The Psychological Process of Addiction

Senior man surrounded by 6 different screens of online poker
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The Excessive Appetites model of addiction was developed by Professor Jim Orford in 1985, to challenge to prevailing "disease" model of addiction. This model embraces the concept of behavioral addictions, focusing on the psychological, rather than the physiological aspects of how people become addicted to substances, such as alcohol and heroin, and equally, to activities, such as gambling and eating. This article outlines some of the key features of the model.

Addiction Is a Process That Develops

According to the model, addiction develops through a process. The first stage of this process is taking up the "appetitive" behavior. This typically starts in the teenage years, when most people start being exposed to the activities which can become addictive, or in the case of eating or exercise, start to gain more choice and autonomy over what they spend their time doing, and how much time they spend doing it.

Whether or not a young person takes up the behavior depends on both their personality and their surrounding environment, including the people and culture around them. As Orford describes it, "The uptake of new behavior does not occur in a psychological vacuum, but as part of a constellation of changing beliefs, preferences, and habits."

As teens become adults, many of them "mature out" of addictive behaviors, but some do not.

Mood Enhancement

Once people have taken up or tried addictive behaviors, they discover that these behaviors are powerful "mood modifiers." This means that when a person engages in addictive behavior, they experience pleasure or euphoria. Through addictive behaviors, people can make themselves feel better, at least during the early stages of the addiction process.

This can be in the form of reducing tension, reducing self-awareness, fulfilling positive expectations they have about how the behavior will make them feel, increasing positive emotions, and decreasing, or escaping from, negative emotions. The mood enhancement aspects of the behavior can also help to bolster their self-esteem or social image, and it can help people to cope with past trauma, such as physical or sexual abuse.

Social Factors

This process of managing mood and feelings takes place in social and cultural situations that also influence whether the individual person develops an addiction. The availability and affordability of substances and their use by friends and family strongly predict whether people will go on to develop addictions, although people who do become addicted still tend to see their addiction as being primarily a personal choice.

There are many studies showing that most people conform to social norms and are restrained in their addictive behaviors, and do not develop the pattern of excessive behavior, which a minority of people do so excessively.

Learned Associations

Once people have taken up the behavior and discover they can use it to make themselves feel better, associations develop between the behavior and the states of mind and feeling that the person desires. These associations develop along neurological, brain pathways, and become seemingly automatic. Cues that remind the person of the behavior can trigger the desire and then the seeking out of the behavior.

Over time, the individual learns to associate feeling better with the addictive behavior. This might not even be accurate, but people who become addicted attribute positive feelings with the behavior more and more. The addicted person constructs a whole explanation in their mind about how the behavior makes them feel better. They come to believe that the behavior is the key to feeling good, regardless of how it actually makes them feel, and the negative consequences that follow.

Attachment and Commitment

Over time, people who become addicted become more and more attached to the addictive behavior, and more and more committed to engaging in the behavior. This higher level of attachment can lead to new ways of engaging in the behavior to increase the effects, such as injecting drugs, or binge eating, leading to the letting go of the usual restraints around the behavior that keep most people in check.

If you or a loved one are struggling with substance use or 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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7 Sources
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Additional Reading
  • Orford, J. Excessive Appetites: A Psychological View of Addictions (Second Edition). New York and London: Wiley. 2000.