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What Is Addiction?

Addiction isn't what it used to be

For the second time in less than a year, The New York Times Magazine has identified a major addictive trend that does not involve drugs. In this case, it is junk foods (the previous example was mindless games). A science writer friend of mine wasn't impressed: for her what is called "addictive" simply represents standard (if insidious) product development and marketing practices. After all, weren't potato chips addictive well before modern food science arose?

I had a different reaction. As the author (with Archie Brodsky) in 1975 of Love and Addiction, where I identified advertising as being based on the principles of addiction (telling you that you need a product in order to live a satisfactory life), where I called television viewing addictive, and where I specified compulsive gambling as an addiction (soon to be recognized as such in the new edition of the American Psychiatric Association's DSM-5), I watch the growing recognition that addiction is not limited to certain drugs, to drugs at all, with intense interest.

All of these new addiction sightings are based on vague understandings of how lived experience is reflected in neural and brain activity. Yes, it is—and so what? To say that intense involvements affect the brain is to say—in a word—nothing. What makes such a thing an addiction? And it is no more the existence and consumption of junk food, repetitive games or other video stimulation, or placing a bet that makes it so; it is the way the individual interprets and reacts to the experience of the thing in the context of his or her life that creates an addiction (think of heroin addiction in Vietnam, soon left behind by most vets on their return home). When a powerful experience is welcomed for its reassurance and as a life solution, when it become preoccupying and detrimental to the consumer, and—finally—when the individual him or herself comes to see and to believe that the experience is addictive—voila!

As I wrote in Psychology Today magazine,

Addiction is the search for emotional satisfaction—for a sense of security, a sense of being loved, even a sense of control over life. But the gratification is temporary and illusory, and the behavior results instead in greater self-disgust, reduced psychological security, and poorer coping ability. That’s what all addictions have in common.

Furthermore, it is impossible to specify any slate of "things" as being addictive, or not:

The problem with the DSM-5 approach is in viewing the nature of addiction as a characteristic of specific substances (now with the addition of a single activity). But think about obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD): People are not diagnosed based on the specific habit they repeat—be it hand-washing or checking locked doors. They are diagnosed with OCD because of how life-disruptive and compulsive the habit is. Similarly, addictive disorders are about how badly a habit harms a person’s life.

And, so, watch for any number of future NY Times Magazine covers to identify this or that "new" addiction.

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