The concept of addiction seems to be ever-extending. It’s all part of the tendency to view everything according to an ‘illness model’ that sees any excessive behaviour as an addiction, from drugs and alcohol, to eating, to shopping , to gambling,to computer games, to social networking, to texting, and even having sex. However, it’s clear that not all of these behaviours are physical addictions but more psychological compulsions.
Clearly, hard drugs do create a physical, biological dependency but can we really apply the same to texting, social networking or eating too much cake? Are some so-called addictions really indicators of psychological problems rather than symptoms of an underlying disease process? Does it really help to treat psychological problems as if they are physical illnesses or does it harm us by taking away the responsibility for our actions and emotions?
It’s first interesting to observe that different cultures are addicted to different things, so in part ‘addiction’ has a cultural or social component. From a social psychology perspective, what we are increasingly labelling ‘addictive personality‘ is arguably learned behaviour rather than anything biologically determined. Of course we can argue that we have inherited an ‘addictive personality’ but it is equally valid to argue that some behaviours, such as over-eating, are part of wider family and social patterns. In short, we learn our eating patterns by copying others. After all, our first models of what is normal and how to cope with the world come from our families.
Another way of viewing addictive personality is look at it in terms of coping. From an early age we are taught how to replace negative emotions with positive ones. As children, gifts of sweets of food help ‘heal’ a disappointment or offer an ‘antidote’ to sadness, and sometimes even physical hurt. Fall off your bike and a chocolate bar will make it better’. As adults we tend to use the same approach, for example with comfort eating: a nice slice of cheesecake is thought to cure all manner of emotional ills. This is known as emotion-focused coping. We focus on replacing the unpleasant emotions rather than getting to the root of the problem (control-focused coping). So if we are sad or bored; we eat. When we gain weight and feel even more sad, we eat again to get rid of the unpleasant emotion, and on it goes. It’s the same as people who go out and spend on their credit cards to cheer themselves up from the dismay of the size of their credit card bill! This approach never gets to the ‘why’!
It’s easy to see how an over-reliance on emotion-focused coping can be described as an ‘addictive personality’. Instead of dealing with the issues that cause the unpleasant emotions we blot them out by drinking, eating cake or having sex. Replacing negative emotions with pleasant ones is not an ‘addictive personality’ it’s a short-term fix, coping strategy. It’s a psychological problem not a physical one. For a longer term fix, we need to address the underlying issues and look take a control-focused or solution-focused approach. What can we do to change the factors that cause the negative emotions?
This is not to deny that some people experience incredibly stressful events in their lives and a little bit of emotion-focused coping can provide blessed relief for a short time. However, it’s never a long term solution, and neither is owning a label (‘addictive personality’) that prevents people from even bothering to try any more!
If we scratch the surface, all forms of addiction have a psychological component. If we focused on long-term coping strategies instead of unhelpful labels and quick-fixes, would ‘addictive personality’ cease to exist? Can we get unhooked from our dependency on the ‘illness model’ to address the underlying psychological reactions to the root causes of our problems?