Think about what you know of addiction already, do you think of these as facts or are they stereotypes you've come to think of when addiction is mentioned? Addiction is a complex issue that can be defined by its psychological and physical dependence qualities, with multiple risk factors, characteristics, and treatment options. Let's explore addiction further.

Addiction Addiction

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Table of contents
    • First, we will provide an addiction definition, exploring the various factors of addiction, including psychological and physical dependence.
    • Then we will explore the different types of addiction, such as nicotine and gambling.
    • After, we will look at drug addiction.
    • Then, we will examine alcohol addiction.
    • Finally, we will briefly discuss the concept of an addictive personality and the credibility of such a claim.

    Addiction, content warning, StudySmarter

    Addiction, phot of a pile of pills surrounded by pill packets, StudySmarterFig. 1 - Addiction is characterised by physical and psychological dependence.

    Addiction Definition

    Addiction is when an individual cannot stop engaging in an activity they find pleasurable, and involves tolerance and withdrawal symptoms alongside dependence (both physical and psychological). There are many types of addiction, but at its core, it is when a person is unable to stop engaging in their addiction even though it is causing them and others harm; they have become dependent on the object of their addiction.

    Addiction is defined as when someone engages in a pleasurable activity that they then cannot stop doing. Addiction can even be detrimental to their everyday life, health, well-being, family, and friends.

    There are some concepts within the topic of addiction that we will clarify below, including kinds of dependence, tolerance, withdrawal syndrome and some risk factors for addiction.

    Addiction can form as a psychological dependence and/or a physical dependence on a substance or behaviour.

    Psychological dependence is when someone becomes dependent on the object of addiction for psychological and emotional functioning. It is about your mental state. A person may act out emotionally or feel anxious when they cannot gain access to the drug or behaviour.

    Physical dependence is when an addict cannot physically function without the object of addiction; the body is dependent on the drug and not partaking in the addiction can result in withdrawal symptoms. The drug or behaviour is the new normal, in a sense, and to regain that normal state, you need to take the drug again.

    An example of psychological dependence can be seen in alcohol addiction. For instance, someone with alcohol addiction may become angry and aggressive if they haven't had a drink, meaning they are psychologically dependent on alcohol to behave normally and not resort to aggression.

    An example of physical dependence includes an alcoholic experiencing shakes and tremors when unable to drink.


    A person becomes tolerant of something when they are physically dependent on it to achieve a sense of normality. They engage in the object of addiction so often that it no longer has the same effect. As a result, they increase their 'dosage' to achieve the same effect.

    For example, someone with an alcohol addiction may move on from weak beer to strong whiskey, as beer doesn't give them the same 'buzz' anymore. They may need to drink more beer to get drunk.

    Withdrawal Syndrome

    Withdrawal symptoms refer to the physical symptoms that someone experiences when they either reduce or stop partaking in the object of their addiction. They include but are not limited to, anxiety, insomnia, nausea and body aches. Withdrawal symptoms differ depending on the drug or behaviour.

    An alcoholic may experience shaky hands and nausea, whereas a smoker experience headaches and hunger cravings.

    Risk Factors for Addiction

    Risk factors are things that might make someone more vulnerable to developing an addiction. They could be lone factors, but often addiction results in a combination of several. Risk factors for addiction could include:

    • Stress - Continually using substances as a form of stress relief could lead to an addiction, and stressful situations are a risk factor.
    • Genetic factors - Addictive behaviour tendencies can possibly be inherited in family genes.
    • Family influences - Growing up in an environment that normalises heavy substance use or addictive behaviour.
    • Peer group influences - Including peer pressure to engage in risky behaviours that could lead to addiction.

    Addiction, a dark silhouette of a group of seven people, StudySmarterFig. 2 - Family and peer influence can be a risk factor for addiction.

    It is important to recognise that genetic vulnerability does not connotate certainty - meaning that someone's genes do not guarantee that they will become addicted.

    Types of Addiction

    There are multiple types of addiction. In this section, we will look at two specific types of addiction, however: nicotine addiction and gambling addiction. We will look at how different approaches explain these addictions and how we can treat them.

    How can we Define and Explain Nicotine Addiction?

    Nicotine addiction is when someone is addicted to nicotine, through smoking cigarettes or chewing tobacco. Specifically, the DSM 5 defines nicotine addiction as:

    1. Unsuccessful efforts to quit or reduce intake of tobacco
    2. Cravings for Tobacco
    3. Failure to attend to responsibilities and obligations due to tobacco use
    4. Continued use despite adverse social or interpersonal consequences

    Biological Explanations for Nicotine Addictions

    Biological explanations of addiction centre around the brain's mesolimbic system, or reward system. The components of this system that influence addiction are:

    • The prefrontal cortex
    • The ventral tegmental area
    • The nucleus accumbens
    • Dopamine (mesolimbic dopamine pathway)
    • The opioid system
    • Neuroadaptation

    Specifically, these systems regulate desensitisation, conditioning (reward systems), tolerance and changes within the brain which can all contribute to addiction. Notably, serotonin is also involved in the control of impulsiveness (control lowers impulses to engage in risky behaviours).

