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Cognitive Psychology and Addiction


Addiction is one of the cognitive mechanisms characterized as a psychological disorder. In defining behavior as the domain of psychology, a serious problem arises in distinguishing between behavior and physiological events. In restricting the domain of psychology to behavior and its relationship to the environment, molar behaviorism does not entirely exclude physiology from the science of behavior. For one thing, physiology may play a theoretical role. Many behaviorists contend that hypothetical constructs denoting physiological processes must be included in a psychological theory intended to organize and explain molar behavioral laws. Second, some behaviorists who support an autonomous behavioral science nevertheless propose that this science will eventually be reduced to a more fundamental science of physiology (Erickson 33). This will occur when the postulates of a completed science of behavior are demonstrated to be the theorems of the reducing science. With reference to psychological research in addictive behaviors, John A. Bargh (1997) argues that “…everyday life – thinking, feeling and doing – is automatic in that it is driven by current features of the environment… as mediated by automatic cognitive processing of those features, without any mediation by conscious choice or reflection”. Promoting a reduction of this sort is congruent with behaviorist aspirations toward the unity of science. It also supports the case for molar behaviorism since the reduction is possible only after the molar behavioral science is completed.

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Addictive behavior is brought about by a number of interacting factors including the present stimulus, sensory states, the organism’s previous experience, and its motivational states. All these factors affect changes inside the organism where they interact to yield the final link in the causal chain-producing behavior. Since this final state does not correspond precisely to the effects of the stimulus but is rather the effects of the stimulus in interaction with other factors, it may be said to be the organism’s “internal representation” of the stimulus as opposed to the stimulus itself. This argument for representations is based on a rather narrow construal of environmental properties. It ignores properties of the environment based on past interactions with organisms (Bargh and Chartland 462). Consider the property of being a war veteran. One is a war veteran not because of any current activity or bodily feature. Rather, one is now a veteran because of one’s previous actions. Similarly, a stimulus like water may now be threatening to a person due to its past interaction with the person. The quality of being threatening to a person can be viewed as a current dispositional property of the automaticity acquired through its membership in a stimulus class that previously interacted with that person. Just as the property of being a war veteran does not require an internal representation to explain how a person can be a war veteran in the absence of any current activity or bodily features, so being a threatening stimulus does not require a representation of the stimulus inside the threatened person to explain why only this person is threatened by the stimulus. Thus, for the behaviorist, the behavior of the hydrophobic is a function of a number of environmental variables, and one of these is the environment’s history of interaction with this person (Erickson 77).

In all cases reviewed, automaticity behavior does not correspond to the environment as described by the standard properties of physics. For each, the cognitive “must” requires an internal representation to which behavior can correspond, as well as operations to create the representation. Behaviorists, on the other hand, can deal with these cases by seeking the function which relates behavior to the environment, even though this function may not be the identity function and may refer to the past (Sheeran et al 49). Thus, if a behavior is seen as a complex function of the environment, and a history of interaction with an organism is accepted as a property of an environment, then the cognitive “must” loses most of its force (Erickson 87).

Although the cognitivist “must” lack the a priori force that information-processing theorists often attribute to it, it is nevertheless a logical consequence of certain underlying assumptions accepted by cognitivists but rejected by behaviorists. One set of these fundamental assumptions concerns the nature of causality and scientific explanation. The arguments cognitivists offer in support of internal representations suggest what was earlier termed the “bead theory of causality”. Whereas most behaviorists are willing to conceptualize behavior as being a function of its remote conditioning history, many cognitivists seem unwilling to tolerate temporal gaps. A conditioning history may precede the behavior being explained by a considerable time (Bargh and Wyer 4). Therefore, cognitivists prefer to conceive of the organism’s automaticity as creating an internal representation stored inside. Later, when the behavior occurs, it may be conceptualized as caused, in part, by a contemporaneous representation, fashioned in the past but held in-store to act in the present. In this respect, cognitivists are similar to field theorists who conceptualize behavior as a response to a contemporaneous psychological field gradually created through the organism’s experiences (Sheeran et al 49). Both fields and representations are theoretical entities constructed to fill a causal gap by theorists who require temporal contiguity for causation and eschew action at a temporal distance (Bargh and Chartland 465).

