Describing addiction and risk factors in the development of addiction - Addiction

AQA A-level Psychology: Revision Made Easy - Jean-Marc Lawton 2017

Describing addiction and risk factors in the development of addiction


Diagnostic manuals describe the symptoms involved in psychological and physiological dependence, with gambling listed as the only behavioural addiction. Tolerance involves the need to take higher levels of a substance to get the same physical and psychological effects, while withdrawal involves the psychological and physiological reactions of individuals abstaining from dependence behaviour. There are several risk factors in the development of addiction. Genetic vulnerability involves several genes being associated with risk of addiction; the more of these an individual has, the more at risk they are. High levels of stress are also associated with increased vulnerability to addiction, though addiction itself can be stressful. There is also the view that possession of certain personality characteristics increases vulnerability to addiction, especially high levels of neuroticism and psychotism. Family influences can also influence addictive behaviour through social learning theory, where family members role model addictive behaviour to be observed and imitated, as well as helping to create positive expectancies of indulging in addictive behaviour. Peers are an additional source of social learning for dependency behaviours, as well as being able to provide access to substance abuse and encourage relapse from attempted withdrawal from addictive behaviours.


Fig 17.1 Wan-Sen Yan et al. studied cyber addiction in university students

Focal study

Wan-Sen Yan et al. (2013) investigated the relationship between stress levels, personality characteristics and family functioning in internet addiction. 892 Chinese students were assessed on five constructs that measured demographic variables (age, gender, education, etc.) family functioning (how cohesive families were), addiction level (measured from a 26-item scale), personality (from measurements of extraversion, neuroticism and psychoticism) and stress (measured from self-ratings of life changes in the last 12 months). It was found that 10 per cent of the sample had severe internet addiction and a further 11 per cent had mild internet addiction. No link was found between demographic variables and level of addiction, but individuals with severe addiction had low family functioning levels and high levels of neuroticism and psychotism and low levels of extraversion and higher levels of life change related stress. Milder addicted individuals had higher stress levels than non-addicted individuals. It was concluded that there is a relationship between family functioning, personality type, stress and internet addiction.


• Marks et al. (1997) found that alcoholics were more likely to have a higher nicotine dependence, as they smoked more heavily. As a result, alcoholics often experience greater discomfort from nicotine withdrawal when attempting to give up smoking, demonstrating the effects of withdrawal syndrome.

• Tsuang et al. (1996) evaluated the genetic influence on addiction by examining the records of 3000 male twins, with addiction defined as at least weekly use of an illegal drug. The data showed that MZ twins (100 per cent genetically similar) had a higher concordance rate for addiction than DZ twins (50 per cent genetically similar), supporting the genetic explanation.

• Akers & Lee (1996) looked at smoking levels of young adults aged 12—17, finding that social influences, like family and peer influences, affected the smoking behaviours of these participants, to either try smoking, continue smoking or quit smoking, illustrating the effects of family and peer influences as risk factors in addiction.

Positive evaluation

Image Research evidence indicates a genetic vulnerability to addiction, though no twin study concordance rates of 100 per cent have ever been found, meaning environmental influences play an important role too.

Image Research evidence also suggests that personality traits are involved in determining an individual’s level of vulnerability to addiction, though little support has been found for the more extreme idea of an addictive personality type.

Image Peer influence appears to get stronger with age; Rich-Harris (1998) found that peer influence especially increases in adolescence, often a time when addictive behaviours are established, illustrating the importance of peers in establishing dependency behaviours.

Negative evaluation

Image Stress research is often conducted on animals because of ethical issues in using humans. This means that there are problems generalising findings to humans, which lowers the validity of such research in explaining addiction.

Image Peer group influences are just one of many social context effects that should be considered when assessing vulnerability to addiction, such as economic and social deprivation — these effects should be considered collectively, as addiction is rarely due to one factor.

Image Although there is a genetic link to addiction, it varies across dependency behaviours, which means that genetic vulnerability to specific dependencies is difficult to ascertain.

Practical application

Research into stress and vulnerability suggests the possibility of a vulnerability measure that could predict an individual’s level of risk to addiction, or indeed their risk of relapsing after withdrawal from dependency behaviours.