In 1984, Dr. Milton Burglass and Dr. Howard Shaffer published a paper in the journal Addictive Behaviors and claimed that arguably the important questions in the addiction field are ‘why do people become addicted to some things and not others?’ and ‘why some people become addicted and not others?’ Answers to these questions have been hindered by two common misconceptions about addiction, which to some extent have underpinned the ‘hard core’ disease concept of addiction. These are that addiction somehow resides within: (i) particular types of people or (ii) particular substances, and/or particular kinds of activity. That is, either some people are already ‘diseased,’ or else some substances/ activities cause this disease, or both.
There is a belief that some people are destined to become addicted. Typically this is explained in one (or both) of two ways. That some people (i.e., ‘addicts’) have an addictive personality, and that there is a genetic basis for addiction. The evidence for ‘addictive personality’ rests to a certain extent upon one’s faith in the validity of psychometric testing. Setting aside this major hurdle, the evidence in this area (as I argued with my colleagues Dr. Michael Larkin and Dr. Richard Wood in a 2006 issue of Addiction Research and Theory [ART]) is still inconclusive and contradictory.
First, psychologists have yet to determine which particular personality traits are linked to addiction. Studies have claimed that ‘the addictive personality’ may be characterized by a wide range of factors (e.g., sensation-seeking, novelty-seeking, extroversion, locus-of-control preferences, major traumatic life events, learned behaviours, etc.). The extent of this range stretches not only the notion of an ‘addictive personality’ but also the concept of ‘personality’ itself. Inevitably, much of this work relies on correlation analysis, and so the interpretation of results is not easily framed in terms of cause and effect. The approach is overly simplistic and is underpinned by a simple proposition that if we can divide people up into the right groups, then the explanation will emerge. However, addiction is far more complex than this. Of course, the relationship between individual bodies, minds, contexts, and life histories is complex and important – but it requires that we approach the matter from a more sophisticated and integrative position.
The search for a genetic basis for addiction rests upon the notion that some types of individuals are somehow ‘biologically wired’ to become addicts. In our 2006 ART paper, we argued that we must set aside any doubts about the limited conceptualization of ‘the environment’ that often typifies this kind of research, and its combination with epidemiological designs that are largely descriptive. Meta-analytic reviews have concluded that the heritability of addictive behaviour is likely to be controlled by many genes each contributing a small fraction of the overall risk. Furthermore, some of these same genes appear to be risk factors for other problems, some of them conceptually unrelated to addiction. We argued that the main point here is that while these findings do contribute something to our understanding of ‘why some people and not others,’ they do not adequately or independently explain the range of variation. Therefore the most we can say is that some people are more likely to develop problems under certain conditions, and that given the right conditions most people could probably develop an addiction. Emphasis needs to be placed on identifying those ‘conditions,’ rather than on searching for the narrowest of reductionist explanations.
We also argued in our 2006 ART paper that substances and activities cannot be described as intrinsically addictive in themselves (unless one chooses to define ‘addictive’ in terms of a substance or behaviour’s ability to produce tolerance and/or withdrawal, and to ignore the range of human experience that is excluded by this). Biologists may be able to tell us very valuable things about the psychopharmacological nature of the rewards that particular substances and behaviours provide, and the different kinds of neuroadaptation that they may or may not produce in order to effect tolerance and/or withdrawal. But we argue that this on its own, is not an adequate explanation for addiction. In 1975, Dr. Lee Robins’ classic study (in the Archives of General Psychiatry) of heroin-users returning from the Vietnam war is one example of the evidence that refutes this oversimplification. This study clearly highlighted the importance of context (i.e., that in a war zone environment individuals were addicted to heroin but on return to civilian life the addiction ceased to exist), and the framework provided by such contexts for making sense of addiction. In a hostile and threatening environment, opiates clearly provided something not usually required by most people; and given a cultural environment in which opiate use is a commonplace, and opiates are available, then opiate use ‘makes sense’. This study provides support for the assertion that some people are more likely to become addicted under some conditions, and that given the right conditions perhaps many people could understand what it means to be an addict.
So, with regard to the question, ‘why some individuals/addictions and not others?’ the rewards associated with various activities may be qualitatively very different, and may not necessarily be inherent or unique to a particular activity or substance, either. Many rewarding activities are rewarding because they present individuals with opportunities to ‘shift’ their own subjective experience of themselves (for example, see the research on Ecstasy use and bungee jumping that I published with Dr. Michael Larkin in a 2004 issue of the Journal of Community and Applied Social Psychology).
