Are We All Wired for Addiction?

22 September 2016

Last month, researchers at Texas A&M published a white paper making a decidedly bold claim: We are all wired for addiction on some level. The paper, entitled “What is Abnormal about Addiction-Related Attentional Biases?”, poses the argument that non-addicts exhibit many of the same behavioral patterns and biases as their addicted counterparts; it was written by Texas A&M psychology professor, Brian Anderson and has been published on the National Center for Biotechnology’s website, as well as other notable outlets. The documents raises some interesting questions regarding the behavioral pathology of substance abuse, and compels us all to ask ourselves just how close we are to falling victim.

One of the highlights of the paper is Anderson’s apparent assertion that the pathological features that we routinely attribute to addiction are merely part of the normal cognitive process. He focuses strongly on what are called “attentional biases” in his explanation, claiming these biases are normal cognitive processes by which we are “wired” to automatically direct our attention to learned predictors of reward. Although they may appear abnormal, these same sorts of biases can be seen in normal, healthy people. As part of his research, Anderson had participants engage in a series of reward-based neurobiological exercises.

While recently published, Anderson’s assertion may not come as that large of a shock. Many speculate that they, along with everyone else, exhibit addictive behavior toward one thing or another, whether it’s drugs, alcohol, sex, gambling, food, love, technology or even emotional validation. The concept of an addictive personality is not simply confined to drugs and alcohol. Some of the traits that comprise an addictive personality can be seen as relatively common behavioral characteristics, including impulsive and compulsive behavior, feelings of alienation, non-conformity and preoccupation with sensation. It’s estimated that 10-15 percent of the United States population has an addictive personality.

Perhaps one of the most valuable elements of Anderson’s findings is the reinforcement that we are all vulnerable to addiction. This idea has the power to drastically improve the state of addiction treatment in the country, eliminating that sense of stigma and “otherness” that for so long has precluded so many from getting quality care. It can also give us pause when we see others exhibiting potentially addiction-oriented behavior and do whatever we can to get them out of that behavioral pattern. As we’ve seen with the explosion of prescription abuse in the United States, early intervention can often make the difference between addiction and healthy consumption.