The Excessive Appetites Theory of Addiction

Hamburger, close-up, waitress in background (wide angle)
Zigy Kaluzny / Getty Images

According to psychologist and addictions 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 addictions as being primarily driven by an addictive substance that is consumed, such as alcohol, cocaine, or heroin.

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

The Key Idea

The central idea of the theory is that addictions are types of extreme appetites, rather than forms of dependency on drugs. The five core appetites he identified in the theory are drinking alcohol, gambling, drug taking, eating, and exercise. 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 addictions 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.

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.

Factors Involved in the Excessive Appetites Theory

The idea that addictions are excessive appetites is different from previous theories in two key ways. Firstly, addiction is described as a largely psychological process, rather than a physical disease. Secondly, 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 sex addiction, internet addiction, television addiction, video game addiction, and various other compulsive behaviors. He also mentions problematic behaviors such as shoplifting and joyriding as potential addictions.

However, perhaps surprisingly, the originator of the theory, Jim Orford, argued against his concept of addiction being extended so far as to dilute the concept, and thereby diminish its importance. While critics of the theory have reduced the idea to absurd levels, as if to invalidate the idea, the suggestion that you can be addicted to everyday activities which have no negative consequences, such as tennis playing or crosswords, is actually missing the point entirely -- the whole point of the theory is that there are negative consequences that cause harm to the individual or to those around them. The person who has an addiction may or may not like the activity, and it is not the liking or disliking that makes it a problem. It is the indulgence of the activity to the degree that it hurts people, and yet the behavior persists, even when the person wants to stop, that is the problem.

Was this page helpful?
Article Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  • Orford, J. Addictions as excessive appetites. Addiction, 2001 Jan;96(1):15-31.
  • Orford, J. Excessive Appetites: A Psychological View of Addictions. Second Edition. New York and London: Wiley.