Frequently, a range of such opportunities is offered to the experienced user. Dr. Howard Shaffer (in a 1996 paper in the Journal of Gambling Studies) has pointed out that those activities that can be most relied upon to shift self-experience in a robust manner are likely to be the most popular – and (as a consequence) to be the most frequent basis of problems. So, obviously, our understanding of the available resources for mood modification must play a major part in understanding addiction. However, we must make a careful distinction between describing some substances as being more ‘robust shifters of experience’ than others (as we advocated in our 2006 ART paper) and describing some substances as ‘more addictive’ than others (which we argued against).
References and further reading
Burglass, M.E. & Shaffer, H.J. (1984). Diagnosis in the addictions I: Conceptual problems. Addictive Behaviors, 3, 19-34.
Griffiths, M.D. (2005). A ‘components’ model of addiction within a biopsychosocial framework. Journal of Substance Use, 10, 191-197.
Griffiths, M.D. (2011). Behavioural addiction: The case for a biopsychosocial approach. Transgressive Culture, 1(1), 7-28.
Griffiths, M.D. & Larkin, M. (2004). Conceptualizing addiction: The case for a ‘complex systems’ account. Addiction Research and Theory, 12, 99-102.
Larkin, M., Wood, R.T.A. & Griffiths, M.D. (2006). Towards addiction as relationship. Addiction Research and Theory, 14, 207-215.
Orford, J. (2001). Excessive Appetites: A Psychological View of the Addictions (Second Edition). Chichester: Wiley.
Robins, L.N, Helzer, J.E, & Davis, D.H (1975) Narcotic use in Southeast Asia and afterward. Archives of General Psychiatry, 32, 955-961.
Shaffer, H. J. (1996). Understanding the means and objects of addiction: Technology, the Internet, and gambling. Journal of Gambling Studies, 12, 461–469.
Tyndale, R.F. (2003). Genetics of alcohol use and tobacco use in humans. Annals of Medicine, 35(2), 94–121.
Walters, G. D. (2002). The heritability of alcohol use and dependence: A meta-analysis of behavior genetic research. American Journal of Drug and Alcohol Abuse, 28, 557–584.
Where does addiction reside?
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There is a belief that some people are destined to become addicted. Typically this is explained in one (or both) of two ways. That some people (i.e., ‘addicts’) have an addictive personality, and that there is a genetic basis for addiction. But where does addiction reside?
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|Are You a Perfectionist?
I have no idea whether perfectionism has anything to do with being single in general, but I sure thought it had a lot to do with me. I love doing things as well as I possibly can. I have been teaching for well over three decades and not once have I ever walked into a classroom without being totally prepared. I don't like making mistakes. I got great grades in school and hated it when I got anything less than an A. I must be a perfectionist, right?
I recently read Elizabeth Lombardo's book, Better Than Perfect, in which she offers a 30-item quiz for assessing your perfectionist tendencies. (You can also find the quiz at her website.) For each of the items, greater agreement indicates more perfectionism. Some of the items really did describe me. For example:
"I frequently make lists."
"I have pretty demanding standards for myself and those around me."
"I can be extremely detail-oriented."
"I like being prepared for whatever may happen."
But there are also all sorts of items that really do not describe me at all. For example:
"I am sometimes so afraid of failing that I don't even start."
"I have trouble making decisions."
"I often miss out on enjoyable and exciting events because I'm working so hard."
"I have trouble finishing projects because there's always something more I can do to make it better."
So I guess I'm not the perfect perfectionist after all.
Or am I?
Lombardo's quiz is like so many others you can find online and in popular magazines – it is her invention, and is of unknown scientific merit. To pass scientific muster, a personality scale (or any other measuring device) must be validated. That's an exacting process. It involves addressing issues such as:
Are all of these items really relevant to perfectionism?
Are they all measuring the same thing, or are there actually different aspects of perfectionism?
Do people answer the questions the same way over time? (So, if you score as a perfectionist today will you also score as one next week?)
Do people who score as perfectionist think and feel and act in the way that perfectionists should think and feel and act? That is, does the scale measure what it is supposed to measure?
Do people who score as perfectionist not think and feel and act in the way that perfectionists should not think and feel and act? That is, does the scale not measure what it is not supposed to measure?
Is the scale really measuring something new or is it just a different label for something we already know about, such as the need for achievement?
Lombardo hasn't answered any of those questions about her quiz. So maybe she has a measure of perfectionism, but we just don't know yet. The items represent her best guesses as to what perfectionism is all about, but in science, we need to go beyond that.
[Note: Image is from Google images, available for reuse.]
…and will this quiz reveal your true perfectionist status?
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A 30-item quiz promises to reveal your perfectionist tendencies, and along the way, let you know what perfectionism really is. But how do you know whether this quiz, or any other, really does measure what it claims to measure?
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