This is the 2007 version. Click here for the 2017 chapter 14 table of contents.


The concept of addictive behavior covers much more than drug addiction. Psychologists now realize there is a common pattern underlying alcoholism, gambling, compulsive overeating, drug addiction, sexual promiscuity, and many other problems. Each involves a repeated behavior that is ultimately damaging to the individual but pleasurable in the short run. Such behaviors can easily derail important long-term plans. Addictions can become the dominant focus of an individual's life, leading to neglect or sacrifice of other important concerns.

What is the common pattern of harmful addictive behavior?

In modern psychology, the concept of addictive behavior is also being applied to positive, constructive behaviors. Love, exercise, parachute jumping, sauna bathing, giving blood, fire fighting, providing emergency medical aid, important executive decision-making—all have been portrayed as addictions. All could be part of a happy, well-adjusted life.

How have conceptions of addiction changed?

In the old days, negative moral judgments were mingled with scientific description. Only negative or harmful addictions were recognized. Addicts were portrayed as running away from something, not toward something. In more modern conceptions, addicts are portrayed as seeking pleasure, not avoiding pain.

Such an approach leads to moral ambiguity, in some cases. However, that may actually be beneficial to critical thinking (and it certainly corresponds to William James's advice to "consider the alternative" when confronting controversial issues). Two examples involve computers and the internet.

What was an early warning about internet addiction? What happened instead?

In the late 1990s, when the internet was still fairly new, some psychologists published a study showing that increased internet use led to increased social isolation. Many articles in popular magazines warned against "internet addiction," which was defined as spending hours every day on the web—a strange-seeming behavior at the time. Well-intentioned pundits warned of a generation of social outcasts, lost in the dim glow of computer monitors, cut off from social contact.

If you are a properly educated critical thinker, this should immediately raise your suspicion, because it is a correlation being reported as a cause-effect link. Perhaps people using the internet a lot, in those days, were fleeing from bad social situations, or perhaps they were immersed in cutting-edge technologies to the point where they had litle time for social contacts. Or perhaps the correlation was spurious, a temporary statistical association that could disappear.

As it happened, the correlation did disappear. By the mid-2000s (around the same time instant messaging became popular and social networking sites like and became widely known) the correlation between increased internet use and feelings of social isolation was no longer found. To the contrary, internet users started to report a feeling of increased social connection due in part to their discovery of online communities of individuals with similar interests.

What does research show about video gaming in children?

Another false alarm, apparently, is the worry over video game addiction in children. Yes, there was a student in Korea who died after days of uninterrupted gaming, but research in the mid 2000s suggests video gaming can actually have positive effects on motor coordination, mental quickness, and academic achievement (not to mention computer literacy) of school-age children. The terrible long-term effects of video game addiction have not appeared. In the meantime, the horror of a previous generation—television addiction—has became mysteriously less problematic.

The moral of the story, perhaps, is that any new social trend will inspire alarmist reporting. Any upward trend in the frequency of a questionable (or simply unfamiliar) behavior will be projected into the future, the word addiction will be applied to it, and pundits will suggest that it might lead to disaster. But with the exception of a few drug addictions and perhaps gambling addiction, the warnings often prove to be exaggerated.

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Copyright © 2007-2011 Russ Dewey