(Please note: This article is a slightly expanded and original version of an article that was first published in The Conversation).
“Life is a series of addictions and without them we die”. This is my favourite quote in the academic addiction literature and was made back in 1990 in the British Journal of Addiction by Professor Isaac Marks. This deliberately provocative and controversial statement was made to stimulate debate about whether excessive and potentially problematic activities such as gambling, sex and work can really be classed as genuine addictive behaviours. Many of us might say to ourselves that we are ‘addicted’ to tea or coffee, our work, or know others who we might describe as having addictions watching the television or using pornography. But is this really true?
The issue all comes down to how addiction is defined in the first place as many of us in the field disagree on what the core components of addiction are. Many would argue that the word ‘addiction’ or ‘addictive’ is used so much in everyday circumstances that word has become meaningless. For instance, saying that a book is an ‘addictive read’ or that a specific television series is ‘addictive viewing’ renders the word useless in a clinical setting. Here the word ‘addictive’ is arguably used in a positive way and as such it devalues the real meaning of the word.
The question I get asked most – particularly by the broadcast media – is what is the difference between a healthy excessive enthusiasm and an addiction and my response is simple – a healthy excessive enthusiasm adds to life whereas an addiction takes away from it. I also believe that to be classed as an addiction, any such behaviour should comprise a number of key components including overriding preoccupation with the behaviour, conflict with other activities and relationships, withdrawal symptoms when unable to engage in the activity, an increase in the behaviour over time (tolerance), and use of the behaviour to alter mood state. Other consequences such as feeling out of control with the behaviour and cravings for the behaviour are often present. If all these signs and symptoms are present I would call the behaviour a true addiction. However, that hasn’t stopped others accusing me of ‘watering down’ the concept of addiction.
A few years ago, Dr. Steve Sussman, Nadra Lisha and I published a large and comprehensive review in the journal Evaluation and the Health Professions examining the co-relationship between eleven different potentially addictive behaviours reported in the academic literature (smoking tobacco, drinking alcohol, taking illicit drugs, eating, gambling, internet use, love, sex, exercise, work, and shopping). We examined the data from 83 large-scale studies and reported an overall 12-month prevalence of an addiction among U.S. adults varies from 15% to 61%. We also reported it plausible that 47% of the U.S. adult population suffers from maladaptive signs of an addictive disorder over a 12-month period, and that it may be useful to think of addictions as due to problems of lifestyle as well as to person-level factors. In short – and with many caveats – our paper argued that at any one time almost half the US population are addicted to one or more behaviours.
There is a lot of scientific literature showing that having one addiction increases the propensity to have other co-occurring addictions. For instance, in my own research I have come across alcoholic pathological gamblers and we can all probably think of individuals that we might describe as caffeine-addicted workaholics. It is also very common for individuals that give up one addiction to replace it with another (which we psychologists call ‘reciprocity’). This is easily understandable as when an individual gives up one addiction it leaves a large hole in the waking lives (often referred to as the ‘void’) and often the only activities that can fill the void and give similar experiences are other potentially addictive behaviours. This has led many people to describe such people as having an ‘addictive personality’.
While there are many pre-disposing factors for addictive behaviour including genetic factors and psychological personality traits such as high neuroticism (anxious, unhappy, prone to negative emotions) and low conscientiousness (impulsive, careless, disorganised), I would argue that ‘addictive personality’ is a complete myth. Even though there is good scientific evidence that most people with addictions are highly neurotic, neuroticism in itself is not predictive of addiction (for instance, there are individuals who are highly neurotic but are not addicted to anything so neuroticism is not predictive of addiction). In short, there is no good evidence that there is a specific personality trait (or set of traits) that is predictive of addiction and addiction alone.
Doing something habitually or excessively does not necessarily make it problematic. While there are many behaviours such as drinking too much caffeine or watching too much television that could theoretically be described as addictive behaviours, they are more likely to be habitual behaviours that are important in an individual’s life but actually cause little or no problems. As such, these behaviours should not be described as an addiction unless the behaviour causes significant psychological and/or physiological effects in their day-to-day lives.
Dr. Mark Griffiths, Professor of Behavioural Addiction, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK
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“The speed world record for a single attempt [of solving the Rubik’s Cube] is 5.55 seconds, set by Dutchman Mats Valk last year. The world championship is determined by averaging three attempts. The current champion is 18-year-old Australian Feliks Zemdeg who averaged 8.18 seconds last year. To ensure fairness, a computer generates a randomised cube which all the competitors are given. The record for most Rubik’s cubes solved in 24 hours is 4,786, set by Milan Baticz of Hungary…There is a one-handed world record – held by Zemdegs – of 9.03 seconds. Fakhri Raihaan of Indonesia boasts the feet-only record of 27.93 seconds” (BBC Magazine, April 2014).
