Causes of Addiction

Because addiction is a multi-faceted condition, arising from the confluence of many elements—including, of course, exposure to an addictive agent—it is more productive, and more accurate, to think of risk factors for the development of substance abuse disorders, rather than causes. And just as there are risk factors, so are there factors that protect individuals against addiction. Research makes it clear: There is no way to predict who will develop compulsive substance use or gambling behavior.

Among the factors that contribute to risk are these: 

Biological factors

  • Genes. Estimates vary but scientists find that genetic factors contribute about half the risk for developing a substance use disorder. For example, one factor linked to vulnerability is variation in a gene that determines the makeup of brain receptors for the neurotransmitter dopamine. Another factor appears to be the nature of the body’s hormonal response to stress.
  • Physiological factors. Variations in liver enzymes that metabolize substances are known to influence risk of alcohol use disorder.
  • Gender. Males are more likely to develop substance use disorder than females, although the so-called gender gap may be narrowing for alcohol use disorder and females are more subject to intoxication effects at lower doses of alcohol.

Psychological Factors

  • Personality factors. Both impulsivity and sensation seeking have been linked to substance use and gambling disorders. Impulsivity may be particularly related to the risk of relapse.
  • Trauma and abuse. Perhaps by sensitizing brain pathways of alarm/distress, perhaps by adding to the burden of stress, early exposure to significant adverse experience can contribute to the development of substance use disorder by overwhelming the coping ability of an individual.
  • Mental health factors. Conditions such as depression, anxiety, attention deficit disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) increase the risk of addiction. Difficulties managing strong emotions are also linked to substance use.

Environmental Factors

  • Family factors. While strong family relationships have been shown to protect against substance use disorders, several aspects of family functioning or circumstances can contribute to addiction risk. Having a parent or sibling with an addictive disorder raises the risk, as does lack of parental supervision or support. Poor-quality or troubled parent-child relations, family disruptions such as divorce add to risk. Sexual, physical, or emotional abuse also increases risk. Research shows that marriage and taking on child-raising responsibilities mitigate the risk of addiction.
  • Accessibility factors. Easy availability of alcohol or other substances in one’s home, at school or work, or in one’s community increases the risk of repeated use.
  • Peer group. As profoundly social animals, people are strongly influenced by their peers and, in generally seeking to be liked by them, adopt many of their behaviors, particularly during the adolescent years. Positive social relationships are known to strongly protect against substance use.
  • Employment status. Having a job, and developing the skills for employment, exerts pressure for stability and provides financial and psychological rewards the mitigate addiction risk.

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