How have Psychologist attempt to explain addictive behaviour?


Addiction has become an enormous issue in our society. Governments together with Non-governmental organisations (N.G.O’s) and health services try to address the problem by conducting research as well as providing treatment and rehabilitation services. With overcrowding youth centres and prisons, they are driven to find solution for the situation and acknowledge that something needs to change. Many researches have been conducted to reveal the truth about human nature and the behaviour of the community with respect to addiction. Many sections of our society including psychologists are working rigorously towards   solving the drug crisis.

Through ongoing research conducted across many centres, psychologists try to found justification for human behaviour and try to describe and explain human nature in the best way possible.

Addiction is widely explained in psychology literature and each explanation is linked to the main definition where addiction is an individual, difficult and sometimes unmanageable journey for each person affected with addiction. It is a constant battle where one who tries to change their reality, continuously fails to do so.

Over the years, psychologists have cautiously defined addiction.  According to Krivanck (1988), addiction is perceived as a process rather than behaviour and is best described on a variety of severity. Nevertheless loss of control is subjective and increased by ethical issues, since it suggests a certain level of responsibility and blame. Addicts behave in particular way, communicating differently and adapting to situations depending on the surroundings and environment in which they find themselves.

This essay will present the creation of numerous theories and models. Various categories can be use to summarise those models. The most important comprise the social-environment models, genetic-physiological models, personality-intrapsychic models, coping- social learning models, conditioning–reinforcement behavioural models, compulsive-excessive behavioural models, and at last the integrative biopsychosocial models. All these models concentrate on the process of development of the addiction and each model proposes individual explanation of addiction. They also suggest prevention, intervention and treatment ( Leonard & Blane 1999). Supporting evidence will be presented in order to evaluate the explanation of addictive behaviour.

At first we will focus on the cognitive approach theories.  The most noticeable were by Psychologists John Booth Davies (1992) and Griffiths (1992, 1994) who tried to find explanation to addictive behaviour. Rational Choice Model by Becker and Murphy (1998) proposes that people choose to engage in an activity as a result of weighing up the costs and benefits.   The theory makes use of the concept of “utility”, which in economics is a measure of the relative satisfaction resulting from consumption of a particular good or service.  From this viewpoint, addiction is understood as a process where addicts try to maximise the utility from the ‘consumption of goods’ (for example alcohol, gambling and drugs). Addicted individuals have made a rational choice in connection with the future consequences of their drug taking. According to this theory, addicts are rational consumers who look ahead and behave in a way that most likely will maximise the benefits of their choices.

John Booth Davies (1997) proposes a similar view of the Rational Choice Model. In his definition of the rational choice model, addiction is a “collective creation of the social world which serves a unique and specific purpose for particular individual at precise times”. Addicted individuals use their addiction as a justification to implement a specific and unique function for the individual and provide satisfaction. Addiction is used as a tool to explain the weakness and behaviour which, without the explanation, will be seen in society as morally wrong. Language in group of addictive individuals is distinctive, difficult to understand and depends on situation. An addict can label them self in situations when the labels will benefit their social position, for example when the addict is stopped by the police they may try to reduce the charge by trying to gain sympathy of the authority. They may try to make the police feel sorry for their personal situation and may try to use their addiction to their advantage. Davies believes that addiction is also profitable to the society where therapists and psychologists make living from it.

“The myth of addiction” (Davies 1997) recognises addiction as a one way system of social construction which provides satisfaction. However it is important to point out that the model does not mention the negative features and aspects of the addict world.

Addicted individual tend to lock themselves in solitary surroundings and isolated and secluded addicts are not able to reach out to other people. It also does not offer an explanation of addictive behaviour which changes and depends on the drug being used by the addict. For example heroin addicts tend to be stopped by authority more than a cannabis user.

In order to understand human nature and addictive behaviour where addict tries to solve the individual problem by taking drugs, it will be necessary to discuss ‘The Self –medication Model of addiction by Gelkopf et al (2002)’. The self-medication model claims that in the initiation stage, addicts may deliberately use the addictive behaviour to cope with stress and psychological struggle.

The particular addiction is not chosen at random but has been selected as it is perceived to help a particular problem.  This Model tries to explain addiction and the individual differences in vulnerability to it. It suggests that the addict tries to fix individual problem via self–medication. The Model proposes an interesting explanation for the variation of different drugs which are not accidental according to the Gelkopf (2002). Addicts use stronger drugs in order to solve major psychological problems. According to Cohen and Lichtenstein (1990), “stress relief“smoking is not at all stress relief. They found significant differences in the level of stress between smoker and the ex-smoker or even non smoker.

In the past sixteen years, several psychologists from the field of addiction have suggested Biopsychosocial (biological-psychological-social) Models of Addiction. The development of the model appears to be extensive and holds problematical relations, concerning various psychological, social and biological factors, which seem to play a part in the development of addiction problems. The Bio-Psycho-Social approach states that there are sociological basis, psychological causes as well as biological reasons for addiction. In addition to accounting for addiction to drugs or alcohol, it highlights the emotional problems of the addict and also draws attention to the relationships with surrounding.  The biopsychosocial model contains and accommodates variety and value of individual differences between people. The biopsychosocial model can be understood as a model of “the best practices”, because it proposes the most appropriate set of intervention programmes and services to meet the needs of the client.