If addictive behavior is found to be some complex function of the environment, then it is necessary, according to implicit doctrine, that the stimulation arriving from the environment be transformed to create a representation to which behavior can directly correspond. In contrast, most behaviorists in the empiricist tradition recognize that there is no observable automaticity, even in temporally and spatially contiguous causation, and therefore, for them, causation at a temporal or spatial distance is acceptable. Nor does a lack of an identity relationship between cause and effect disturb them (Sheeran et al 52).

Underlying these divergent views of addictive behaviors are more fundamental differences concerning standards of adequacy in explanation. When a behavioral change occurs as a result of an interaction between organism and environment, at least three changes may be said to have occurred. First, there is a change in the organism, for its automaticity is now changed. Second, there is a change in the relationship between behavior and the environment. Third, there is a change in the environment in that the environment now has different effects on behavior although it may remain constant in all other respects (Sheeran et al 49). Cognitivists prefer to view behavioral changes in terms of changes in the organism. In contrast, behaviorists tend to emphasize changes in the environment and to explain the other changes in terms of the former. Thus, as a result of conditioning, a neutral stimulus is said to become a “conditioned stimulus,” or a “controlling stimulus,” or a “secondary reinforcement.” Changes in behavior are explained as due to these changes in features of the environment (Bargh and Chartland 462).

These differences in emphasis give rise to disagreements over standards of adequacy in explanation. Cognitivists insist that automaticity must refer to internal features of the organism, features which furthermore are contemporaneous and in correspondence with behavior. Cognitivists thus manifest an “internalism” in counterpoint to behaviorist “externalism”. Behaviorists prefer to explain behavior in terms of the environment, including dispositional properties the environment possesses only by virtue of its previous interactions with the organism. To achieve adequacy for behaviorists, an explanation must ultimately relate behavior to these features of the external environment (Thagard 87).

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In any population survey or epidemiological study, the complex nature of drinking behavior also gives rise to problems of measurement. Respondents differ in the types of beverage they drink, the amounts of each beverage they drink on occasions of drinking, and their frequency of drinking. Within individual considerations raise further complications. The same person drinking the same beverage on different occasions may drink different amounts, while in consecutive weeks an individual may undertake different numbers of drinking occasions which may involve the use of different beverages. When assessing the various methods in use to measure alcohol consumption, it is important to bear in mind that in epidemiological research the most important aspect is the classification of respondents by individual levels of consumption (Erickson 56). This is necessary in order to examine the relationship between individual experience of disease and consumption, and, in the population, is essential to the calculation of attributable risk. Automaticity of consumption and aspects of consumption by subpopulations defined by criteria other than consumption level will also be required. For example, many studies of mortality relate to specific sex and age groups (Bargh and Chartland 467).

Explanations within addictive theories rest ultimately upon a few fundamental behavioral principles, such as the Law of Effect, or the principles of classical and operant conditioning. They refer to relationships among stimuli and responses, and they are “primitives” in that the system offers no further principles to account for them. For cognitivist internalism, such explanations are inadequate because they do not refer to changes in the organism. Therefore, neomentalist theories explain the behaviorist primitive principles as the result of information-processing operations occurring within the organism. Because the information-processing theory accounts for what is left unexplained in molar behaviorist theories, cognitivists claim that the former achieves greater explanatory adequacy (Thagard 43).

Information-processing theories typically model the behavior of adult humans who have already acquired complex behavioral repertoires along with underlying information-processing operations. Cognitive theories thus often ignore the long history of interaction with the environment necessary for the acquisition of complex behavior. Ironically, then, both behaviorists and cognitivists accuse one another of not advancing their analysis far enough. As seen above, cognitivists criticize molar behaviorists for stopping at behavioral primitives and not explaining them in terms of more primitive information processing. For their part, behaviorists accuse cognitivists of presupposing complex processes and thereby failing to account for them in terms of a complex history of conditioning (Erickson 96).

