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Higher and higher: A brief look at rock climbing as an addiction

In previous blogs I have looked at the alleged addictiveness of extreme sports including BASE jumping and bungee jumping as well as briefly overviewing so called ‘adrenaline junkies’. Over the last year, a couple of papers by Robert Heirene, David Shearer, and Gareth Roderique-Davies have looked at the addictive properties of rock climbing specifically concentrating on withdrawal symptoms and craving.

In the first paper on withdrawal symptoms published last year in the Journal of Behavioral Addictions, the authors highlighted some previous research suggesting that there are similarities in the phenomenology of substance-related addictions and extreme sports. For instance, they noted:

Extreme sports athletes commonly describe a “rush” or “high” when participating in their sport (Buckley, 2012; Price & Bundesen, 2005) and liken these experiences to those of drug users (Willig, 2008). For example, a participant in Willig’ s study described: “It’s like for a drug user, they will take cocaine to get high. For me it’s my addiction, I have to go to the mountains to get high.”  Similarly, skydivers have described their sport as “like an addiction,” stating that they “can’t get enough,” and their “relationships suffer” as a result (Celsi, Rose, & Leigh, 1993).”

They also noted prior research suggesting that athletes may experience withdrawal states during periods of abstinence that are also characteristic of those with an addiction. Heirene and his colleagues claimed that this their study was the first to explore withdrawal experiences of individuals engaged in extreme sports. They carried out a study very similar to one of my own where Michael Smeaton and I published a study where gamblers were specifically interviewed about their experiences of withdrawal (in a 2002 issue of Social Psychological Review).


Young woman lead climbing in cave, male climber belaying

Heirene’s team used semi-structured interviews to explore withdrawal experiences of what they defined as ‘high ability’ and ‘average-ability’ male rock climbers during periods of abstinence (four climbers in each of the two groups). They then investigated the behavioural and psychological and aspects of withdrawal (including craving, anhedonia [i.e., the inability to feel pleasure in normally pleasurable activities], and negative affect) and examined the differences in the frequency and intensity of these states between the two rock climbing groups. Based on an analysis of the interview transcripts, they found support for the existence of anhedonia, craving, and negative affect among rock climbers. They also reported that the effects were more pronounced and intense among the high ability rock climbers (apart from anhedonic symptoms). The authors also noted:

“All participants reported negative affective experiences during abstinence, including states of “restlessness” and being “miserable,” “agitated,” or “frustrated.” Similar dysphoric states have been identified in drug users, exercise addicts, and extreme sports athletes during abstinence…In the present study, both groups reported using climbing to alleviate negative affective states, particularly stress. This finding supports previous research that has reported skydivers use their sport in a self-medicating manner (Price & Bundesen, 2005). Similarly, psychopharmacology literature has found individuals engage in substance abuse as a means of coping with stress…suggesting similar participation motives in both drug use and extreme sports”.

The study concluded that based on self-report, rock climbers experienced genuine withdrawal symptoms during abstinence from climbing and that these were comparable to individuals with substance and other behavioral addictions. In a second investigation just published in Frontiers in Psychology, the same team (this time led by Gareth Roderique-Davies) reported the development of the Rock Climbing Craving Questionnaire (RCCQ). The development of this new psychometric instrument directly followed on from the previous study which had found evidence of craving amongst the rock climbers that had been interviewed.

In the second paper, the research team attempted to “quantitatively measure the craving experienced by participants of any extreme sports”. They claimed that the RCCQ could allow “a greater understanding of the craving experienced by extreme sports athletes and a comparison of these across sports (e.g., surfing) and activities (e.g., drug-use)”. To develop the RCCQ, they utilized previously validated craving measures as a template for the new instrument to assess craving in the sports of rock-climbing and mountaineering.

The second paper comprised two studies. The first study investigated the factor structure of the craving measure among 407 climbers who completed the RCCQ. (One of the limitations of the study was that the participant sample was heterogeneous and included climbers and mountaineers from multiple primary climbing disciplines, including indoor climbing, outdoor traditional climbing, alpine climbing, and ice climbing). Despite the heterogeneity of the sample, the results demonstrated that a three-factor model explained just over half the total variance in item scores. The three factors (‘positive reinforcement’, ‘negative reinforcement’ and ‘urge to climb’) each comprised five items. The second study validated the 15-item RCCQ on 254 climbers using confirmatory factor analysis across two conditions (a ‘climbing-related cue’ condition or a ‘cue-neutral’ condition). The authors concluded that:

“[The first study supported] the multi-dimensional nature of rock climbing craving and shows parallels with substance-related craving in reflecting intention and positive (desire) and negative (withdrawal) reinforcement. [The second study confirmed] this factor structure and gives initial validation to the measure with evidence that these factors are sensitive to cue exposure…if as shown here, craving for climbing (and potentially other extreme sports) is similar to that experienced by drug-users and addicts, there is the potential that climbing and other extreme sports could be used as a replacement therapy for drug users”.

