A Practical Approach to Addiction

A Practical Approach to Addiction: The Hunter and the Economist’ or Addiction as an Ecological Trap

Philip Townshend from PsychMed Adelaide, and Mathew McMillan.

Addiction has been attributed to many physiological and psychological effects including neuroadaptation to addictive substances, self-medication of anxiety disorders, stress and deprivation, and genetics and in the community the predominant view is that addiction is a moral issue probably caused by character or biological flaws in the addicted individual.

These explanations for addiction have in common an assumption that there is something either psychological or biologically wrong with the addicted individual probably based on the observation that in addiction people make choices that are destructive to themselves and others.

However in the study of other animals an effect where organisms make choices that severely disadvantage themselves is observed. This occurs where environmental or ecological changes mean that behaviour that once was advantageous and had survival value is now not valuable, these situations are described as “ecological” or “environmental” traps. In an ecological trap an individual is “unable to accurately assess the fitness value of possible habitats, mates, food items or other resources” 15(p552) entrapping individuals in disadvantageous choices.

Could this be a factor in addiction? We know that the neurobiology of reward or desire underpins addictive behaviour and that there are parallels between addictive behaviours and behaviours with obvious survival value. For example seeking and consuming high energy foods and alcohol use, hunting/gathering behaviours and gambling, breeding and porn/sex addiction.

If humans evolved a neurobiology that rewards survival activities then where as a result of environmental change some of these activities can be overexpressed we have addiction occurring as a result of an environmental trap. To put this another way our neurobiology which evolved without exposure to internet porn, freely available dopaminergic substances such as opioids and alcohol, and in which enthusiastic engagement in finding resources was hunter/gathering rather than gambling is now unfit for our changed environment.

Framing addiction as an ecological trap may provide a parsimonious, non-judgmental and succinct explanation of addiction which largely matches observation.  It suggests that addiction is an expected consequence of exposing the neurobiology of humans to particular products or activities, provides opportunities for the ecological study of addiction and suggests addiction may be a species or public health issue as well as an issue for the individuals affected.

This paper (available from the 2016 conference proceedings available at http://addictionaustralia.org.au/archives/bop16.pdf) raises these issues and identifies some of the implications for institutional and therapeutic responses to addictions with a complete set of references.