    The Learning Theory Explanation for Nicotine Addictions

    Learning theory explains nicotine addiction through conditioning. A person with nicotine addiction is not only rewarded with the pleasure of smoking a cigarette but may develop cue-reactivity, wherein objects associated with smoking trigger their addiction, e.g. a lighter.

    Addiction, a lit cigarette, StudySmarterFig. 3 - Smoking can lead to nicotine addiction.

    How can we Define and Explain Gambling Addiction?

    Gambling addiction is when someone is addicted to gambling. DSM 5 considers gambling to be a problematic disorder, leading to significant distress characterised by:

    1. A preoccupation with gambling behaviour.
    2. Repeated and unsuccessful attempts to stop.
    3. Continuing the habit despite losses and other costs.

    Gambling addiction could take many forms, from betting on sporting events to playing poker and slot machines. When someone is addicted to gambling there are a few approaches that could explain their behaviour, but in this section, we will explore learning theory, the cognitive approach and cognitive bias.

    Learning Theory in Gambling

    Learning theory explains gambling in terms of operant and classical conditioning. When the gambler wins they are rewarded, reinforcing their gambling behaviour. Although it is true that gambling is not reinforced every time someone gambles, the thrill and risk of placing a bet are, therefore, this uncertainty reinforces addiction.

    Cognitive Theory in Gambling

    The cognitive theory explains gambling in terms of irrational thoughts, including reasoning and cognitive bias such as illusions of control (a belief that the gambler can influence the outcome of their bet) and gambler’s fallacy (a belief that after a losing streak, a win is certain). Gambling can also be seen as a coping mechanism and distraction.

    Cognitive Bias in Gambling

    Cognitive bias is a thinking error that affects people's judgement, it occurs when people try to justify bad decisions in order to carry on repeating the behaviour. In gambling addiction this can include instances of focusing on nearly winning or only winning (rather than all the times lost), making people believe that they are more likely to win if they carry on gambling because they have won before.

    Drug Addiction

    The DSM 5 criteria for drug addiction is listed as 'substance-related and addictive disorders', including drugs such as alcohol, nicotine, caffeine, opioids, hallucinogenic, stimulants and cannabis. Drug addiction is categorised as:

    The physical dependence on a substance that has impairment on the health and life of the user, especially when taken often, more than intended or with an inability to stop.

    There are multiple ways to treat drug addictions, and this is seen through addressing the biological and psychological needs of the individual.

    Biological Treatments for Drug Addiction

    Biological treatments for drug addiction usually involve drug therapy. There are three main types of drugs that might be used:

    1. Aversive: drugs that create a negative reaction to the object of addiction e.g., vomiting after using a substance.
    2. Agonist: a less harmful replacement for the object of addiction. These allow the sufferer to slowly withdraw from their addiction.
    3. Antagonist: these block the effects of the object of addiction e.g., you won’t get a pleasurable feeling after using a substance.

    Addiction, a handful of pills of different shapes, sizes and colours, StudySmarterFig. 4 - Drug therapy can help in the treatment of addiction.

    Methadone is an example of an agonist drug therapy treatment for heroin or opioid addiction, taken in controlled doses aiding in reducing the symptoms of withdrawal.

    Behavioural Treatment for Drug Addiction

    The common behavioural treatment for addiction is aversion therapy. Aversion therapy involves replacing the positive association the sufferer has with their addiction with a negative or aversive association.

    Covert sensitisation is an alternative behavioural treatment for addiction. Covert sensitisation involves the same process as aversion therapy but the sufferer simply imagines the association rather than experiencing the aversive stimulus.

    Cognitive Treatment for Drug Addiction

    Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) is used as a cognitive treatment for addiction. It is based on the idea that addiction is caused by faulty thought processes, so if someone changes the way they think about their addiction, they can also break their addictive behaviour. The therapy (CBT) aims to allow people to recognise situations in which they turn to their addiction to replace their addiction with positive behaviour.

    Alcohol Addiction

    Alcohol addiction is categorised in the DSM 5 within the substance-related and addictive disorders, with the compulsive behaviour and related treatment being related to alcohol and personalised towards the individual seeking help. This again can include a mix of biological, behavioural and cognitive treatment.

    Biological Treatment for Alcohol Addiction

    Drug therapy treatments for alcohol addiction can include any of the same treatments listed in the drug addiction section (aversive, agonist, antagonist).

