Addiction is an issue affection millions of people across the globe and also one of the most costly and difficult health conditions to treat, since relapse rates can be high and inpatient treatment is not easily affordable by many of those who need it. Research indicates that there are many risk factors for addiction, including taking a highly addictive drug, being male, or having a family history of addiction. While this information is enlightening, it also conveniently allows those who do not have an addiction, to obtain a comfortable distance from those who do.
False ideas of addiction have led to a chasm – those who are not touched by addiction, often feel the right to criticise, blame, or shame, those who abuse alcohol and substances. A fascinating new study, however, published by Psychology Professor, Brian Anderson of Texas A&M University, shows that those who are addicted, and those who are not, have much more in common than they can imagine. The study highlights the importance of understanding that addiction is actually something we could all succumb to and that ultimately the focus should be on prevention and treatment, rather than on blame.
Anderson’s findings, published in Drug and Alcohol Dependence, is entitled What is Abnormal About Addiction-Related Attentional Biases? It reveals that all of us – those suffering from addiction and those who are not – have many identical biases. Claims Anderson, “…these seemingly ‘pathological features’ of addiction may in fact reflect a normal cognitive process – that we are all, to some degree, ‘wired’ to become addicted.”
Anderson explains what attentional bias is: it is the tendency to direct your attention to something even it affects with your aims; something that is difficult to ignore. In the case of those who are addicted to drugs, for instance, a craving is extremely difficult to bypass, even when the individual knows that succumbing to the lure of will interfere with their life plans, relationships, and ability to function well in a work, academic or social setting. The attentional bias is particularly strong when highly addicted drugs (such as opioids and cocaine) are involved, which is why so many people find it difficult to quit on a long-term basis.
When a person becomes addicted to a drug, specific cues associated with that drug hijack their attention, a process which does not occur with those who are not addicted to substances. Yet Anderson postulated that attentional bias for drug cues are part of a normal process in which we are programmed to automatically focus our attention on learned predictors of an upcoming reward. Anderson found that attentional biases are as present in healthy individuals, as they are in those facing addiction.
In his study, Anderson gave participants a simple task: he asked them to find simple colored objects, rewarding them for the objects collected with money. Afterwards, he asked them to complete another task, in which the collection of colored object no longer carried a reward. He wished to assess the participants’ ability to ignore the objects that had previously garnered them a reward.
His findings showed that the colored objects continued to be favored by the participants; the objects had nothing to do with drug addiction, yet they wrested the participants’ attention from the task they should have been completing. In other words, although the participants knew that choosing the previously rewarded objects could interfere with their aims, they found it hard to resist these objects. Anderson noted that his findings were “humbling,” because they showed the extent to which all human beings (not just those facing addiction) are influenced by reward learning. He noted, “Where we look and what we pursue are not always a reflection of our current conscious intentions.” Rather, it was often very difficult to fight previously ingrained biases to replace harmful habits with those that promoted better health and well-being.
He added that it was important to realize that addiction was far from a merely physical process; even though drug use ceases, the person who has quit drugs can still feel temptation in certain situations, when specific cues are present. Therefore, it is vital to take the necessary steps to control cravings and situations that can promote them.
Photo credit Cory Doctorow creative commons.