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The Psychological Causes of Drug 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.

Even if drug addiction originates because of some biological process, recovery from drug use requires people to become motivated to make significant changes.  Addictions like drug addiction are fundamentally a behavior.  Psychology is a science that studies human behavior. 

Most human behavior is a learned behavior.  This is true of addictive behavior as well.  Psychological research has helped us to understand how people learn to engage in an unhealthy behavior.  More importantly, this research enables us to understand how people can unlearn a behavior.

Another psychological cause of addiction is people's thoughts and beliefs.  This is because much of our behavior originates from our thoughts and beliefs.  This includes addictive behaviors.  For instance, if someone believes that recovery is not possible, it is highly unlikely they will put forth any effort to quit.  Psychologists have developed techniques to help people change their thoughts and beliefs.  Their feelings and behavior subsequently change as well. 

A third psychological cause of addiction is a person's developmental maturity.  The capacity to align our actions with our beliefs and values is what separates mature human beings, from immature ones.  This capacity ultimately distinguishes human beings from other species. If we routinely act without thinking, and instead act according to every craving, whim, or impulse, we are operating at the developmental level of a two year-old child. Addictions like drug addiction can occur because someone lacks this developmental maturity.  They may be very self-focused and intent on pursuing impulsive desires without regard to the consequences.  Psychotherapy can be considered a form of accelerated development.  Therefore, it can be very helpful for people who are attempting to recover from alcoholism or other addictions.

Psychology has also helped us to understand while people find it so difficult to discontinue an unhealthy behavior like drug use.   People may find recovery difficult because they lack good problem-solving skills and sufficient motivation.  Drug addiction can also occur as a means of coping with uncomfortable feelings or stress.  Psychotherapy can help to strengthen people's motivation and to improve their problem-solving skills, stress reduction skills, and coping skills.

In our topic center on Addiction, we review the various psychological reasons that people can become addicted to alcohol in greater detail.