Over the past two decades, advances in biology and neuroscience have promoted the idea that addiction can be fully understood and addressed as a disease that occurs in the brains of particular vulnerable people. This belief takes biological sciences as the primary domain for understanding and addressing addictive behaviours. But addiction could also be viewed from a psychosocial perspective. 

Bruce Alexander, a distinguished professor at Simon Fraser University, contextualizes addiction in large social, economic and historical terms and rejects seeing it as primarily a medical condition or a disease. He defines addiction as "overwhelming" and “harmful involvements" (harmful to the person and his/her society) with any pursuit whatsoever, including food, work, internet surfing, shopping, gambling, drug use, and more. 

Alexander explains that part of what makes us human is our need to be fully ourselves within a larger group—or as he describes it “be free and still belong.” When we feel our need for freedom or our desire to belong are not being met, we can lose more than simply our sense of identity—we may lose our way too and get caught up in replacements, such as eating, shopping, gambling, drug use and a thousand other habits and pursuits.  We find the best substitutes we can find no matter how rich or poor we are. 

Addiction, therefore, is not really about shopping, gambling, drugs or filling our garages with gear and gadgets we rarely use. Instead, it is a reflection of the absence of social connectedness and personal identity. It’s about what happens when we can’t connect meaningfully with other people in our increasingly amorphous world. This lack of interconnectedness between us and a supportive community (what Alexander calls psychosocial dislocation) can create a sense of isolation and disconnectedness. Psychosocial integration is an important part of human life. Social relationships provide us with a set of duties and privileges that define who we are in our own minds. It makes life bearable and even enjoyable. Neither food, nor shelter, nor the attainment of wealth can restore people to well-being. It is psychosocial integration that can do that. In contrast to material poverty, lack of psychosocial integration is like “poverty of the spirit.” So when people experience social disconnection, they look for adaptation. And as Alexander says, addiction is an adaptive response to social disconnection—the loss of (or failure to achieve) psychosocial integration.

A wealth of historical, clinical, and quantitative evidence shows that people who lose their identity or their sense of purpose, belonging, or meaning are very likely to become addicted, because addiction provides them with some relief and compensation.  Severe addiction, as a kind of exaggerated devotion to an occupation or activity, provides a partial substitute for people who can otherwise be said not to “have a life.” ~Bruce Alexander

To think about – or discuss with a friend

  • Do you think addiction could be a substitute for loss of purpose, belonging and meaning? Why or why not?
  • What role do you think casinos and lotteries play in our society? Is it possible that they are designed to pacify people and keep them in their place by giving them false hope? 
Is gambling an addiction?