What Fuels Addiction? Motivation or Habit?
Addiction has been such a significant problem for so long that its prevalence has led to extensive research, seeking to identify the factors that drive the condition. Research has varied in their premises, and whether addiction should be approached as a biological, psychological, social problem, or all of the above.
Studies have also had a wide range of results, and this has led to different types of treatment developed around various theories. In the most recent past, the consensus regarding addiction has been that it is habitual behavior, and therefore, many treatment approaches have focused on this idea.
A recent study, however, has provided new insight and posits that addiction might be more a product of motivation that a habit.
About the Study
The research was conducted at the Open Unversity of England by a former psychology researcher from the University of Michigan and used rats to observe certain behaviors associated with cocaine consumption.
In comparison to previous studies, this research differed significantly, specifically in the tasks required by the rats to obtain a reward. Past research often only required repetitive behavior from animals, such as pressing a level to receive drugs. In this study, however, rats completed increasingly difficult puzzles to obtain the reward.
The puzzles changed after weeks of testing, a technique that prevents addiction-like behavior from becoming habitual or “automatic.” The scientists called this system the Puzzle Self-Administration Procedure (PSAP.)
In the layout, rats were placed in chambers that contained puzzles, with tasks such as pressing levers, placing their noses into holes, and spinning a wheel. These tasks had to be completed in a certain order, and if mistakes were made, the puzzle would restart all over again.
When the puzzle was completed, the rats would be able to receive small amounts of cocaine. They wanted to know if engaging in this experience would still result in addictive drug-seeking behavior – and the findings suggested this was correct.
Moreover, the rats exhibited sensitized motivation for cocaine, intake escalation, and continual use despite negative consequences. The researchers revealed that addiction is largely based on motivation, perhaps more so than habit – the rats were willing to adapt to obtain cocaine, the desired drug.
Considering how the puzzles changed, behavior driven by habit was not able to form – instead, the rats were motivated to engage in the actions need to receive the drug.
The take away is this – clearly, many struggling with addiction become very motivated and adept at obtaining the substance of their choice. They suddenly become expert problem-solvers – they often find particularly shrewd ways, such as stealing and borrowing money, of obtaining drugs or alcohol.
How Addiction Affects the Brain
In the study, the researchers discovered that the areas of the brain associated with habitual regulation were not involved in addiction-like behavior, but rather, the regions involved in motivation affected drug-seeking.
Specific areas of the brain linked to certain behaviors and substances lead to the production of dopamine, a chemical that affects the pleasure and reward centers of the brain. In summary, particular activities, drugs, or alcohol result in increased production of dopamine, which brings on good feelings and encourages us to engage in these actions again.
By exploring the motivation aspect of addiction, the authors contend that we can not only gain a better understanding of the condition but also develop more effective treatments that could lead to improved outcomes.
It May Be More Complicated Than That, However
Another study from 2014 examined the potential role of both motivation and habit in addiction, noting that “human behavior is more complex than observed in laboratory animal settings…translation from animal to human behavior remains a challenge.”
The authors posited that habits and motivation could be “more entwined” that we assume. Moreover, does habit not have nuances of motivation or does motivation possibly play a role in habitual behavior?
In their conclusion, the authors referred to addiction as “a multi-faceted and complicated series of processes, and…modulated by motivational states may often co-occur and may be difficult to disentangle from each other.”
The authors recommend that the next step in the study of addiction should be a refinement in how we view the role of habit in addictive behavior, which includes a closer examination of the possible inclusion of motivation as linked to the habitual patterns present in chronic substance use.
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~ G. Nathalee Serrels, M.A., Psychology