The Behavioral Context of Addiction

  • P. B. Dews
Conference paper
Part of the Bayer-Symposium book series (BAYER-SYMP, volume 4)


Psychic dependence is schedule-control of drug-taking behavior. The addict is compelled to take his drug because of the relation of the drug-taking to a schedule of reinforcement. The relation can be:
  1. 1.

    The drug itself functioning as a positive reinforcer.

  2. 2.

    Drug-taking being adjunctive behavior to other behavior maintained on a schedule of reinforcement.

  3. 3.

    The drug-taking acquiring positive reinforcing properties because it is appropriately scheduled.

  4. 4.

    Drug-taking postponing aversive withdrawal symptoms.

Relations 1 and 4 are relatively familiar. Relations 2 and 3 are unfamiliar and so are discussed at some length.

It is concluded that the behavioral phenomena of addiction can be accounted for by the operation of normal mechanisms of the organization and control of behavior, even though the outcome is abnormal.

Drug addiction is considered by the laity and by medical professionals to be a unique self-destructive phenomenon. The bad consequences are so apparent and so overwhelmingly greater than the rewards, that it has seemed to some observers that the only conceivable cause is a metabolic aberration of addicts and potential addicts that overcomes the normal biological and social controls of behavior. Addiction is certainly a self-destructive activity for the individual; the purpose of the present essay, however, is to show that it is not a unique phenomenon, in the sense of depending on specific mechanisms relating to drugs; to show that the behavioral processes involved in addiction are ubiquitous processes which can be seen to operate equally in a variety of circumstances not involving drugs. Hypotheses of specific chemical sensitivity are therefore unwarranted unless biochemical evidence comes to demand them.

The thesis, then, is that addiction results from the operation of quite general principles of the organization and control of behavior, processes which are in themselves normal although the end result is abnormal. An analogy is autosensitization in internal medicine, where normal processes of antibody production lead to disease. The thesis itself is not particularly controversial; perhaps only naive biochemists who believe everything must have a chemical first cause would seriously demur. But, if the analogy is so apparent as to appear trite, why has it not been developed? Why do we not have more suggestions for specific behavioral processes that may be involved?

What of the drug itself? A drug is obviously essential for drug addiction, as are Mycobacteria for tuberculosis. Knowledge of the ways of Mycobacteria do not reveal all the phenomena of tuberculosis, and knowledge of the pharmacology of abused drugs will not tell us all we need to know about addiction, but study of the behavioral pharmacology of abused drugs deserves far more attention than it has received in the past. Work has been inhibited by facile verbal attribution of abuse of a drug to its power to produce “euphoria”, undefined in scientific terms. Such simple ideas are clearly no longer tenable, but they have not been replaced by more viable and useful suggestions. Despite the large amount of work on drugs of addiction, I believe we are further from an understanding of what the relevant attributes of the drug are than we seemed to be some years ago.


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag 1973

Authors and Affiliations

  • P. B. Dews
    • 1
  1. 1.Laboratory of PsychobiologyHarvard Medical SchoolBostonUSA

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