This latter suggestion has been made in the literature dating back to the 1970s and the work of Dr. Bill Glasser on ‘positive addictions’ as well as by psychologists such as Iain Brown who suggested in the early 1990s that gambling addicts should replace their addictions with sensation-seeking activities such as sky-diving and parachuting. Critics will claim that these papers are another example of ‘over-pathologizing’ everyday behaviours, but as I have always argued, if any behaviour fulfils all the core criteria for addiction, they should be operationalised as such.

Dr. Mark Griffiths, Professor of behavioural Addiction, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Brymer, E., & Schweitzer, R. (2013). Extreme sports are good for your health: a phenomenological understanding of fear and anxiety in extreme sport. Journal of health psychology, 18(4), 477-487.

Buckley, R. (2012). Rush as a key motivation in skilled adventure tourism: Resolving the risk recreation paradox. Tourism Management, 33, 961–970.

Castanier, C., Le Scanff, C., & Woodman, T. (2010). Who takes risks in high-risk sports? A typological personality approach. Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport, 81, 478–484.

Celsi, R. L., Rose, R. L., & Leigh, T. W. (1993). An exploration of high risk leisure consumption through skydiving. Journal of Consumer Research, 20(1), 1–23.

Glasser, W. (1976). Positive Addictions. New York: Harper & Row.

Griffiths, M.D.  (2005). A ‘components’ model of addiction within a biopsychosocial framework. Journal of Substance Use, 10, 191-197.

Griffiths, M.D. & Smeaton, M. (2002). Withdrawal in pathological gamblers: A small qualitative study. Social Psychology Review, 4, 4-13.

Heirene, R. M., Shearer, D., Roderique-Davies, G., & Mellalieu, S. D. (2016). Addiction in extreme sports: An exploration of withdrawal states in rock climbers. Journal of Behavioral Addictions, 5(2), 332-341.

Larkin, M. & Griffiths, M.D. (2004). Dangerous sports and recreational drug-use: Rationalising and contextualising risk. Journal of Community and Applied Social Psychology, 14, 215-232.

Monasterio, E., & Mei-Dan, O. (2008). Risk and severity of injury in a population of BASE jumpers. New Zealand Medical Journal, 121, 70–75.

Monasterio, E., Mulder, R., Frampton, C., & Mei-Dan, O. (2012). Personality characteristics of BASE jumpers. Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 24, 391-400.

Price, I. R., & Bundesen, C. (2005). Emotional changes in skydivers in relation to experience. Personality and Individual Differences, 38, 1203–1211.

Roderique-Davies, G. R. D., Heirene, R. M., Mellalieu, S., & Shearer, D. A. (2018). Development and initial validation of a rock climbing craving questionnaire (RCCQ). Frontiers in Psychology, 9, 204. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2018.00204

Willig, C. (2008). A phenomenological investigation of the experience of taking part in extreme sports. Journal of Health Psychology, 13(5), 690-702.

Are Twitter and Facebook more ‘addictive’ than nicotine and alcohol?

Last week I was asked by the British media to comment on the story suggesting that using Twitter and Facebook were more addictive than activities like smoking cigarettes and drinking alcohol. Once again this was a classic example of the media – for instance the Daily Telegraph – going beyond the data and not letting the facts get in the way of a good story.

Before being interviewed for a radio programme, I had read the newspaper reports about the research but these didn’t seem to tell me very much. I wanted to know the aims of the research, the method that had been used to collect the data, and I wanted to know how the researchers had reported their results and what conclusions they had reached. The research was carried out by psychologists Dr Wilhelm Hofmann (University of Chicago), Dr Kathleen Vohs (University of Minnesota), and Dr Roy Baumeister (Florida State University). I emailed Dr Hofmann and told him that I wanted to write about his study in my blog. He immediately sent me a copy of the paper and a very helpful ‘media summary’. So what was the researchers’ aim and what did they actually do?

The first thing to note was that the research was not about addiction but about desire and temptation. The researchers point out that little is known about what types of urges are felt strongly (or only weakly), which urges conflict with other important things that we should be doing, and the extent to which urges can be resisted. The primary aim of the research team was to compare the various desires and the extent to which they are resisted in people’s day-to-day lives. The researchers used an innovative methodology to assess the frequency, intensity, conflict, resistance, and enactment of peoples’ desires.

The data were collected from 205 people (although interestingly, this turned into 250 in many of the press reports I read). They were aged 18 to 55 years and all living in (and around) Würzburg (in Germany). Two-thirds of the participants were female (66%) and three-quarters of the total sample were university students (73%). All of the people taking part in the study were provided with a handheld Blackberry device and carried it around with them for a one-week period. Each day, they were sent seven messages over a 14-hour period asking them for specific data relating to desires and urges. All those taking part were given a small financial incentive at the start the study and were given additional financial incentives if they completed data entry for more than 80% of the messages sent by the research team. On average, over 90% of messages sent by the research team resulted in data being sent back (so there was an excellent response rate).

