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The Science of Sports Fandom

Can You Really Be Addicted to Sunday Football?

Why we're hooked

Roger Tullgren had a problem. The heavily tattooed and multiply pierced 42-year-old Swedish dishwasher was having a tough time holding down a job. The problem was that Tullgren had very strong feelings about heavy metal, and about Black Sabbath in particular. He just couldn’t function without the sweet straits of death metal peeling the paint off his workplace walls. His employers and coworkers often felt differently, and as a result Tullgren kept finding himself out of work. Then, at last, psychologists came to the music lover’s aid. They declared that he had a full-blown disability in the form of a psychological dependence on Black Sabbath. That’s right, he was addicted to rock. And so his employer had to give Tullgren special dispensation to rock out while doing the dishes.

This is how addiction has come to be seen: no longer a hazard exclusively associated with drugs and alcohol, but one lurking in any pleasurable experience. Enjoy candy? According to Robert Lustig, a professor of pediatrics at the University of California, San Francisco, sugar is a habit-forming toxin. “It’s addictive,” he told the New Scientist.

Fancy a bit of pigskin? “For some people, watching football can become an obsession,” University of Alabama psychologist Josh Klapow told the college’s web site, UAB News, which noted that “a football addiction can endanger relationships and wreak havoc on the life of a super-fan.”

Hang out on Facebook? “Internet addiction” is one of the new mental illnesses being weighed for inclusion in the DSM-V, the latest revision of psychology’s diagnostic bible. And the American Society of Addiction Medicine thinks that the DSM is being too conservative. They would like porn, gambling, and even eating to be categorized right alongside heroin and cocaine. “Addiction is addiction,” ASAM member Dr. Raju Haleja told the web site The Fix. “It doesn’t matter what cranks your brain in that direction."

This profusion of addictions represents a cultural change in how we explain unacceptable behavior. Traditionally, socially deviant behavior was viewed as a moral matter. People drank themselves into the gutter because they lacked willpower or character. For an addict, responsibility lay within. The path to defeating addiction lay in making the right decisions and carrying them out through the constant exertion of willful effort.

In recent decades, however, the trend has been to frame addiction not as a moral issue but as a medical one, as an issue that arises from mechanistic forces within the brain. In this view, addiction is a process that arises externally to the self, and so must be therefore treated externally. It’s beyond the individual’s power to deal with on his or her own.

The change towards a mechanistic interpretation of addiction (and of every other aspect of psychology, for that matter) can partly be ascribed to technology. New scanning techniques and biochemical sophistication mean that we can peer into the workings of the brain as never before. We can identify the brain regions involved in addiction (nucleus accumbens, basal forebrain) and name the primary neurotransmitter (dopamine). Even though it’s far from clear exactly what these pieces are doing, mere awareness of their existence promotes the idea that the problem is fundamentally that of a malfunctioning machine.

Another factor behind the shift is money. If I am responsible for my bad behavior, then I will likely have to wind up footing the bill. But if my behavior is the result of an unstoppable force called “addiction,” then I can get my insurance company to pay my doctor and the pharmaceutical company who are rearranging my neurons for me. That’s why the battle over the DSM has become so heated: whatever’s included in the book will get paid for, and whatever’s left out, won’t.

Amy Winehouse's high-profile death this past July reminded us once again that the stakes are high. Addiction can break up families, destroy friendships, and end lives. But it’s important to remember that there are larger issues than just who gets treated and who gets paid. The way society understands addiction will affect how we view ourselves, our minds, and our capacity for self control. If doctors tell us that we are helpless in the face of our impulses, then we may well become that way.

This past October, police arrested a 35-year-old Florida man named Christopher Chaney who they say hacked into the email and phones of more than 50 celebrities, then leaked their personal information onto the internet, including nude photographs of actress Scarlett Johansson. After his arraignment, Chaney was contrite. “I know what I did was probably the worst invasion of privacy someone could experience,” he told a local TV news reporter. “I'm not trying to escape what I did. It was wrong.”

To what did he ascribe his wayward behavior, then? Addiction, naturally. His hacking, he explained, “started as curiosity and it turned to just being addictive.” The habit grew so strong that he just couldn’t fight it. He was helpless in the grip of dopamine. “I was almost relieved when they came in and took the computers,” Chaney said.

Such protestations of helplessness raise eyebrows among many non-addicts. Could Chaney really not fight his urge to hack, they wonder, or did he simply prefer not to? But the belief that addiction leaves sufferers helpless is not merely an expression of moral laziness. It can actually be a powerful tool in the struggle for self-control.

As psychologist George Ainslie describes in his book Breakdown of Will, at a subconscious level all human beings are constantly balancing a host of competing desires. One of the ways that we intuitively bias one set of desires over another is by creating rules for ourselves. The more faith we put in those rules, the more likely we are to adhere to them. So we come to view these rules as principles and beliefs, and invest them with enormous emotional weight.

Viewing addiction as an implacable external force, in Ainslie’s view, is an addict’s way of biasing his or her internal judgment system. Alcoholics Anonymous, for instance, teaches that taking even a single drink will lead an alcoholic inevitably into relapse. The scientific evidence suggests otherwise, but that’s irrelevant. For the alcoholic, belief in this principle creates a vivid “bright line” which he or she must not cross, so defending the idea can seem a matter of life and death.

Whether or not you can really get addicted to heavy metal--or football, or Skittles--is less important than the reason people tell themselves they can. It's a way of clinging to threatened self-control. And in an age in which we seem overwhelmed as never before by a tidal wave of temptation, it's no wonder we're addicted to the idea of addiction.

A version of this article originally ran in Red Bulletin magazine.

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