There is so much material out there on addiction, and so much research being done right now, that challenges old ways of thinking about addiction, that I'm just leaving up my essay on how to define addiction, this will probably become mainly a repository of links to other resources about addiction.

How Can Addiction Be Defined?

Defining addiction is slippery. Ask someone to define it, and they will almost always say something that's not quite right. It became, for me, a standard test of someone who claims to know about people–how they work, what makes them tick–to ask them to define addiction, and then poke holes in their definitions until they were completely flummoxed. You can learn a lot about someone by doing that.

To date, no one has been able to give me a satisfactory explanation of addiction. I have come up with this after some years of inquiry, study and thought.

Here are some attempts that don't work. Prove or find counterexample.

Can't Stop

If you say addiction is something you can't stop doing, then eating, drinking, sleeping and breathing are all addictions. The withdrawl symptoms of those four things are lethal, by the way. If that's the right word. (It isn't.)


People will frequently break the law, go against their own word, break agreements with others, and generally let their lives fall apart in service of addictions. But this standard fails too: after severe natural disasters, people who need water and food will routinely break into their nearest Wal-Mart and make off with what they need. We wouldn't call that addictive behavior; we'd call it survival in extreme conditions.

Won't Die Without It

You won't die without recreational drugs, ice cream, deep-fried foods, or pornography. So defining addiction in terms of things you “actually need” versus things you “don't really need” is tempting. But how do you draw that line? Many religions have strict enough sexual codes that masturbation is off-limits, but most experts in human development now see masturbation as a healthy and normal part of human sexual expression, for both men and women. FIXME [citation needed] You won't die without it, though it's basically impossible to keep young men from doing it. Who's right?

What about sex in general? You won't die without it–Catholicism has proved that–but why would you ask someone to abstain completely? What are the consequences of celibacy? Your body might not die, but if you commit yourself to living alone, doesn't a part of who you are have to die? Is that why nuns are so… weird? Is that why so many priests became sex offenders?

This is how much is OK

It's not too hard to figure out how many calories a person needs in a day, and therefore how much food they should eat. So we could measure food addictions in terms of calories. What about sex, though? How do you figure out what's the right amount for someone to have?


Deciding when something has become addictive in terms of how ashamed a person is might work sometimes. But someone who masturbates a couple times a week might feel shame and clearly isn't addicted. Similarly, Charlie Sheen isn't ashamed of his behavior, and obviously he's an addict. So that's not totally reliable.

Here's A List...

This error usually only comes up with people who believe in FIXME morals. The thinking is logical enough: the government has defined a list of substances which are addictive or habit-forming, and they've restricted access to, or outright banned those substances. If someone uses the banned substances, or if they use the controlled ones outside of a doctor's supervision, you can bet they're nursing an addiction. But cigarettes and alcohol are legal and only slightly restricted, but they're probably the most commonly addictive substances. So we can't rely on the government.

Alright, well, let's come up with an apolitical list of things that are addictive. (Yeah, right.) Does sex go on the list? Masturbation? Pornography? Cheap romance novels? Twitter? Facebook? Video games? Sudoku? Crochet? Quilting?

While we're at it, let's talk about food addiction. Is ice cream always addictive? Should we ban twinkies? Deep friers? Would food addicts find new, unhealthy things to eat if we took away their Haagen-Daas? Are “normal” people “addicts” because they eat certain foods? Is it worth taking choices away from them to “save” the real addicts?

It should be clear that making an arbitrary list of things that are addictive is not worth trying. People are different. They respond to the same stimulus differently. Some people can have one drink and stop. Some can't. Some will spend all day on Facebook, while others will get bored inside of five minutes. If there's going to be a list, it has to be made by one person for themselves. For one person to advance their list of addictions on another might be moral, but it is and always will be unethical.

No one has ever gone beyond this point in the conversation with me. They advance one or more of these theories, and I poke holes in them, and they become flummoxed, and that's it.

How Do You Define It, Then?

Rigorously, of course, but flexibly as well. Some things will be addictive to some and not to others, while the same thing might be fine up to some amount, and addictive beyond that. That amount might vary from person to person, and even by time of life or present situation. Addiction resists definition in the letter but not in the spirit of the law. (But then you have to trust people!! We can't have that, can we??)

To qualify as an addiction, a behavior or substance needs to meet these definitions:

Compulsion or Perception of Irresistibility

The most obvious feature of addiction is that it is very, very hard to stop engaging in the addictive behavior once it's established. This is not enough, of course, as I described above. It's possible to stop doing the thing you're addicted to without addressing the underlying issues.


For something to be addictive, it has to be poisonous to you. Nicotine, cocaine and heroin are easy examples. It's possible to die of alcohol poisoning, though it's rare. Something that is healthy in small amounts can become toxic and addictive in excess: food and sex addictions are examples.

:?: Something to research: Is there a correlation between how poisonous a substance is, and how addictive it is? Heroin, Morphene, Nicotine, Alcohol and Cannabis seem to indicate yes. How do you measure addictiveness? Toxicity?


Over time, your mind and / or body will develop a resistance to what you're using to poison yourself. To get the same “high” requires more, better and different versions of the drug.

Misplaced Utility

(There's probably a better name for this, but it escapes me right now.)

If your drug of choice has a legitimate use, then addictive use of it has nothing to do with it. For example, you might eat ice cream as a nice dessert after dinner, or you might sit in front of the television and eat a whole pint because you're lonely. You might masturbate because it's been a few days and you need the release, or you might masturbate because you're unhappy about your home life and want to forget about it.


This may be the most important qualification for addictive behavior: it's used as a way to distract yourself from reality, to escape your situation, to get away from reality.

Not Classifiable as OCD

tactics/addiction.txt · Last modified: 2017/08/07 02:48 by naptastic
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