What Makes Behaviors Addictive?

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  1. Reward, Motivation, and Dopamine
  2. Distraction from Pain
  3. Intermittent Reinforcement
  4. Social Acceptability and Peer Pressure
  5. Sources

What is a Behavioral Addiction?

Think you're safe from the epidemic of addiction if you don't use drugs or alcohol? Think again. Behavioral addictions--sometimes called process addictions--may be even more common than drug addiction. Gambling addiction alone affects between 3% and 10% of all Americans, with 75% of college students engaging in some form of gambling each year, according to the University of North Carolina at Wilmington.
What is a Behavioral Addiction?

Though you can't overdose on a behavior, a number of behavioral addictions have the power to create serious, and potentially deadly, issues.

  • Shopping addicts may find themselves in debt, while gambling addicts may endanger their lives by seeking loans from unscrupulous bookies.
  • Media reports have even highlighted Internet gaming addicts who go days without sleeping, eating or bathing.

Though any behavior can become addictive, those that offer a rapid reward coupled with a spike in brain dopamine levels are the most addictive. Some of the most common behavioral addictions include:


  • Gambling, including Internet poker and, sports betting.
  • Shopping.
  • Internet use, including online gaming and social media.
  • Exercise.
  • Disordered eating--A 2015 study suggests that conditions such as bulimia and anorexia might actually be a form of addiction.
  • Binge eating--Some doctors argue that certain foods, such as sugary snacks, can spur food addictions.
  • Pornography, sex, and strip clubs.

So what's behind the phenomenon of behavioral addictions? Every addict has a unique story, but many behavioral addictions have a common theme.

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Reward, Motivation, and Dopamine

Dopamine is like the brain's natural drug. This neurotransmitter motivates you to seek pleasure and satisfaction.. In normal circumstances, dopamine helps you make good choices by, for instance, helping you feel motivated to do your homework and then rewarding you with positive feelings after you complete it.

A number of drugs increase dopamine production, making everyday activities feel more rewarding than they otherwise would. It is this combination of reward and motivation that keeps drug addicts coming back for more, even when their lives and health fall apart.

Rewarding behaviors also boost dopamine, which is why the high you feel after a shopping spree is chemically similar to the high a cocaine user might experience, a 2010 study published in the American Journal of Alcohol Abuse argues.

Unlike users who get high on drugs, though, people experiencing behavioral addictions rarely face health or social consequences. This may allow the behavioral addiction to spiral out of control, and friends and family might not notice until your behavioral addiction has undermined every area of your life.

Often, the consequences are dire; a gambling addict can run up tens of thousands of dollars in debt in just a few months, and fear of bookies and other unsavory characters may cause her to conceal her problem from loved ones. If you are struggling with a behavioral addiction, you need help. Please call 1-888-993-3112Who Answers? and find the right treatment program today.

Distraction from Pain

Life is hard. Everyone faces serious challenges--job losses, breakups, family conflict, and the everyday stress of sitting in traffic, waiting in line, and dealing with cruel or unreasonable people.

  • Behavioral addictions provide a distraction from the difficulties of everyday life. We've all heard the expression "retail therapy," but for a shopping addict, shopping becomes a replacement for healthier coping skills, such as talking to a friend or going to therapy.
  • Though anyone can develop a behavioral addiction, people with mental illnesses are especially vulnerable to behavioral addiction. The reason for this is pretty simple: mental illness makes life more difficult, and people struggling with mental health issues will often go to great lengths to blunt the pain.

Many people struggling with mental illness spend years trying to fight symptoms. So when something finally works, it's hard to ditch it--even if it costs money or is dangerous

Intermittent Reinforcement

Intermittent reinforcement was first described by famed psychologist B.F. Skinner. Skinner noticed that dogs were more likely to do something if it was only rewarded sometimes.

Skinner noticed that dogs were more likely to do something if it was only rewarded sometimes.

  • Constant reward meant that the dog lost interest, while no reward meant the dog had no incentive to persist with the behavior.
  • Intermittent reward, however, keeps the dog interested.
  • Think of a person repeatedly pulling the level on a casino slot machine. She loses most of the time, but the excitement of a win encourages her to keep going, even when she loses money.

The momentary burst of excitement associated with intermittent reinforcement can make behavioral addictions seem less problematic than they actually are.

  • A gambling addict feels like he's winning money.
  • A shopping addict thinks she's getting great bargains, and an Internet addict is thrilled by the positive feedback he gets on social media.

The lows of behavioral addictions are offset by the dizzying highs, and those highs keep addicts going even when their addictions slowly cost them everything.

Social Acceptability and Peer Pressure

Few successful people encourage their friends to inject heroin or snort cocaine--and they're especially unlikely to do it at office functions or family gatherings. But watch any group of people and you'll see lots of peer pressure to indulge in potentially addictive behaviors.

  • The lawyers at the strip club goad each other to buy one more lap dance.
  • The retail Christmas party features a mini casino night.
  • The local charity encourages shoppers to "spend big for the cause!"

There's nothing wrong with spending a little money or blowing off steam. For people with addictive tendencies, though, these practices can rapidly give rise to compulsive and dangerous behavior.

  • Behavioral addictions occur in the open, unlike most drug and alcohol addictions, but because the behaviors underlying behavioral addictions are usually socially acceptable, loved ones might not intervene until the addiction has ruined the addict's life.


Gambling as addiction. (2005). Science, 307(5708), 349d-349d. doi:10.1126/science.307.5708.349d

Goode, E. (2015, October 12). Anorexia may be habit, not willpower, study finds. Retrieved from

Grant, J. E., Potenza, M. N., Weinstein, A., & Gorelick, D. A. (2010). Introduction to behavioral addictions. The American Journal of Drug and Alcohol Abuse, 36(5), 233-241. doi:10.3109/00952990.2010.491884

Intermittent reinforcement. (n.d.). Retrieved from

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