Back in 1981, I was one of the hundreds of thousands of teenagers that spent far too much time playing on a Rubik’s Cube (RC). Once I had mastered how to do it, all my friends and I would sit at the back of our classes having RC races. In fact, I and two of my friends were once given a detention by my mathematics teacher for continuing to race each other despite many warnings to stop. My typical time to complete the puzzle was around 90 seconds (although having done it recently in trying to teach my children, I took nearer five minutes). The reason I recount this story is that a few days ago, a report appeared in the BBC News Magazine headlined “The people who are still addicted to the Rubik’s Cube” followed by one in The Guardian (‘Beyond the Rubik’s Cube: Inside the competitive world of speedcubing’). The author of the BBC article (Tom de Castella) noted that:
“In the 1980s Rubik’s Cubes seemed to be everywhere, but there are still legions of people obsessed with the coloured puzzles. The record for a human is 5.55 seconds. A robot can do it in 3.253…The Magic Cube was invented in 1974 by Hungarian architecture professor Erno Rubik. After being relaunched in 1980 as the Rubik’s Cube, it sold an estimated 350 million around the world.As an object it has charm – its colours, the distinctive rattle as the pieces turn, a pleasing feel in the hand…The traditional cube has six faces each with three squares by three. Every face is a different colour – white, red, blue, orange, green and yellow. That is, until the cube has been thoroughly scrambled. The challenge then is to return it to its original state with each side a single colour. It all relies on impressive engineering – an internal pivot allowing both the rows and columns to turn.It is devilishly difficult. There are said to be 43 quintillion permutations – the number of possible positions the cube can hold…Some see it as a challenge – like swimming the Channel or climbing Everest – that must be overcome. There was a spike in sales in the US in 2006, attributed to Will Smith‘s movie The Pursuit of Happyness, in which Smith’s homeless character solves a Rubik’s Cube and impresses a businessman… Extreme devotees find completing it easy. Their focus is on speed, stamina or overcoming extra obstacles – such as being blindfolded”.
Thinking back to my own RC playing days (or should that be ‘playing daze’?), I started off with the aim of trying to complete one side of the same colour, then one row, then two rows, and then three rows (i.e., a completed cube). Once I had mastered how to do it, the aim was to do it as fast as I could. Over time, the motivations and reasons for doing the puzzle changed. I spent more an more time doing it and I suppose I would describe it as a kind of tolerance (i.e., needing to spend more and more time playing it to feel good in a good mood). The notion that trying to complete the RC is addictive is not new. In fact, back in 1996, I published a paper on behavioural addictions in the Journal of Workplace Learning. One of my introductory paragraphs in that paper noted:
“There is now a growing movement (e.g. Miller, 1980; Orford, 1985) which views a number of behaviours as potentially addictive, including many behaviours which do not involve the ingestion of a drug. These include behaviours diverse as gambling (Griffiths, 1995), overeating (Orford, 1985), sex (Carnes, 1983), exercise (Glasser, 1976), computer game playing (Griffiths, 1993a), pair bonding (Peele and Brodsky, 1975), wealth acquisition (Slater, 1980) and even Rubik’s Cube (Alexander, 1981)! Such diversity has led to new all encompassing definitions of what constitutes addictive behaviour”.
In the BBC article, Tom de Castella reported the case of Hampshire builder Graham Parker who after 26 years of trying, finally solved the RC in 2009. Parker allegedly wept when he finally solved it even though the activity “caused him backache and put a strain on his marriage”.In the same article, IT worker Billy Jeffs learned to solve the RC after making a bet and claimed that “When you learn to solve it the first time you either get the bug or not. It’s quite hard to leave the house without one. I have three in my bag”.
Despite the BBC article using the word ‘addicted’ in the title, no-one interviewed was anywhere near to being addicted based on the quotes that de Castella cited. I’m also unaware of any academic research that has examined the excessive playing of RCs (let alone research that has examined any potential addiction). The reference I cited in my own 1996 paper on behavioural addictions was actually from a story in the New York Times by Ron Alexander. However, although the RC is described by Alexander as an “addictive invention” there is again little evidence that any of the people interviewed in the article were actually addicted.
As there appeared to be little evidence either in academic or journalistic articles, in the name of research I went searching on the internet for anecdotal evidence of RC addiction. There were the usual types of humour (such as ’50 reasons you know you’re addicted to speed solving [the Rubik’s Cube]’) and ‘Signs of Rubik’s Cube addiction’) but I did come across what appear to be some people that might be having problems with their RC use and/or urges to solve the puzzle. For instance:
- Extract 1: “I Have recently been diagnosed with Rubik’s Cube Addiction Syndrome and it is getting out of control. Every time I try to stop, I cant put it down for five minutes! I just have to solve it! Everyone says it’s just a phase but I really don’t think it is”.
