Understanding the psychology of addiction

The word addiction comes from “ad” which is a prefix meaning “to” and “dictus” which means “to say or tell”. The words ‘dictionary’ and ‘dictation’ are also derived from “dictus”. Hence, etymologically, ‘addiction’ means ‘to tell or to say or to dictate’.

And, as many addicts are well-aware, that’s exactly what addiction does- it tells you what to do; it dictates its terms to you; it controls your behavior.
Addiction is not the same thing as a habit. Although both start consciously, in a habit the person feels some degree of control over the habit. When it comes to addiction, the person feels they’ve lost control and something else is controlling him. They can’t help it. Things have gone too far.

People don’t have difficulty in admitting that they can give up their habits any time they want but when they get addicted it’s another matter- they feel very little control over their addictive behavior.


Reasons behind addiction

Addiction follows the same basic mechanism as a habit, though the two aren’t mutually exclusive. We do something that leads us to pleasurable reward. And when we do the activity enough number of times, we start to crave the reward upon encountering a trigger associated with the reward. This trigger can external (watching a bottle of wine) or internal (remembering the last time you got a kick).
Below are the common reasons why people get addicted to certain activities:

1) Habits gone out of hand

As mentioned before, addictions are essentially habits gone out of control. Unlike habits, addictions create a sort of dependency for the person on the substance or activity that he’s addicted to.

For instance, a person may have initially tried drugs out of curiosity but the mind learns that ‘drugs are pleasurable’ and whenever it finds itself in need of pleasure it will motivate the person to return to drugs. Before he knows it, he will have created a strong dependency on drugs.


Everything that we do teaches our mind something. If what we do is registered by our mind as ‘painful’, it will motivate us to avoid the behavior in future and if what we do is registered as ‘pleasurable’, it will motivate us to repeat that behavior in the future.


The pleasure-seeking and pain-avoiding motivation (based on the release of neurotransmitter dopamine1) of the brain is very powerful. It helped our ancestors survive by motivating them to pursue sex and food and avoid danger (dopamine is also released in adverse situations2).

So you’re better off not teaching your mind to seek anything that may apparently be pleasurable but turns you into a slave in the long term.

This TED Talk explaining how we fall into this pleasure trap and how to recover from it is the best one I’ve seen:

2) I still haven’t got what I was looking for

All addictions are not necessarily harmful. We all have needs and the actions that we do are almost always directed towards the fulfillment of those needs. Some of our needs are stronger than the others.

Hence the actions that we do to fulfill our strongest needs will be strongly driven and more frequent than other actions unrelated or indirectly related to our strongest needs. 

Behind any excessive action, there is a strong need. This doesn’t just apply to our basic biological needs but also to our psychological needs.

A person who is addicted to his work (workaholic) hasn’t yet reached all his career-related goals. A person who’s addicted to socializing isn’t satisfied with his social life on some level. 

3) Uncertainty about the reward

The reason we like wrapped-up gifts is that we don’t know what’s in them. We get tempted to tear them open as soon as we can. Similarly, one of the reasons why people get addicted to social media is because every time they check it they expect a reward- a message, a notification or a funny post.

Uncertainty about the type and size of the reward motivates us strongly to repeat the activity that leads to it.

That’s why activities like gambling (which has behavioral characteristics similar to substance abuse3) are addictive because you never know what’s in store for you.

It also explains why card games like poker can be so addictive. You never know what kind of cards you’ll get out of the random shuffle, so you keep playing on and on and on, hoping to get good cards each time.

References:

1. Esch, T., & Stefano, G. B. (2004). The neurobiology of pleasure, reward processes, addiction and their health implications. Neuroendocrinology Letters25(4), 235-251.

2. Robinson, T. E., & Berridge, K. C. (2000). The psychology and neurobiology of addiction: an incentive–sensitization view. Addiction95(8s2), 91-117.

3. Blanco, C., Moreyra, P., Nunes, E. V., Saiz-Ruiz, J., & Ibanez, A. (2001, July). Pathological gambling: addiction or compulsion?. In Seminars in clinical neuropsychiatry (Vol. 6, No. 3, pp. 167-176).



Want a full-fledged course that teaches you step-by-step how to beat addiction? Check out Truth of Addiction by A. Scott Roberts, M.S. Rehabilitation Counselling.

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