Why The Psychology Of Addictive Behaviors Matters

Updated February 20, 2023by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Addiction is a complicated phenomenon that can take many forms. When people talk about addiction, substance use disorderis often the first topic that comes to mind; however, people can become dependent on various things like gambling, sex, video games, and even shopping. Addiction can have many different causes.By looking at addiction through the lens of psychology, we can better understand it and make treatment more effective. This article will go into detail about the psychology of addiction as well as the various factors that may play a role in it.

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What Is Addiction?

Although addiction can have many different faces, all of them have the same underlying mechanism in the brain.

According to the American Society of Addiction Medicine, "addiction is a primary, chronic disease of brain reward, motivation, memory, and related circuitry."  In the brain of someone who supports an addiction, neurotransmitters become dysfunctional, particularly ones involving brain reward.

The reward pathway involves multiple parts of the brain.The most critical circuit involved is the mesolimbic dopamine system, and this is what detects any pleasurable stimulus as simple as food and social interaction.

Because various activities will provide a sense of reward or relief, a person's brain can be trained over time to pursue these feelings. For example, many people smoke because it provides them with a feeling of relaxation and a sense of well-being without knowing how nicotine addiction affects the body. For some individuals, repeated exposure will eventually evolve into a pathological and compulsive need to experience brain reward. This is the main component of addiction psychology.

When someone is addicted, typically they will display these five characteristics:

  • An inability to abstain from the activity
  • Impaired behavior control
  • Cravings (very common with substances)
  • A lack of recognition of significant problems (i.e., how the addiction is affecting relationships)
  • A dysfunctional emotional response

Despite the consequences of certain behaviors, such as health and finances, people will continue to seek them out and engage in them. However, addiction does not happen overnight, and some people may never experience it. Nonetheless, the potential is still there, and it can occur rather quickly, or it can be a long process, depending on the person.

For example, someone who takes prescription pain medication typically won't develop a dependency after the first use, but it can very well happen if the pain is chronic.

Addiction itself is also a chronic problem, and it often leads to withdrawal and relapses if someone tries to break it. Approximately 85 percent of people relapse after receiving drug rehabilitation.

By understanding the psychology of addictive behavior, society can attempt to increase the success rates of treatment and, consequently, decrease relapse statistics.

Causes Of Addiction

Addiction can have multiple biological and environmental causes, and certain people may be at more risk than others.


Biologically, genetics do play a role in addiction, and the condition is heritable. Studies show that "an individual's risk tends to be proportional to the degree of genetic relationship to an addicted relative."


While genetic predisposition plays a critical role in the development of addictive behaviors, we also need to examine what causes people to pick up a habit in the first place, and this is where many of the environmental factors come into play in the psychology of addiction. Most of the time, it starts with adolescent drug use which would lead to abuse. This is where many of the environmental factors come into play in the psychology of addiction.


Family upbringing can have an impact on one's probability of trying out a specific action. For instance, if someone grows up in a household where smoking is commonplace, the odds of trying a cigarette even once are higher than in a non-smoking one. Ultimately, it begins with the individual's choice of using an addictive agent, but its availability is also highly influential.

Substance Availability

Aside from living circumstances, availability can be determined by several things, such as culture, policies, religion, economic status, and narco-trafficking. These aspects can change over time as well, especially laws related to substances. While they will likely never eliminate usage, drug laws can discourage the use them and ultimately, decrease the chances of people becoming addicted because of reduced availability.

Take cocaine for example. It was not outlawed and was famously used in products like Coca-Cola.Even renowned psychologist Sigmund Freud praised the drug and was addicted to it.Following the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906, the Harrison Narcotics Tax Act of 1914, and the Narcotic Drugs Import and Export Act of 1922, cocaine became banned for non-medical purposes and "severely restricted" in a legal capacity . Cocaine is still used worldwide and is a source of addiction for millions of people, but its use has fallen over time. From 2006 to 2010, cocaine consumption in the United States decreased by 50 percent, and it continues to decline.

Despite this, the US is still the world's largest consumer of the drug, followed by Western Europe and Australia. Drug trafficking is to blame for its availability, but based on statistics on drug seizures, the overall demand has fallen. On the other hand, it's been argued that such prohibitions increase the chances of people becoming interested in addictive substances and activities – like a metaphorical "forbidden fruit" so to speak – and many youth programs aimed at ignoring peer pressure have mostly been ineffective.

What Can Be Done?

One of the most famous youth programs in the United States known as D.A.R.E. (Drug Abuse Resistance Education), which intended to educate adolescentsabout the risks of substances and discourage their use, has been criticized over the years for its methods and effectiveness.  Even if the goals of such programs have not been met, this does not mean that society should not stop educating people about addiction psychology.

Studies have made the correlation between the useof substances in adolescence and becoming a problem user later in life.  Therefore, it is still critical that the issue of addiction is addressed at a young age, but older individuals should never be left out.

Three things specifically need to take place to optimize the outcomes regarding the psychology of addictive behaviors in young people and adults:

  • Family prevention
  • Community andschool activities
  • Increased involvement from healthcare providers

The role of the family in the development of addiction is tremendous if substance use disorderis present. Therefore, families need to take a close look at their parenting skills (such as discipline and setting rules) but also participate in bonding activities. Additionally, problem-solving and coping skills need to be taught to those at risk.

While certain school programs have had questionable results, they should not be ruled out, and ones that facilitate peer bonding and aim to improve social skills and academic performance should be a priority. Regarding healthcare, approximately 30 percent do not offer any kind of screening services, and nearly 70 percent do not provide counseling. Screening for substance use disordercan help people get the treatment that they need and get on the right track for healthy living.

For those with addiction, another crucial part of the psychology of addiction is understanding relapse prevention. Relapse can be broken down into three parts:

  • Emotional: an individual may worry about relapsing again and demonstrate poor self-care
  • Mental: craving substances or other behaviors, or reminiscing about people or events involving them
  • Physical: the person starts using again or returning to old habits

Relapse rates are high but education and other support can help aid one's recovery. For instance, cognitive therapy can effectively address people's negative thinking patterns, redefine what fun means to the person, and importantly, teach them coping skills such as dealing with setbacks and learning to be comfortable with being uncomfortable .

Cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) is one of the most common types of therapy for treating a number of mental health disorders, including addiction. CBT teaches patients how to identify what led to the addiction, recognizes incorrect thoughts and behaviors, and teaches how to replace them with better ones. Because CBT focuses on identifying both cognitive and environmental triggers, it can help prevent relapse by teaching alternative strategies to avoid these triggers. CBT has been found to work well for substance use disorder and other addictions, such as internet addiction, gambling, and other addictions. In many cases, CBT also helps with other mental health disorders, including depression and anxiety, which can come with addictive disorders.

Getting help for addiction has never been easier either. With online therapy, such as through BetterHelp, you can talk with a licensed counselor who specializes in addictions from the comfort of your home, office, or anywhere that has an internet connection. Studies have found that online cognitive behavior therapy is just as successful as in-person therapy in most cases, and often costs less.


Addiction is a complex global problem with many underlying causes. While genetic factors are predominant, we must look at the sociocultural factors that lead a person to become involved with activities that are potentially addicting and harmful. Education is paramount to tackling the issue at hand. Through further research regarding the psychology of addictive behaviors, we can improve preventative measures and help those who are currently experiencing addictive behaviors.At BetterHelp.com, trained psychologists and counselors who understand addiction are

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Through our present understanding of addiction psychology, we know that prevention in young people is vital, but educating adults, whether their parents, healthcare professionals, or current of addiction, is equally as important to pass down information and treat those who are in need.

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