- Extract 2: “I was once [a Rubik’s Cube] addict as well. And I decided since everyone thought it was dumb that I was obsessed with thing I would teach them how to solve a Rubik’s cube so they too saw the magic and became obsessed…I taught someone who got really good and caught on fast then challenged me to a showdown. Luckily I won …but unluckily I was so happy that I won I threw the cube on the ground like a touchdown in football and it burst into a million pieces all over the school till I lost some and had to buy a new one but never got around to it resulting in me becoming unobsessed with the thing”.
- Extract 3: “I have been cubing for like 3 years now…maybe a little more. I don’t have the urge to solve a cube more than once, but if I see a cube that is unsolved, in a friend’s room, or anywhere that is unsolved, I want to pick it up and solve it. After I do that I usually just put it back down and forget about it though”.
- Extract 4: “Many cubers have been accused of addiction to the Rubik’s Cube at least once. What is it about a 3x3x3 cube that turns someone into a crazed speedsolver? It all seems to start the same way, an innocent mission to find the ‘how to’ and ‘why’ behind Rubik’s design. I had two friends in high school that knew how to solve the cube…I just needed to prove to myself that I could do it… There I was, completing a task that boggled most challengers. The first few days just the completion was enough for that warm and fuzzy feeling. Diminishing returns is a pain though, and the satisfaction wore off because the challenge of it wore off. My first recorded time for the 3x3x3 was over 5 minutes. Nervous fingers, shaking hands, and fuming inner dialogue…ahhh, yes, the good stuff. The second solve was sub-5 (under 5 minutes), and I got that warm fuzzy feeling again! Within a few days I was consistently under 2 minutes. ‘What if I can go a little faster?’ It was the question that drove me personally in my journey, and ultimately it is what grabs everyone”.
- Extract 5: “Rubik’s Cube is played very frequently because it is very addicting. Many people ‘infected’ by Rubik cube only because they see their friend or seller play the cube. Once somebody addicted by the cube, it will be very difficult to escape from the addiction. Rubik’s Cube is often played during the lessons and many of the players often ignore their teacher or their friends who ask something. They don’t respond quickly to their surroundings. They may become antisocial. They play alone and only focus to the cube. Rubik’s Cube also may cause mental and physical disorder. People who play Rubik’s Cube usually play it for many hours non-stop. It is dangerous for eyes. It makes the eyes focuses and work hard. Many of them sleep below 8 hours only to solve puzzle that not yet solved. It disturbs human metabolism activity that only can be happen while sleeping”.
Another article entitled ‘Rubik’s Cube 3×3 – Psychological Barriers and Addiction?!’ claimed that “is rumored there was a divorce filed in the United States, with the basis for its request being a spouse obsessed with the Rubik’s Cube. I’m not sure if this is true and would love to find confirmation”.
Whether anyone has ever been genuinely addicted to the RC is highly debatable but there have been a few alleged medical conditions associated with excessive Rubik’s Cube use including ‘Rubik’s Wrist’ (“a reflex sympathetic dystrophy syndrome caused by hours of ‘speedcubing’ a Rubik’s Cube, which entails repeated rotation of the wrist”) and ‘Cuber’s Thumb’ (pretty much the same thing but applied to the thumb rather than the wrist and referred to in letters published in the early 1980s in both the Canadian Medical Association Journal and the New England Journal of Medicine). Although I have always claimed that almost any activity can become potentially addictive if the reward mechanisms are in place, I have yet to be convinced that there are any real RC addicts out there.
Dr. Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK
Alexander, R. (1981). A cube popular in all circles. New York Times, 21 July, p. C6.
Glasser, W. (1976). Positive Addictions. Harper & Row, New York, NY.
Griffiths, M.D. (1996). Behavioural addictions: An issue for everybody? Journal of Workplace Learning, 8(3), 19-25.
Orford, J. (1985). Excessive Appetites: A Psychological View of the Addictions. Wiley: Chichester.
Scheffler, I. (2014). Beyond the Rubik’s Cube: Inside the competitive world of speedcubing. The Guardian, May 2. Located at: http://www.theguardian.com/technology/2014/may/02/rubiks-cube-competitive-world-speedcubing
Thompson, J. M. (1982). Cuber’s thumb. Canadian Medical Association Journal, 126(7), 773.
Waugh, D. (1981). Cuber’s thumb. New England Journal of Medicine, 305(13), 768
Wikipedia (2014). Rubik’s Cube. Located at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rubik’s_Cube