The Excessive Appetites Theory of Addiction

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According to psychologist and addiction expert, Jim Orford, addictions can best be understood as appetites that have become excessive through a psychological process. This is a very different perspective from the traditional view of addiction as a "disease" that is primarily driven by an addictive substance that is consumed, such as alcohol, cocaine, or heroin.

Orford's approach to understanding addiction was first developed in 1985, with the publication of his groundbreaking book, Excessive Appetites: A Psychological View of Addictions. The second edition of the book was published in 2000.

Core Appetites

The central idea of the excessive appetites theory is that addictions are types of extreme appetites, rather than forms of dependency on drugs.

The five core appetites of his theory are:

  • Drinking alcohol
  • Drug taking
  • Eating
  • Exercise
  • Gambling

These examples are chosen as the clearest and best-documented examples of the phenomenon of addiction, all being common and not problematic to many people, but excessive and troubling when strong attachments to them are developed in a minority of people.

While the excessive appetites perspective recognizes alcohol and drugs as addictions, they are seen as examples of addictions, rather than capturing the whole experience of addiction per se.

In fact, according to this view, the dramatic problems associated with drug addiction have actually clouded our understanding of what is really going on with addictions.

Rather than being a purely physiological process, the excessive appetites theory of addiction explains addiction as a complex psychological process, involving a large number of contributing factors.

Basic Principles

According to Orford, the basic principles of the excessive appetites model of addiction include:

  • Substances are only a sub-set of the human activities that have addiction potential
  • The determinants of excess are highly diverse, from genetics to cultural and spiritual values
  • Restraints are as important as incentives
  • Positive learning mechanisms are central, leading to attachment in the form of emotional-cognitive-behavioral schemata
  • A variety of secondary and tertiary processes, including neuroadaptation, compound attachment
  • Much of the experience of addiction is a consequence of conflict generated by excess

Key Factors

The idea that addictions are excessive appetites is different from previous theories in two key ways.

  • Addiction is described as a largely psychological process, rather than a physical disease.
  • Addiction can occur in response to a wide range of different behaviors, not just to alcohol and other drugs, which predominate work on addiction.

The excessive appetites theory of addiction is one of the strongest and clearest arguments for the existence of behavioral addictions, such as gambling addiction, food addiction and exercise addiction, which are specifically included and explored in the theory.

Other behavioral addictions acknowledged include:

Oxford also mentions problematic behaviors such as shoplifting and joyriding as potential addictions.

Critics of the theory have reduced his theory to absurd levels, suggesting that you can be addicted to everyday activities which have no negative consequences, such as playing tennis or doing crosswords.

The whole point of the theory, however, is that there are negative consequences that cause harm to the individual or to those around them. It is not the liking or disliking the activity that causes a problem, Oxford believes, but the indulgence of the activity that persists even when it hurts people or when the person wants to stop.

If you or a loved one are struggling with substance use or behavioral addiction, contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357 for information on support and treatment facilities in your area.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

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  1. Orford, J. Excessive Appetites: A Psychological View of Addictions. Second Edition. New York and London: Wiley.

  2. Orford J. Addiction as excessive appetite. Addiction. 2001;96(1):15-31. doi:10.1046/j.1360-0443.2001.961152.x

  3. Society for the Study of Addiction. Addiction as excessive appetite: principles and implications.