A Critical Account of the Psychology of Addiction using Psychobiological, Social










A Critical Account of the Psychology of Addiction using Psychobiological, Social Psychology, and Individual Differences Perspectives

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ACritical Account of the Psychology of Addiction using Psychobiological, Social Psychology, and Individual Differences Perspectives


Addiction is a powerful, uncontrollable urge to regularly use a substance, thing or perform a habit despite the negative impacts. Addiction theorists have mostly improved their description of addiction by shifting the understanding from a stereotypical conception to a well-refined idea about the inherent factors playing a part in the narcotic addiction that could happen to anyone who uses anything that is addictive. Despite the different perspectives on drug dependence, it remains clear that some individuals are more vulnerable to addiction than others (Schramm-Sapyta et al., 2009). This essay will provide a critical account of three perspectives mainly the psychobiological, social psychology, and individual differences perspectives. The three aspects will be evaluated critically to illustrate how they can be used to build a fuller understanding of the topic of addiction.


Addiction can be explained as a repetitive habit that that are often experienced as ‘loss of control.’These habits are usually characterized by short-term reward and delayed deleterious costs. The long-term costs are typically manifested through personal and social problems after an extended period of practicing the habit (Solowij, 2002).The roles played by the genetics and biological forces of nature are used to emphasize the biological theories of addiction. These biological models suggest that chemistry of the brain, its structure together with inherent genetic abnormalities determine the human behaviour. West and Brown (2013) noticed that biological theories of addiction only show limited understanding of the process of addiction because not every specific type of addiction has been biologically studied. Therefore, the restricted application of biological theories to explain addiction becomes one of the models’ weaknesses. Nonetheless, these biological theoriesremainapplicable to other forms of addiction. More research in the field should hopefully reveal new insights and make the theories more applicable to numerous specific addictions.

From the available explanations this far, biological theories of addiction illustrate that every individual has a unique physiology and genetic structuring that influence addiction. This could be used to explain why two individuals are likely to differ in the extent to which they prefer an addictive thing or activity. One person may find an activity or substance so addictive that it becomes constantly tempting and irresistible. Another guy would completely fail to derive much enjoyment from the same activity or substance. This behaviouris tied to the brain’s reward pathway. The reward pathways determine the positive values that an individual ascribes to behaviour or substance.

Psychological components of the reward revolve around pleasant stimulus. Active processes in our brains react to the stimulus. Major components of reward are liking or pleasure, wanting, and learning. The least scientifically studied component of reward is the pleasure (Kringelbach & Berridge, 2009). Humans qualitatively and quantitatively experience pleasure compared to animals. The human’s cognitive capacity vastly elaborates how pleasure events are elaborated in our minds. This alters the level of attentions we pay to particular pleasures. However, studies have shown that pleasure is a similar sensation in both humans and animals.

The biological approach of explaining addiction is also called the “disease model” of addiction. The theory considers addiction as a disease (Hyman, 2005; Vrecko, 2010), just like cancer, or diabetes. Just like many diseases that do not have any cure, addiction has no particular control. An individual suffering from heart disease is often forced to make lifestyle changes that include diet, physical activity, quit some types of food among many other adjustments. Similarly, addiction has no single cure but rather multiple interrelated decisions or choices that control it. Some scientists have disputed the notion that addiction is inherited. They say that several genetic components influence addiction andthere is no single specific gene that predicts addiction. The vulnerability of an individual becoming an addict is determined by complex factors including both inheritable factors and environmental.

Increasing evidence is supporting the relationship between addiction and inheritance. Twin studies in the past have shown that it is possible for identical twins brought up in completely different environments at different points in their lives showed same levels of alcohol exposure. Although the twins may have been brought up in separate alcohol-free environments, they were both likely to develop alcoholism. The application of this theory suggests that if we have a family member such as parents of grandparents who were addicted to alcohol, we are at an increased risk of developing an addiction.