    An example of an antagonist drug usually used in the treatment of alcohol addiction is naltrexone, which blocks the pleasurable effects of drinking alcohol, potentially making it easier to stop drinking as there are no positive effects felt anymore.

    Behavioural Treatment for Alcohol Addiction

    Drug therapy can overlap with behavioural treatment for alcohol addiction. Aversive drugs taken when drinking alcohol can cause severe nausea and sickness, which creates negative associations with the substance. This is a form of aversion therapy.

    Cognitive Treatment for Alcohol Addiction

    Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) is also recommended during the alcohol addiction treatment process. CBT is effective for the treatment of anxiety and depression, which are disorders and symptoms which may co-exist in someone with alcohol addiction.

    CBT and other psychological treatments/talking therapies allow safe spaces for people to explore their harmful thoughts, beliefs and behaviours without judgement. This can aid in an individual's recovery and prevent relapse.

    Addictive Personality

    As mentioned when discussing risk factors for addiction, there are several things that can influence the development of addictive behaviour. Not necessarily having an addictive personality type, but genetic and environmental vulnerabilities or stressors that risky or pleasurable behaviour is used as a coping mechanism to manage.

    There are a few theories on how to manage addictive behaviour that are not initially tailored towards a specific substance or behaviour and can be adapted based on the needs of the individual.

    Theory of Planned Behaviour

    This theory was a development of Ajzen and Fienbein's (1970) theory of reasoned action. Ajzen (1989) proposed that behaviour is controlled by intentions which are influenced by various factors:

    • The individual’s subjective norms (how they think others would view their behaviour)
    • Perceived behavioural concerns (how much they think they can perform the behaviour)
    • Personal attitudes (a person’s own attitudes towards their addiction)

    The theory states that behaviour can be changed by creating different attitudes towards addiction. This is achieved by showing the sufferer data about how many people engage in risky behaviour. This will give the sufferer the willpower to change their behaviour.

    Can you see how the theory of planned behaviour could link to treatment for an addiction? In combination with drug and other cognitive therapy, this could help people to think about their attitude and behaviour in order to prevent relapses.

    Prochaska (1997)’s Six-stage Model of Behaviour Change

    This model describes the six stages of behavioural change which can help a person overcome addiction. They are as follows:

    1. The pre-contemplation stage - no intentions of changing.
    2. The contemplation stage - aware of problematic behaviour but won't change.
    3. The preparation stage - willing to make small changes.
    4. The action stage - makes active changes.
    5. The maintenance stage - working to stay in recovery and not relapse.
    6. The relapse stage - engagement with addictive behaviours again after successfully not engaging with behaviours.

    Addiction - Key takeaways

    • Addiction is when someone engages in a pleasurable activity that they then cannot stop doing even though it may be detrimental to their well-being and loved ones.

    • Addiction is characterised by physical and psychological dependence as well as tolerance and withdrawal syndrome. The risk factors of addiction are stress, peer group, family and genetic vulnerability.

    • Psychologists use learning theory, cognitive approaches and biological theory as an explanation for addiction, such as nicotine and gambling.

    • Drug and alcohol addictions can be treated using drug therapy, aversion therapy, covert sensitisation and cognitive behavioural therapy.

    • Addictive behaviour can be managed using theories such as the theory of planned behaviour and Prochaska's six-stage model.

    Addiction, assistance image, StudySmarter


    1. Fig 1. - Photo by Papaioannou Kostas on Unsplash.
    2. Fig 2. - Photo by Andres Siimon on Unsplash
    3. Fig 3. - Photo by Ksenia Yakovleva on Unsplash.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Addiction

    What is addiction?

    Addiction is defined as when someone engages in a pleasurable activity that they then cannot stop doing, due to physical and psychological dependence, as well as issues with tolerance and withdrawal symptoms. Addiction can be detrimental to their everyday life, health, well-being, family, and friends.

    How to beat addiction?

    Always consult with a licensed professional when seeking treatment for addiction. Potential treatment avenues include medication, behavioural and cognitive therapy treatments, although treatments depend on the individual and other factors that affect success rates.

    What are the 4 levels of addiction?

    Addiction usually progresses in experimenting, casual use, high-risk use, and eventually, addiction.

    What are the two main causes of addiction?

    Risk factors for addiction include stress, genetics, family influences, and peer group influences.

    What is drug addiction?

    Drug addiction is the physical dependence on a substance that has an impairment on the health and life of the user, especially when taken often, more than intended or with an inability to stop

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    True or False: The Gambler's fallacy describes gamblers' belief that an event is less likely to take place in the future if it has already taken place in the past more than usual.

     _______ reinforcement is when a behaviour isn’t reinforced all the time.

    Which of these are the three main ways of treating addiction?


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