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Entertainment Culture and Addiction

Our way of life promotes addiction

We have a severe drug abuse problem in our society, and anyone who has struggled with an addiction (or watched a loved one do so) knows the agony that addiction brings to sufferers and their families. For the most part, addiction is understood to be a result of biological factors and similar to a disease process: the interaction of a powerful chemical with the human nervous system can create a situation in which the body becomes dependent upon the chemical, and withdrawal from that chemical leads to great suffering.

A number of addiction experts dispute the disease model, however, and they offer some convincing counter-arguments (see, for example, Stanton Peele's blog). To take a single obvious example, some people develop addictive relationships to activities that don't involve ingesting chemicals, activities such as gambling or playing games on the Internet. In fact, we seem to be a nation of people who fall rather easily into being controlled by our desires; even those who have no addictions often struggle to control their spending or their food intake.

From my own work on addiction and my reading of the literature, I have no doubt that biological factors are an important part of addiction, but I also agree with Peele and others who point out that the disease model simply cannot explain the broad range of problems we group under headings like addiction or dependency. Until someone comes up with the evidence to show that all addictions are the result of a single underlying biological mechanism-something akin to the measles virus, say-we are better off trying to understand addiction in the as the result of complex interactions between biological, social, and psychological factors.

So, in that spirit: What if we try re-conceptualizing some sorts of addiction as one part of a larger issue, the issue of feeling controlled by desires so strong that we cannot resist them? Then the question becomes, "why are we so likely to become convinced that we are helpless to control our desires?" Part of the answer is that our society has an extraordinarily effective means of creating and strengthening certain social values. We call this system entertainment.

In my book Caught in Play, I pay special attention to the importance of the emotionally powerful experiences we can have when we become "caught up" in entertainment activities. I suspect everyone is familiar with such experiences-who hasn't had the feeling of being so absorbed in a book that it's hard to put down, or so immersed in a game that one loses track of everything else? In such experiences we have the sense that we are to some extent being controlled by something beyond ourselves, and we are bound to wonder what that something is. The answer that comes most easily to mind is that we are controlled by the ideas or practices or substances that are prominent in whatever fantasy it is that we are caught up in.

For instance, we become caught up in a tale of romance and we conclude-more on the basis of our feelings than our thoughts-that romance is a powerful force, impossible to resist. We become caught up in an advertisement for a car and we conclude that certain cars (or material products generally) can transform our experience. We become caught up in an acting performance by an attractive celebrity and we conclude that the celebrity is irresistible. When much of the population has such experiences repeatedly throughout the day, many begin to feel that they are powerless to resist potent emotional experiences.

In such an environment, many people are likely to understand their experiences with drugs along the same lines: the drug (like the potent experiences of entertainment) has the capacity to overwhelm the will. That's not the whole explanation of our addiction problem, but it's not irrelevant either.

Peter G. Stromberg is the author of Caught in Play: How Entertainment Works on You (Stanford, 2009). Photo by Kr4gin.

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