Role of dopamine

The mesolimbic dopamine system plays a key role in detecting rewarding stimulus. Therefore, this ventral tegmental area-nucleus accumbens (VTA-NAc) regulates responses to rewards such as social interactions, food, hence determines an individual’s motivation to repeat a rewarding act (Pessiglione & Tremblay, 2009). When activated, the pathway tells an individual to repeat the fulfilling act because memory centres in his brain demand a specific attention to values of the rewarding experience. This leaves a gap for the possibility of repeating the act in the future. Conditioning theory explains this dopamine activity. The theory states that addiction is a behaviour learned because an initial pleasure that was experienced by an individual was rewarding. The principles of operant conditioning explain that we are more likely to return to an addictive activity if we had a pleasant initial experience or consequence.


In classical conditioning theory, an individual develops an addiction by pairing the pleasure caused by addictive activities. For instance, an individual could develop a paired association between smoking marijuana every day after work in his car. Therefore, the car and marijuana associate. It becomes difficult for the individual to smoke outside the car and to try to do so is known as taste aversion.  Positive learning and conditioning involve better feelings of pleasure while negative learning and conditioning lead to withdrawal. Therefore, the perspective on addiction provided by the theory is a good basis for treating addiction through behavioural manipulation. Behavioralcounselling could easily exploit this field for the betterment of addictivebehaviour.

Incentive-sensitization theory of addiction refers to the increased sensitivity following a continued use of a natural reward. Repeated exposure correlates to increased craving, psychological motivation, and eventual dependence. Impulsivity is the tendency to take action following sudden urges without giving consideration to any potential consequence. For instance, impulsivity will make an individual quickly accepts an invitation from a friend met abruptly in the street to drink something despite being aware of the need to wake up very early in the morning for a very important task. Impulsivity is particularly common during the initial stages of addiction.

The cerebral cortex has four regions that include the frontal lobe also called the frontal cortex, left and right parietal lobes, left and right temporal lobes, and finally, left and right occipital lobes. Each of the above regions is associated with particular brain function. An area of the frontal cortex known as the prefrontal cortex plays a key role in higher-order functions such as judgment, conscious thought, spatial learning, and decision-making. The functioning of this region can be negatively affected by the process of addiction. This accounts for the impulsivity and compulsivity also observed. Having this deeper knowledge can help in the provision of preliminary diagnosis of addiction thereby saving individuals from what could turn into an extreme addiction.



Even though we might be biologically/genetically predisposed to addiction, (Jacobs et al., 2011) clarifies that there needs to be an environmental aspect that triggers or contributes to the initiation for the full manifestation of the addiction. Having a family history of alcoholism does not mean one will automatically become alcoholic. An individual must continuously interact with the environment to fully meet the process of developing dependence. Having a family history of alcoholism, according to Coviello et al. (2004), only means that an individual could be more susceptible to becoming an addict than a person without any historical link to addiction. Besides, vital statistics have shown that more addicts do not have a family history of addiction than addicts with a family history of addiction (Coviello et al., 2004). Therefore, left alone, the biological perspective cannot completely sufficient to explain the causes of addiction.

Individual differences

An individual with a particular set of traits that predisposes him to become an addict is said to be an addictive personality. The hypothesis states that people with various addictions have some common elements that relate to addictive personality traits. For instance, an individual who is drug dependent may under frequent occasions remain connected with substance abuse due to physical or psychological dependency, but such individuals could also possess addictive personalities that put them at risk of developing an addiction to food, work, gambling or pornography.


Through addictive personality, the analysis of these individual differences can be used to predict the likelihood of a person becoming an addict. Therefore, the perspective of individual differences remains a valuable tool that can be used by scientists to avert future addiction habits before the harmful dependence actually occurs. For instance, Burk et al. (2011) reported that early disinhibition in younger girls and negative affect in young boys could increase their risk of becoming alcohol dependent during most of their teenage years.

