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Psychological Causes of Addiction

A. Tom Horvath, Ph.D., ABPP, Kaushik Misra, Ph.D., Amy K. Epner, Ph.D., and Galen Morgan Cooper, Ph.D. , edited by C. E. Zupanick, Psy.D. Updated: Jun 5th 2019

Simply stated, psychology is a science devoted to understanding human behavior. Psychologists are concerned with improving the quality of people's lives and their life satisfaction. Psychologists consider behaviors that promote people's well-being and life satisfaction adaptive behaviors. Behaviors that serve to limit people's functioning and diminish life satisfaction are termed maladaptive behaviors. Since addiction is a harmful, maladaptive behavior, psychological models are very useful for understanding why people engage in this unhealthy behavior.

upset womanPsychologists propose several possible causes of addiction. First, people may engage in harmful behaviors because of an abnormality, or "psychopathology" that manifests itself as mental illness. Second, people may learn unhealthy behavior in response to their environment. Third, people's thoughts and beliefs create their feelings. This in turn determines their behavior. To the extent that someone's thoughts and beliefs are unrealistic or dysfunctional, their behavior will be similarly affected. We will discuss each of these different psychological theories in more detail.

Many of these theories have not been tested or applied to every specific type of addiction. Nonetheless, scientist and practitioners generally assume these theories apply in some way to all addictions. As research in this area continues, we may learn some theories are more applicable to specific types of addiction.

Psychopathological Model of Addiction and Recovery Implications:

The psychopathological model sees mental disorders as the cause of addiction. These disorders might include cognitive difficulties, mood disturbances, and other mental illnesses. In fact, addiction and other mental health disorders commonly occur together (called co-morbidity). Roughly, half of the people seeking addiction treatment will also have another significant mental disorder (Miller, Forchimes & Zweben, 2011).

Related to psychopathology is the concept of an addictive personality. Certain personality characteristics might be the underlying factors in all addictive disorders. These may include the denial of obvious problems, problems with emotional regulation, and problems with impulse regulation. There isn't sufficient evidence to suggest an "addictive personality" per se. However, addiction does most frequently co-occur with a class of disorders called Personality Disorders.

Psychotherapy would try to identify and resolve underlying psychological disorders. This might include restructuring the personality and/or improving a person's cognitive and emotional functioning.

Questions for personal reflection from psychopathological model: Would I benefit from a complete and honest examination my own psychological functioning? Is it possible that my personal and relationship history will be affecting my current behavior more than I realize? If I were to improve my psychological well-being, wouldn't I be more at ease? Would I have better emotional regulation? Would I have fewer conflicts, and less stress? Wouldn't these improvements make my recovery easier and more comfortable?


A. Tom Horvath, Ph.D., ABPP, Kaushik Misra, Ph.D., Amy K. Epner, Ph.D., and Galen Morgan Cooper, Ph.D.

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