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Understanding Addiction as a (Very) Complex Behavior

Behavioral research across species helps explain the complexities of addiction.

Key points

  • Addiction is a complex behavior that can only be understood by a deeper understanding of behavioral research.
  • Even looking at just a few of the complexities of behavioral psychology can shed light on addictive behaviors.
  • People face challenges unique to them, and understanding those individual challenges is essential for understanding addictions.
  • People with addictions need alternatives that they can clearly see will be better than their addictive behaviors.

As a psychologist and author specializing in the application of empirical research to clinical work, I am fascinated by the ways behavior research can be applied to understanding human psychology. I am, however, equally bothered when I do not think that research is being applied properly.

When I see an improper application of basic research, particularly research that addresses behavior across all animal species (including humans), it is rarely the case that authors or speakers do so deliberately. It is more often the case that they misrepresent research because they miss the complexities. Purely empirical behavior research (i.e., research done primarily to understand behaviors rather than for any sort of specific practical application) has so much to teach us, but what it teaches is often complex. Authors and speakers often stick to what I call “Behaviorism 101,” referring to the title of a course on basic behavioral psychology, and miss sharing the fascinating complexities offered by a deeper understanding of the material.

I recently had this experience when reading an article from the journal Psychotherapy Networker. It was on a talk given at their 2019 National Symposium by Gabor Mate, M.D., entitled “Healing as a Subversive Act.”

Dr. Mate is a famous expert on the topic of addictions and psychiatric illness. His work has advanced the field of psychotherapy considerably, and his presentations typically show a deep understanding of helping people overcome terrible challenges.

I respect Dr. Mate’s work immensely, but I do think, in this one instance, Dr. Mate used a simplistic view of animal behavior research that missed an opportunity to more fully explain the challenges of addition. Here is the quote:

“Basically, if you want a rat to go to a certain part of a cage, you give it sugar, and if you want it to avoid that part of the cage, you shock its foot with electricity.”

Actually, that statement is not accurate. There are many more complexities associated with the situation that have to be taken into account to understand it, even on a basic level.

Understanding the complexities of animal behavior

Rats will not just go to sugar for no reason. Sugar is more important for rats than humans but, beyond a certain level, is not necessary for survival. Rats will go to sugar if they are hungry. They will continue to go to sugar initially more than typical if the sugar provides their food source, and there are no clear better options available.

What is also important to note here is that rats will continue going to sugar once they have gotten addicted to sugar’s effects. It is possible for rats to become addicted to sugar and for rats to start going to sugar because they are hungry but continue because they get addicted. Sugar starts out meeting a need (i.e., lessening hunger) but then continues its appeal just because of its physiological effects.

And the statement about rats avoiding parts of cages associated with electric shocks is also not fully accurate. Rats will avoid such places if they see another alternative. There actually is research showing that rats will go back to areas with electric shocks more often than rats who have not been shocked if there is no straightforward evidence that a better option exists. Rats who have been exposed to electric shocks but see no alternatives that are clearly better will often continue following the problematic behavior pattern.

Key takeaways

If you consider just those few complexities, you can understand the following about addictive behaviors:

1. Addictive behaviors typically start because the addictive substance or behavior fills a need.

2. It is often not clear what need a substance or behavior meets just by looking at someone (i.e., you would not necessarily know a rat is very hungry just by looking at it).

3. Once a substance or behavior is used often enough, that substance or behavior can become an addiction, separate from whether it still meets any need.

4. Addictive behaviors will continue even if the individual clearly recognizes there is a problem unless there is an alternative path that is clearly (to the individual) better.

If you consider all the difficulties people face in this world and how everybody faces challenges that may not be clear (or even seem like challenges) to others, you can see how these four factors play a key role in why addictions are so prevalent. It is worth noting here that I think this is very much in line with where Dr. Mate went later in the talk and with recommendations that addiction professionals need to keep in mind about the unique challenges people face and how they impact addictive behaviors.

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