Three-year-olds who are undercontrolled are predicted by Slutske et al. (2012) to be a risk of developing disordered gambling when they attain the age of 21 and 32. These and several other examples can be used to demonstrate that personality differences which also involves taking into account, the environment, physical and psychological factors remain important for the prediction of chances of becoming an addict in the future. A study organised by Taylor and Stanton (2007) investigated 872 boys aged above nine years old and found that the boys who had low self-esteem when they were 11 years old were at higher risk of developing drug dependence particularly.

Complementary knowledge

Studies have shown that there are people who are particularly likely to develop dependence or addiction to certain activities. This additional proneness (addictive personality) is majorly examined through biological, psychological and environmental perspectives because they are thought to be major contributory factors. This is similar to the psychobiology perspective.

Seemingly, addictive personality was borrowed several bases from the psychobiology perspective. The influential genes that are outlined by addictive personality perspective are in fact deeply discussed under psychobiology. Nonetheless, addictive personality introduces a new concept that revolves around social aspects, for instance, inadequate parenting, poor interpersonal relationships, and deviant behaviours. Although these factors may are not biological, they can significantly determine the risk of an individual becoming an addict.

People possess different personality traits. Some of these traits are inhibited, for instance, introversion, hopelessness, anxiety and negative emotionality. Most of these traits have been directly associated with addiction. Inhibited Traits such as high levels of hopelessness have been associated with higher rates of alcohol abuse. The other traits are disinhibited and include extraversion, sensation seeking and impulsivity. Therefore, various personality traits can be related to different patterns of addiction. We learn that individual differences are the reason we become addicted. Personality differences are said to be the reason we become addicted. The key factor that determines our differences is biology. Therefore, this perspective can be seen as reiterating the biological perspective of addiction but on a lighter note.

Addictive personality could also be determined by individual differences in sensitivity to substances. This is similar to the conditioning theory in Psychobiology perspective where addiction is viewed as behaviour learned because an initial pleasure that was experienced by an individual was rewarding. The principles of operant conditioning explain that we are more likely to return to an addictive activity if we had a pleasant initial experience or consequences. Other risk factors under this category of addictive personality include genes, bad schooling, inadequate parenting, poor interpersonal relationships and deviant peers.

Weaknesses of individual differences

The debate about whether there is one addictive personality is ongoing, and several researchers have proven that no individual has been described to possess a definitive addictive personality disorder because none exists.  Instead, according to Cloninger, Sigvardsson, and Bohman (1988), inborn temperament, combined with character structure makes an individual predisposed to addictive behaviours. Milivojevic et al.(2012) explain that if a child shows high novelty-seeking temperament alongside low harm-avoidance, he is likely to become an alcohol addict when approaching his thirties (Cloninger, Sigvardsson, & Bohman 1988).

Individual differences in this perspective raise a cyclic issue of causation and effect. It becomes possible to ask whether low self-esteem, for instance, causes addiction or does addiction lead to isolation which creates low self-esteem. Allen et al. (2011) discovered that there was a correlation between susceptibility to peer influence and substance abuse. They noted that self-esteem increased the susceptibility to peer pressure. These vulnerabilities for addiction also show some detrimental nature. If addiction is to be pruned down to low self-esteem, it will become difficult for almost any addict to change behaviour. This would lead to a self-fulfilling prophecy, which stipulates that all addicts do not stand a chance of being fully cured because they would simply substitute one addiction for another.

Social psychology

This final perspective emphasizes the social context. Social context is also known as the social environment. Addiction does not simply occur in a single night, but it happens due to the influence of several factors (Baker et al., 2004). Social context is one of the reasons people become addicted to behaviours or substance. In this perspective, one or more areas in an individual’s life, experience and genetics influence addiction. Several social factors involved in determining a person’s addiction are limited not only to personal life experience, genetics, and family. Addiction also depends on the social environment, that is, home, peers, and school. When a person starts using the drugs – early exposure to the drugs could put him at higher risk of becoming an addict in the future. Knowing about a person’s social environment can help explain why an individual develops an addiction to a given substance or behaviour.

