A Psychological Perspective of Addiction



Understanding addiction can be a pretty tricky thing to do, even for scientists! There are simply so many questions and factors to consider. What causes addiction? Is it the environment? A person’s genetic history? Your biology? Personality factors? There are simply so many factors that can affect a person’s addiction to something.

One model that scientists have developed over the years of addiction research is known as the Bio-Psych-Social-Spiritual Model or BPSS model. It is a model that takes into account the various aspects of one’s life that can impact addiction namely biological and environmental influences like social life, culture, and relationships.

The BPSS Model

The BPSS model is important in understanding addiction because unlike most medical diseases, addiction is not caused by a germ, biological defect, or virus. It is a complex affliction that requires understanding biology, psychology, and sociology in order to develop and structure effective recovery methods. There isn’t a cure for addiction in the typical medical sense, so using this model gives us a broad understanding of how addiction affects different people.

This model takes into account 1) biological factors, 2) psychological factors, 3) social factors, and 4) spiritual factors. Biological factors include the impact of addiction on the brain structure and chemical processes. Psychological factors account for the behavioral reasons and impact of addiction on life satisfaction. Social factors consider addiction in the wider realm of human behavior in a group, and finally, spiritual factors are concerned with one’s spirituality and outlook on mortality and life in relation to addiction.

For the purposes of this article, we will consider the psychological factor in addiction. Psychology considers various aspects of someone’s life in relation to addiction. Some considerations are whether the addiction is learned or whether recovery is inhibited by psychological blockages. Perhaps it is due to a personality disorder, or traumatizing childhood experiences. This article will consider a number of key psychological theories — learning theory, cognitive theory, and developmental theory.

Classical conditioning

Learning Theory

How humans learn has been a key fascination of researchers for years, leading to a vast wealth of knowledge about ways of learning. It is very crucial to understanding psychological and emotional problems and is hence important to understanding addiction. There are two core ways of learning

  • Classical /respondent conditioning: Learning from paired associations
  • Operant conditioning: Learning from a cause-and-effect relationship between a behavior and its consequences of rewards and punishment

Classical conditioning

The main premise of classical conditioning is that a specific stimulus will cause a specific response. The scientist who discovered classical conditioning, Ivan Pavlov, is known for the famous experiment involving using a bell as a conditioned stimulus for dogs and food. He would ring a bell when it was time for dinner, signaling to the dogs that the bell is associated with food. You are probably familiar with this experiment, and it is also why classical conditioning is sometimes called Pavlovian conditioning. Similarly, with addiction, there are cues, often relapse triggers, that can have a serious impact on the person who once suffered from addiction. The cues can result in relapsing because the brain has associated the cue with the addiction. For example, if someone used to take cocaine in the bathroom, they might associate cocaine with the bathroom, so the bathroom cues cocaine. It is a conditioned stimulus that can trigger very powerful cravings.

Operant conditioning

Operant conditioning occurs when there is a cause-and-effect relationship between a behavior and its consequences. There is an element of common sense with this type of learning — when a behavior is rewarded one will increase the behavior. When there is a punishment associated with the behavior, it decreases. A substance can hence only be addictive if it is associated with rewards, such as pleasure or enjoyment. Addiction is hence a behavior that is learned as initial engagement in it was pleasurable or rewarding. For example, someone who shows symptoms of alcohol abuse might be someone who associates alcohol with the “high” and pleasure of it.

Cognitive Theory

A cognitive theory of addiction asks why addictive behaviors are chosen over healthy behaviors. It is also known as expectancy theory. As we go through life, we form a pretty stable set of beliefs and expectations about ourselves and the world around us. These beliefs influence our behaviors at a subconscious level, and can even be so powerful as to distort our perception of self and the people around us. The self-fulfilling prophecy is one instance that can explain why people continue with their addictions. If a person does not believe they are able to recover from addiction and have an inherent expectation that they will fail, they will not put in the effort to try and recover. The inaccurate perceptions one has about themselves hence fuel addictive behaviors. Cognitive-behavioral therapy is hence a popular method of treatment in which the inaccurate beliefs a person holds are tested against reality.

Developmental Theory

Developmental Theory

Developmental theory is the psychological complement to the biological evolutionary perspective. Developmental theory suggests that individuals are not simply slaves to biology and have the ability to seek out more than just simple pleasures. An important notion in this theory is that of developmental maturity, The more your developmental maturity increases, the more complex your meaning and sense-making of the world becomes. In the context of addiction, you can “outgrow” your addictive tendencies by increasing your developmental level. It isn’t just something that happens in children, but adults too can expand their developmental maturity in ways that can benefit individuals suffering from addiction. Addicted individuals can hence be seen as developmental immaturity as they are unable to see an addiction past a certain way. For example, increased developmental maturity can teach you to delay immediate gratification. Developmental shifts are important in shifting perspective which can be highly beneficial and powerful for recovering addicts.


Having a psychological perspective of addiction is really important for understanding why addicts become addicted in the first place, and then develop effective treatments. A lot of addictions are psychological, and so having a strong knowledge of how to reverse these belief systems will be beneficial.

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