One particular piece of intensionality especially irksome to behaviorists is the cognitivist concept of rules. If all behavior is explained by information-processing operations, and given that these operations are expressed by a program of rules, then, according to the information-processing paradigm, all behavior involves rules. Aside from the problems associated with applying the concept of rule-following at the sub-personal level, behaviorists argue that the concept of rules as used by cognitivists blurs an important distinction. Consider a paradigm case of rule-governed behavior: A cook prepares a meal using a cookbook. Before each step, the cook consults the recipe, a set of rules, and then carries out the next command. Compare this to a cook who adds salt to a soup until it tastes right. In the latter case, there is no rule that the cook consults. Because the behavior is controlled by stimuli other than a written or spoken rule, it is what Skinner calls “contingency shaped” rather than rule-governed (Thagard 77).

Addictive processes are under no obligation to define, interpret, or explain them. However, behaviorist theories are obliged to explain the behavioral phenomena to which the term “thinking” refers. As is the case with purposive behavior, behaviorists at this point can offer only theoretical sketches of such explanations with the hope that further research and theorizing will fill them in. Sketches that simply transform everyday accounts of thinking into the terms of S-R psychology (e.g., the equation of thinking with subvocal speech) do not advance the analysis of behavior. More promising is those which develop theoretical concepts when needed to account for complex behavior rather than when needed as behaviorist counterparts for everyday concepts. In the final analysis, it may be that the cognitive concepts of everyday speech, such as “thinking” and “belief,” will not prove useful in a science of behavior (Erickson 99).

Deterministic internal causes, relatively autonomous of the environment, are surely conceivable. If automaticity is adopted primarily on strategic grounds, then some of its usefulness may dissipate with the growth in our knowledge about internal causes. With significant increases in our ability to observe and modify inner causes, the behaviorist aims of prediction and control might be well-served by-laws and explanations relating behavior to inner causes. On the other hand, the history of psychology gives every indication that once attention is focused on inner causes, they tend to take over (Thagard 83). The environment is ignored, behavior is relegated to a minor position, the agency is reinstated, and loose speculation abounds. It thus appears that behaviorist externalism will be appropriate for some time to come (Bargh and Wyer 43).

The most basic evidence for drug addiction is self-administration of the drug. With regard to nicotine, it is clear that humans and animals self-administer nicotine. The fact that people smoke cigarettes and use other tobacco products (e.g., cigars, chewing tobacco, snuff) is consistent with the interpretation that nicotine is the substance that exerts addictive and psychobiologic effects that maintain self-administration, but these behaviors do not necessarily mean that nicotine per se exerts these effects. In fact, tobacco contains roughly 500 chemicals and tobacco smoke contains roughly 4, 000 chemicals in addition to nicotine. Similar to other addictive drug-eking behaviors, tobacco use is characterized primarily by highly controlled or compulsive use, psychoactive effects, and drug-reinforced behavior (Thagard 87). In addition, addiction consists of stereotypic patterns of substance use, use despite harmful effects, relapse following abstinence, and recurrent drug cravings. Addicted individuals also may experience tolerance (i.e., over time the dosage necessary to obtain the tobacco use with biologi desired effect increases), physical dependence (i.e., the substance is necessary in order for normal physiological functioning to occur), and euphoriant drug effects. Addiction to nicotine is a process that occurs over time and requires the individual to initiate and maintain self-administration. Reasons for initiating and maintaining nicotine self-administration via tobacco product use include biological actions of the drug as well as psychological and behavioral drug actions. This section reviews the biological mechanisms and neurobiological underpinnings of nicotine addiction (Erickson 65).