The culture explains the basic meaning of social environmentthat a person learns and lives. The people and the institutions with which a person interacts, therefore, could include various locations such as schools and homes. The individual could encounter peers, educators, parents and other individuals with different characteristics. All these components of the environment influence what an individual decides and thinks about his or her social context. These personal choices are made within the contexts.


According to Griffiths(2005), it is not only the social context that influences addiction. If it were the case, it would mean that no matter what type of social environment a person is born in, the person would grow up that way. It must be noted that the type of environment an individual decides to live in greatly affects everyday choices but each individual has to be the one to make self-decisions how he or she plans to be no matter how good or bad the social environment. This, more than enough, shows that social environment is a weak aspect that may not make a person an addict but addiction originates from personal choices regardless of the environment.

A weakness that emerges from this perspective is the difficulty that would be experienced when diagnosing addiction from a social context. Because the social environment is too large, it becomes very difficult to target a specific factor influencing addiction to diagnose the condition. Besides, our social environment is largely influenced by our psychobiology.

Within a given social context, addiction can be explained using different reasons. For instance, look at the life of any alcohol addict today and do background checks to find his or her interaction with the alcohol. It is most likely that during the young age, the addict’s environment such as having an alcoholic family member. This is more like a psychobiology explanation of addiction, but the only difference is that it does not directly mention the genetic aspect of inheriting addiction. It is also true that a person may be an addict, but historical check indicates that the individual’s family was extremely against the addictive substance or behaviour. In this case, a chance is given to the power of friends or peers. Someone might have started by tasting the drugs and then developed positive feelings about the drug for the first time. According to Bahr et al. (2005), a person will mostly make decisions based on one major thing: whether the action provides pain or pleasure. Beginning to drink with friends at a party would be due to the feeling of pleasure or belonging. When a person begins to drink alcohol against the will of his parents or family values, then the addiction that may arise could be due to a feeling of being rejected or misunderstood by the social context.

Complementary knowledge

When an individual has no family member who does addictive activities such as drinking alcohol, he may simply decide to go against the norms even when his parents do not agree with him. Thisis explained as deviance. An individual could show antisocial behaviours such as addiction indicating their deviation from a given context. This can apply not only for drug addiction but also other social issues such as religious beliefs and sexual preference. While the social perspective explains addiction as a possible deviance, the biological explains addiction is also called the “disease model” of addiction. The theory considers addiction as a disease (Reinarman, 2005), just like cancer, or diabetes. Just like many diseases that do not have any cure, addiction has no particular control.


The social environment is our immediate surroundings. Everything we do revolve around our social environment. The people we live with, friends we meet, workplaces, learning institutions or whatever environment we stay in, it is always described as social context. The social context, therefore, has a significant portion when it comes to behavioural influence on addiction. Even though addiction can be explained using a biological perspective, the social context must be conducive for the effect of the biological aspects to manifest. Social context thus can be viewed as the umbrella perspective that covers all the perspectives of addiction including psychobiology and individual differences. From the social environment, we can trickle down into sub-sections such as families, then to an individual’s biological making.


Psychobiology, individual differences, and social psychology perspectives explain the psychology of addiction. Psychobiology mainly defines addiction from a genetic angle. Individual differences reiterate the addictive traits that predispose a person to addiction. However, these addictive traits can still be explained using the psychobiology theories hence complementarity of the perspectives.  The final perspective, the social psychology, explains the concept of addiction using the constituents of our environment such as family, friends, schools, home and much more. These aspects of the social environment entail both psychobiology and the individual differences hence social psychology, despite not being precise, could be seen as the mother of the perspectives that account for addiction.


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