Donovan and Marlatt, (1998) state that” addiction is an interactive product of social learning in situations involving physiological events as they are interpreted, labelled, and giving of meaning by the individual”. The multicomponent model of addiction requires the understanding of the process of development of the addiction. Marlatt and Gordon (1985) use the relapse process as reason to support the requirement of the biopsychosocial model.  This model evidently supports and proves the complexity of addiction and recovery. Nevertheless, the tripartite of the model factors is needed to understand the density and the continuous changes of the addiction process and the relapse of the addict.

On other hand the biological model of addiction states that people are most vulnerable in the initiation phase because some of them may have a biological predisposition which makes them susceptible to addiction. When an addict manages to refrain from drugs, the biological tendency will hold them back and relapse will occur more frequently.

Caine (2007) found that mice which lack the D1 receptor for dopamine, will not take cocaine when given a chance to do so, whereas normal mice will keep coming back for more because like humans, they find it extremely addictive. This research shows that the drug rouses the reward path in the brain. Rewarding experiences trigger the release of dopamine and makes the brain feel like they want to do it.

Constant contact with drugs results in decrease of the activity of positive reward path in the brain. This reaction produces a tension for the addict which typify by symptoms of withdrawal. The unpleasant position turns into the leading dynamic power of the drug appetite. To increase the pleasure is no longer the main goal of the addict. Instead, now the addict takes drugs in order to avoid pain from withdrawal symptoms. Addict individual no longer takes the drugs to gain a pleasurable experience, but instead takes them to avoid an unpleasant state. In consequence to this, the drug levels increase and that sets off the reward system in the brain. Sooner or later the passion for the drugs is so high that the addict does not have any other aspiration in their life. Notwithstanding the reality that the drugs do not give any gratification, addicted brain will resave signals of pending prize which triggers addicted individual to take the drugs. The frontal cortex effect will drop down and will not be able to judge the action and the consequences of it. All those actions will intensify the possibility of relapse even after the addict has stopped taking drugs.

As we can see in this essay, there can be broad disadvantages of describing addiction only by cognitive approach because there is empirical confirmation for particular chemical addictions which have a biological description of the relapse and maintenance. For example for someone who smokes, craving can be physical and painful and that can be reason to relapse.

Although cognitive factors might be effective in explaining why an individual is pulled in to addiction, it is not successful in describing why an addict persists and carries on the addiction even when the benefit is lower and the risk higher.  Cognitive account fails to notice the function of environmental, social and biological factors which evidently put pressure on the development of the addictive behaviour.

Widespread researches have been conducted and many psychologists have attempted to understand the human nature in order to help people make sense of the behaviour, feeling and thought related to addiction. Theory of Addiction improves people’s lives by providing knowledge about the social process and relationship. Finally, those systems make it easier for people to understand how the process of addiction impacts people and their individual health.

References :

  1. Becker, G. and K. Murphy (1988) A theory of rational addiction. Journal of Political Economy, 96.
  2. Caine SB, Koob GF (1993) Modulation of cocaine self-administration in the rat through D-3 dopamine receptors. Science 260.
  3. Caine SB, Lintz R, Koob GF (1993) Intravenous drug self-administion techniques in animals. In: Behavioral neuroscience: a practical approach (Sahgal A, ed), Oxford: Oxford UP.
  4. Caine SB, Thomsen M, Gabriel KI, Berkowitz JS, Gold LH, Koob GF, Tonegawa S, Zhang J, Xu M (2007) Lack of self-administration of cocaine in dopamine D1 receptor knock-out mice. J Neurosci 27.
  5. Cohen S, Lichtenstein E. (1990). Perceived stress, quitting smoking, and smoking relapse. Health Psychol.
  6. Davies J.B.(1987). Questions and answers in addiction research. British Journal of Addiction, 82
  7. Davies, J. B. (1997) The Myth of Addiction (2nd edn). Amsterdam: Harwood Academic Publishers.
  8. Donovan , Dennis M, Marlatt, Alan G. (2005) .Relapse apse prevention : maintenance strategies in the treatment of addictive behaviors, New York : Guilford Press.
  9. Donovan Dennis M., Marlatt , Alan G. (1988). Assessment of Addictive Behaviors.
  10. Gelkopf, M., Levitt, S. & Bleich, A. (2002). An integration of three approaches to addiction and methadone maintenance treatment. Israel Journal of Psychiatry and Related Sciences, 39.
  11. Gelkopf, M., Levitt, S., Bleich, A., 2002. An integration of three approaches to addiction and methadone maintenance treatment: the selfmedication hypothesis, the disease model and social criticism. Isr. J. Psychiatry Relat. Sci. 39,
  12. Krivanek, J. (1988) Addictions. Sydney, NSW: Allen & Unwin.
  13. Marlatt, G.A. & Gordon, J.R. (Eds.) (1985). Relapse Prevention: Maintenance strategies in the treatment of addictive behavior,. New York: Guilford Press.
  14. Sher, K. J.,& Levenson, R. W. (1982). Risk for alcoholism and individual differences in the stress–response-dampening effect of alcohol. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 91.
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