After each message was sent, those taking part in the study had to indicate whether they were currently experiencing a desire (explained as a craving, urge, or longing to do certain things) or whether (in the previous half an hour) they had just experienced a desire. If they had a desire, they then had to indicate what kind of desire from a list of 15 domains (i.e., food, non-alcoholic drinks, alcohol, coffee, tobacco, other substances, sexual, media, spending, work, social, leisure, sleep, hygiene-related, or other). Additionally, they had to indicate:

(i) The strength of the desire on a scale from ‘0’ (no desire at all) to ‘ (irresistible)

(ii) The degree to which the desire conflicted with other personal goals on a scale from 0 (no conflict at all) to 4 (very high conflict)

(iii) The nature of the conflicting goals from a list of 20 options (such as sleep conflict, social conflict, work conflict, etc.) and whether they attempted to resist the desire (yes or no), and whether they yielded to the behaviour implied by the desire at least to some extent (yes or no).

Up to three desires could be reported any given measurement occasion. In total there were 10,558 responses and a total of 7,827 desires reported during the one-week period. So what did the results show? The main finding – perhaps unsurprisingly – was that the most frequently described desires related to basic bodily needs (e.g., eating, drinking, and sleeping). More specifically, the researchers reported significantly above-average desires for sleep, sex, hygiene (e.g., needing to go to the toilet), sports participation, social contact, and non-alcoholic drinks. The lowest average desire strength were for drinking alcohol and smoking cigarettes (and is where the sensationalist headlines came from).

The study also noted that the participants’ desires to work and use media (e.g., Twitter and Facebook) were especially prone to yielding to their urges. However, the authors rightly note that “resisting the desire to work when it conflicts with other goals such as socializing or leisure activities may be difficult because work can define people’s identities, dictate many aspects of daily life, and invoke penalties if important duties are shirked”. They also speculate that checking emails, surfing the web, texting, and/or watching television might be hard to resist in light of the constant availability, huge appeal, and apparent low costs of these activities. They also assert that “media consumption behaviors might, however, turn into strong habits or forms of pathological media abuse”.

I ought to add that I did ask Dr. Hofmann about the media reports and how the press had sensationalized the study. In an email to me he said:

“Our data can only speak to self-control failure rates in the different domains, not to the ‘addictiveness’ of these desires. To study the development of addiction, we would have to sample desires over longer time spans and see whether they become more frequent and pressing over time. Still, I believe our findings tell us that people have a hard time putting desires for media use of, perhaps because we did not really learn well how to control those (plus, given the constant availability of those gadgets). Whether the consequences of frequent media (over)use outweigh those of more risky things such as alcohol and nicotine consumption is a different ballgame, again”.

I was also interested to read the media summary that Dr Hofmann sent me. It said that:

Our main finding can be summarized in just two words: people want. However, the present data are among the first to paint a clearer picture of what it is people desire, how they feel about it, and how successful they are in dealing with it. Extrapolating our findings to a 16-hour waking day, people on average spend about eight hours desiring things, three hours resisting desire, and a glorious half hour yielding to temptation”

The authors’ claim that based on their findings, their results challenge the stereotype of addiction as driven by irresistibly strong desires. They also claim that the knowledge they have generated can inform understandings about self-control, behavioral change, and addiction. However, there does seem to be one major limitation of the research. I couldn’t find anywhere in the paper that the authors had reported what percentage of the people who took part in the study were either cigarette smokers or drank alcohol. In fact there were no limitations mentioned whatsoever (such as the small non-representative sample – mainly female and mainly university students – from one German locality). If most of the sample were non-smokers/non-drinkers or casual smokers/casual drinkers it wouldn’t be surprising if there were few urges or desires to drink or smoke!

Postscript: Since writing this article, I received a very informative email from Dr Hofmann informing me that 22% of the sample in this study were current smokers (and that a very small minority were ex-smokers). Dr Hofmann informed me that they are doing further analysis on the data set. I look forward to seeing more papers from this interesting research study.

Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Hofmann, W, Vohs, K.D. & Baumeister, R.F. (2012). What people desire, feel conflicted about, and try to resist in everyday life. Psychological Science, in press.

Griffiths, M.D. (2010). Gaming in social networking sites: A growing concern? World Online Gambling Law Report, 9(5), 12-13.

Griffiths, M.D. & Kuss, D. (2011). Adolescent social networking: Should parents and teachers be worried? Education and Health, 29, 23-25.

Kuss, D.J. & Griffiths, M.D. (2011). Addiction to social networks on the internet: A literature review of empirical research. International Journal of Environmental and Public Health, 8, 3528-3552.

Kuss, D.J. & Griffiths, M.D. (2011). Excessive online social networking: Can adolescents become addicted to Facebook? Education and Health, 29. 63-66.