In 1984, Dr. Milton Burglass and Dr. Howard Shaffer published a paper in the journal Addictive Behaviors and claimed that arguably the important questions in the addiction field are ‘why do people become addicted to some things and not others?’ and ‘why some people become addicted and not others?’ Answers to these questions have been hindered by two common misconceptions about addiction, which to some extent have underpinned the ‘hard core’ disease concept of addiction. These are that addiction somehow resides within: (i) particular types of people or (ii) particular substances, and/or particular kinds of activity. That is, either some people are already ‘diseased,’ or else some substances/ activities cause this disease, or both.
There is a belief that some people are destined to become addicted. Typically this is explained in one (or both) of two ways. That some people (i.e., ‘addicts’) have an addictive personality, and that there is a genetic basis for addiction. The evidence for ‘addictive personality’ rests to a certain extent upon one’s faith in the validity of psychometric testing. Setting aside this major hurdle, the evidence in this area (as I argued with my colleagues Dr. Michael Larkin and Dr. Richard Wood in a 2006 issue of Addiction Research and Theory [ART]) is still inconclusive and contradictory.
First, psychologists have yet to determine which particular personality traits are linked to addiction. Studies have claimed that ‘the addictive personality’ may be characterized by a wide range of factors (e.g., sensation-seeking, novelty-seeking, extroversion, locus-of-control preferences, major traumatic life events, learned behaviours, etc.). The extent of this range stretches not only the notion of an ‘addictive personality’ but also the concept of ‘personality’ itself. Inevitably, much of this work relies on correlation analysis, and so the interpretation of results is not easily framed in terms of cause and effect. The approach is overly simplistic and is underpinned by a simple proposition that if we can divide people up into the right groups, then the explanation will emerge. However, addiction is far more complex than this. Of course, the relationship between individual bodies, minds, contexts, and life histories is complex and important – but it requires that we approach the matter from a more sophisticated and integrative position.
The search for a genetic basis for addiction rests upon the notion that some types of individuals are somehow ‘biologically wired’ to become addicts. In our 2006 ART paper, we argued that we must set aside any doubts about the limited conceptualization of ‘the environment’ that often typifies this kind of research, and its combination with epidemiological designs that are largely descriptive. Meta-analytic reviews have concluded that the heritability of addictive behaviour is likely to be controlled by many genes each contributing a small fraction of the overall risk. Furthermore, some of these same genes appear to be risk factors for other problems, some of them conceptually unrelated to addiction. We argued that the main point here is that while these findings do contribute something to our understanding of ‘why some people and not others,’ they do not adequately or independently explain the range of variation. Therefore the most we can say is that some people are more likely to develop problems under certain conditions, and that given the right conditions most people could probably develop an addiction. Emphasis needs to be placed on identifying those ‘conditions,’ rather than on searching for the narrowest of reductionist explanations.
We also argued in our 2006 ART paper that substances and activities cannot be described as intrinsically addictive in themselves (unless one chooses to define ‘addictive’ in terms of a substance or behaviour’s ability to produce tolerance and/or withdrawal, and to ignore the range of human experience that is excluded by this). Biologists may be able to tell us very valuable things about the psychopharmacological nature of the rewards that particular substances and behaviours provide, and the different kinds of neuroadaptation that they may or may not produce in order to effect tolerance and/or withdrawal. But we argue that this on its own, is not an adequate explanation for addiction. In 1975, Dr. Lee Robins’ classic study (in the Archives of General Psychiatry) of heroin-users returning from the Vietnam war is one example of the evidence that refutes this oversimplification. This study clearly highlighted the importance of context (i.e., that in a war zone environment individuals were addicted to heroin but on return to civilian life the addiction ceased to exist), and the framework provided by such contexts for making sense of addiction. In a hostile and threatening environment, opiates clearly provided something not usually required by most people; and given a cultural environment in which opiate use is a commonplace, and opiates are available, then opiate use ‘makes sense’. This study provides support for the assertion that some people are more likely to become addicted under some conditions, and that given the right conditions perhaps many people could understand what it means to be an addict.
So, with regard to the question, ‘why some individuals/addictions and not others?’ the rewards associated with various activities may be qualitatively very different, and may not necessarily be inherent or unique to a particular activity or substance, either. Many rewarding activities are rewarding because they present individuals with opportunities to ‘shift’ their own subjective experience of themselves (for example, see the research on Ecstasy use and bungee jumping that I published with Dr. Michael Larkin in a 2004 issue of the Journal of Community and Applied Social Psychology).
Frequently, a range of such opportunities is offered to the experienced user. Dr. Howard Shaffer (in a 1996 paper in the Journal of Gambling Studies) has pointed out that those activities that can be most relied upon to shift self-experience in a robust manner are likely to be the most popular – and (as a consequence) to be the most frequent basis of problems. So, obviously, our understanding of the available resources for mood modification must play a major part in understanding addiction. However, we must make a careful distinction between describing some substances as being more ‘robust shifters of experience’ than others (as we advocated in our 2006 ART paper) and describing some substances as ‘more addictive’ than others (which we argued against).
Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK
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