For decades, we’ve looked at addiction as a moral failure—a sign of weakness and dangerous abnormality. Scientific leaps have only gone so far as to prove that it’s an inheritable tendency and that it’s likely to occur in those who’ve experienced trauma. But what if the potential for addiction actually lived in each and every single one of us?
Testing Addicts and Non-Addicts
In an August 2016 article, psychology professor Brian Anderson asserts that everyone, to some extent, is wired for addiction. Anderson, who teaches at Texas U&M University and specializes in cognitive neuroscience, conducted a study on addicts’ and non-addicts’ attentional biases—a scientific term for one's tendency to heavily focus on one stimuli and block out everything else.
Using simple colored objects as stimuli, the subjects from the addict and non-addict groups were each asked to find simple colored objects in exchange for money. With the objects as stimuli and the money as reward, both the addicts and non-addicts developed attentional bias towards the stimuli. The research has also shown that the attentional bias each subject developed could later be triggered even if they know they will no longer receive a reward.
In application to real-life addiction, he likened this phenomenon to a mere bong, pipe or syringe in the vicinity having the power to fully captivate an addict because they relate these objects to a high or physical reward they've experienced in the past. Overall, because there was no difference in the neuro-cognitive process that occurred in addicts and non-addicts after the stimuli was removed, the results suggests that both groups have similar addiction-like tendencies.
A Shared Inclination
According to Prof. Anderson, these findings indicate that we’re all capable of becoming addicted given the right set of circumstances. He also expresses that these humbling results could pave the way for a more compassionate view of people who’ve fallen prey to addiction.
In terms of treatment, Prof. Anderson suggests it’s best to simultaneously work to curb the substance use and break the attentional bias that associates the reward with the stimulus (the behavior or substance of choice). The latter, however, is a sticky conundrum because the neuro-cognitive process involved is a universal response to reward. Therefore, he recommends that treatment must focus on finding ways to replace the unhealthy, reward-associated stimulus with an alternative that comes with healthier rewards.
What This Means for Treatment
The results of this study imply that anyone has the potential to become addicted to anything, which means hotly debated issues like excessive gambling, sex and internet gaming are indeed indications of addictive behavior.
Its findings also emphasize the need for rehab centers to provide a healthy balance of “getting clean,” retraining the brain to seek rewards in other aspects of life, and guiding the recovering person as to avoid developing cross-addictions in the process.