguero from Nîmes, France, and a pulmonologist professionally interested in tobacco and other addictions) tried to look at tango the way the researchers look at videogame addictions, compulsive shopping, or exercise dependence (NOT drugs). Dr. Targhetta was inspired by meeting a guy who left his job and his country at 52 to dance tango every night, and who haven't missed a milonga during a 10-day tango event both of them attended, a case which is undoubtedly an extreme outlier. To conduct the study, they quizzed subscribers of a tango ezine, obviously drawing from a group of outliers. Despite this IMVHO extreme selection bias, the majority of the test-takers turned out to be NOT addicted. And what are we told to read in this? Yeah, right.

In any case, my statistician alter ego was starving for the actual data from the much-overinterpreted (and paywalled) paper, and I found some in Rémi Targhetta's other publication, written in French for the tango folk at & illustrated with Rémi's breathtaking photographs. Here are a few tidbits translated from the French article for your enjoyment:

The first question of the Questionnaire was, "How often do you dance tango?"
0.4% = Never
22.0% = Occasionally
10.1% = Less than once a week
22.4% = Once a week
32.1% = Twice a week
23.5% = Three times a week
9.4% = 4 to 5 times per week
1.7% = 6 to 7 times per week

(Rémi interpreted the observation that his sample represented frequent and infrequent dancers and looks kinda Gaussian as a "proof of lack of bias of selection". Really. Not like we really know how the distribution should look for the randomly selected tangueros ... but obviously nearly 40% of the test-takers danced A LOT, and were counted towards the supposed addicts)

In reality the tangueros were drawn to the study because of their subscription to the online magazine, and their keen interest in the study of the addictive nature of tango. Fully 39% of the study subjects described themselves as "addicts" (surely in the metaphoric sense of the word), and they left hundreds of detailed comments to the questions as a further proof of their deep interest in the topic of the study.

Rémi Targhetta. "Balade dans l'imaginaire", with the survey-takers' comments
The average "tango age" was 5 years (female) and 6 years (male). 60% of the respondents were female. The subjects' average "actual" age was 49.5 years (SD, 13.1 years).

There are no universally accepted criteria for behavior dependence, notes Rémi. So they lifted the substance-dependence criteria from DSM IV and replaced "substance" by "behavior" throughout the text. (Except they dropped the criterion #4 from the questionnaire, that's where DSM asks about persistent / futile attempts to break the habit)

The "withdrawal" signs were measured using fairly silly questions such as "do you feel missing something important when you don't dance for several days" (when it's clear that most tangueros go to regularly scheduled calendar events at least weekly, so of course they miss, at the very least, adherence to their social groups' calendars?) or "do you want to dance when you feel you're missing something". Typically, high-scoring withdrawal is observed in 80% smokers (who are asked about a time scale of hours rather than days anyway); 16 to 35% tangueros scored high in these arguably confounded questions.

"Loss of control" / "unplanned binge dancing" wasn't typical for the tangueros (and in fact a separate question about hours spent at a typical milonga made it clear that the dancers didn't go, uncontrollably, for every available minute of tango time). But they often scored high in the amount of time spent on tango indirectly (travel, dressing, rest, sleep) and in displacement of other leisure and social activities (with three questions, "Will I dance even if I have other things to do?", "Did I have to reduce other social / family / recreational activities for tango?", and "Do I structure my vacations or holidays around tango?") (I would guess that all enthusiastic social hobbyists tend to score higher on indirectly expended time and on displacement of non-hobby activities? But in any case, no more than 1/3rd of the tangueros scored high on this section)

"Pursuit of the activity despite knowing its negative effects on one's body and soul"
In this section, Rémi asked about injuries and pain, as well as about negative consequences for psychological condition, family, or professional life, but less than 7% of the quiz-takers had any ill effects of any of these sorts. In hindsight, one could have also asked about one's sense of accomplishment vs. bitter regrets about discovering tango, or about eagerness to recommended tango to the friends and dear ones ... I'm confident that the answers would further underscore sharp differences between the attitudes of the addicts and the tangueros.

So, let's summarize: tango didn't score anywhere like a drug addition on withdrawals, binges, loss of control, or pursuit of a high regardless of its known destructive effects. Tango scored higher by the measures of time spent for it, both directly and indirectly, and by its extent of displacement of other social and recreational activities. Ergo, we end up with a proof that dancing tango may take up a lot of your time, and give you a lot of joy, but it has little in common with addictions such as substance abuse, alcoholism, or smoking.


  1. Dmitry, this is a great post. The American Psychiatry Association would have us all sick, unless of course, we are really normal and boring. Name a single person who has been a great thinker, spiritual leader, artist or musician who would not have a diagnosis. In the case of dancing tango or holding your children, we now have too many happy hormones going on inside of us so we obviously have an addiction. Really?

  2. Thanks! Don't we know too well that the biological mechanisms of addictions are rooted in the basic normal functions of the organism, in the decision-making and reward systems involved in behavioral traits of even the simplest neural systems. For some of the species not even endowed with brains, the very proof of the fact that they, too, have emotions is found in addictive behaviors (for example, snails, which have mere hundreds neuron cells in their ganglia, can experience addictive self-stimulation).

    So our clinical addictions are based on normal, necessary, and fundamentally important processes, and share certain hallmarks with these normal mental functions. No wonder that we may see similarities with addiction in behaviors which aren't, and shouldn't be, treated as clinical abnormalities. And it doesn't really irk me when people talk of tango addiction in this vein. But expounding on the similarity and over-developing the metaphor in far too many details is too much for me. When a teacher assistant in a tango class suggested that we "inject milonga into our veins", I was like, you know, young lady, you've just lost me there...