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All three psychological principles operate to reinforce and strengthen nicotine self-administration by binding together a wide range of stimuli and consequences of tobacco use with biological actions of nicotine. In the case of nicotine self-administration, environmental (e.g., a bar, the sight of an ashtray or cigarette), psychological (e.g., stress, anxiety, dysphoria), situational (e.g., on a break, when resting, when partying), and social (e.g., with friends) variables and stimuli can become conditioned stimuli that come to elicit the same biologically based responses as does nicotine itself. As a result of conditioning to tobacco use cues, efforts to abstain from nicotine become increasingly difficult as these psychological principles of learning continue to elicit positive and negative nicotine-related effects (Bargh and Wyer 13). These psychological effects help to explain why treatment of nicotine dependence only with nicotine replacement products (e.g., nicotine gum, patch, nasal spray) is not as effective as many people expect when they know that nicotine is an addictive drug. Actually, it is the fact that nicotine is a powerful and addictive drug with powerful biological and psychological effects that increases the likelihood that psychological conditioning occurs. Treatment of nicotine dependence must include ways to offset and extinguish the conditioning effects of nicotine and that requires psychological and behavioral strategies (Erickson 191; Thagard 55). Even in the case of a psychophysical experiment, the subject’s judgments of the brightness of light do not correspond linearly to the intensity of the light. In a more complex example, the reactions of a hydrophobic patient to water have more to do with the patient’s thoughts and feelings about water than the physical properties of the water. With so much support, the empirical premise must be granted and scrutiny shifted to the logical deductions. As a result, psychological, behavioral, and environmental conditions that become associated with nicotine self-administration come to elicit the same biological actions of nicotine itself. This result makes treatment of addiction even more complex and mandates the incorporation of psychological as well as pharmacologic strategies to treatment (Erickson 187). Operant or instrumental conditioning refers to the phenomenon by which consequences of a behavior come to increase or decrease the likelihood of that behavior. For example, a given behavior or stimulus that is followed by the provision of food (particularly to a food-deprived subject) is rewarded. A behavior or stimulus that is followed by an electric shock is punished. Many appear to believe that it is necessary to postulate the kinds of information-processing operations assumed in their theories. In particular, they contend that at least two internal cognitive processes “must” be postulated by any satisfactory theory of behavior (Bargh and Wyer 42). It is obvious that a description of behavior as mere movement lacks any mention of the purpose of the behavior. Even an achievement description fails to depict the purposive qualities of behavior (Bargh and Wyer 50). On the one hand, not all achievements are purposes. A rat, for example, may inadvertently depress a lever by backing into it while escaping an electric shock or by emitting an unconditioned reflex. In either case, the achievement-response of lever deflection has occurred but not the purposive act of deflecting a lever. On the other hand, behavior can be purposive without achievement. A rat may run through a maze for the purpose of getting the food at the end although it does not achieve this goal. It may not even achieve the effect of “approaching the food” because its route through the maze may increase its distance from the food or because there is no food in the goal box. Hence, although achievement descriptions are somewhat teleological in that they involve effects rather than means, they are not fully purposive. Behaviorist opposition to purposive behaviorism arises on two counts. Many researchers, while possibly agreeing that behavior manifests purposiveness, deny that this characteristic must be taken as a fundamental descriptive property of behavior. Instead, they maintain, the purposive qualities of behavior can be explained as the result of more basic properties of behavior described as movements or achievements (Bargh and Wyer 51).


In sum, the major psychological phenomena that become associated with alcohol self-administration operate through classical conditioning, operant conditioning, and paired associations. Addiction is the “internal representation.” Addictive behavior is not a response to the objective external world but is rather dependent on the organism’s internal representation of the world, a representation that is not in precise correspondence with the external world. Evidence for the empirical assertion appears to be persuasive and pervasive. Automaticity is said to be thoughtful, in a dispositional sense, when it is organized in functional response classes or controlled by functional stimulus classes which are describable in very abstract and complex terms Humans are capable of responding to extremely subtle and abstract features of the environment, and much intelligent behavior is the exercise of this capacity. Similarly, when behavior is organized into abstract functional responses, the person may be said to have developed a “response strategy.” In either case, under an intervening-variable interpretation, these cognitive terms can be viewed as higher-order descriptions of the relationships between abstract aspects of behavior and the environment, and not as cognitive processes over and above the observed relationships.

Works Cited

Bargh, J. A. and Chartland, T. L. The Unbearable Automaticity of Being, American Psychologist, Vol. 54 (1999), pp. 462-479.

Bargh, John A. Wyer, R. S. The Automaticity of Everyday Life. Lawrence Erlbaum, 2000.

Erickson, C. K. The Science of Addiction: From Neurobiology to Treatment. W.W. Norton & Co.; 1 edition, 2007.

Sheeran et al The Goal-Dependent of Automaticty of Drinking Habits. Br. Journal of Social Psychology. 2005, 44(1): 47-63.

Thagard, P. Mind: Introduction to Cognitive Science, 2nd Edition. The MIT Press; 2nd edition, 2005.

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