Horvath, Misra, Epner and Cooper (n.d) state that “Addiction is the repeated involvement with a substance or activity, despite the substantial harm it now causes, because that involvement was (and may continue to be) pleasurable and/or valuable.” (para. 1). With 15 million Americans suffering from alcohol use disorder or addiction in 2015 (Alcohol abuse and alcohol addiction, n.d) it is quite a common addiction. Alcohol addiction can be characterised by a person who does not know when or how to stop drinking. They spend a lot of time thinking about alcohol, and they cannot control how much they consume, even if it is causing serious problems at home, work, and financially (Nordqvist, 2018). Three approaches used to explain alcohol addiction are biological, sociocultural and behavioural.
The biological approach to addiction relates to the reward centers in the brain and the dopamine reward pathway (DRP), which was first discovered by Olds and Milner (1954) in an experiment involving rats pressing a lever for stimulation in certain parts of their brain. The rats repeatedly pressed the lever as they continually wanted the stimulation.
While this experiment was performed on rats and not humans, therefore having the potential to have no relation to the human brain, however the biological structure of rats is quite similar to humans, and we share many processes with them (Melina, 2010), future research would also show Olds and Milners experiments to be accurate. Drugs and by extension alcohol work in similar ways to Olds and Milners electrodes. According to Cragg and Lonie (2013), drugs can imitate, stimulate and block the effects of certain neurotransmitters as well as activate the DRP, which is designed to make us repeat the behaviours that activate it.
Chiara (1997) explains how this relates to alcohol addiction. She states that even low doses of alcohol can increase dopamine release and unlike other stimuli, alcohol maintains its motivational significance, even through repeated use, which could contribute to alcohol addiction. While Chiara’s article was written in 1997 and may be considered to be outdated, the other content it has about dopamine correlates with other, more recent sources such as Cragg and Lonies book.
The paper is also taken from a government website. Alcohol addiction can become alcohol dependency depending on the amount of alcohol someone drinks, when someone is dependent on alcohol, there can be psychological and physical withdrawal symptoms when their blood alcohol level drops, including sweating, shaking and nausea due to chemical changes in the brain (Alcohol dependence and withdrawal, n.d). When J. Lawrie (personal communication, April 27, 2019) who has experience in alcohol addiction was asked about what happens when someone in this situation stopped drinking, stating that they get the shakes and need a clinical replacement drug.
At this point in someone’s drinking, it can be very difficult to quit, as they don’t want to deal with these withdrawal symptoms. The biological approach is very effective in explaining alcohol addiction because if we can get down the base chemical workings of the brain, behaviour can be predicted. A flaw of the biological approach is that it ignores the factors in our everyday environment that are proven to affect most people, for example, someone’s childhood (Evaluation of the Biological Approach, n.d).
The sociocultural approach to addiction can be explained as the standards of society and the negative effects of culture and society on individual behaviour (Horvath, Misra, Epner & Cooper, n.d-a). An example of the effects of society on an individual is how intoxication through alcohol or other means is generally depicted as humorous, therefore making audiences have a desire for alcohol as they want to replicate that humour in their own lives (Horvath et al., n.d-b).
The sociocultural approach has evolved from the work of Lev Vygotsky, who believed that children are born with basic biological constraints on their mind, however each culture has tools that are taught to children to use their mental ability in a way that is adaptive to the culture, for example some cultures emphasize memory strategies such as note taking, while others may emphasize reminders (Cherry, 2018). Vygotsky’s work itself can be translated to alcohol addiction, a culture that frequently partake in events in which alcohol is part of its identity e.g Irish Wakes, Jewish religious observances, and wine with dinner for many European cultures.
People who are a part of these cultures and events can fall to group pressures as these events make it seem like alcohol is a necessary catalyst for social events (University of Massachusetts, n.d) The sociocultural approach relates to alcohol addiction as alcohol, especially compared to most drugs has served to promote social interaction (University of Massachusetts, n.d).
Alcohol can serve a variety of of uses in society , such as facilitating social interaction, providing a release from social obligation, promoting group solidarity and to rebel against society’s values. Studies of adolescent alcohol and drug use state that consumption of alcohol or other drugs is better predicted by social context than personalities (University of Massachusetts, n.d). While such studies are not cited by the university, further research has shown an article written by Peterson, Morey and Higgins (2005) that backs up the university’s statement.
The sociocultural approach to alcohol addiction has its reasons for existing as stated above, but there are gaps in the approach, for example, people who are suffering from alcohol addiction, but are quite secluded and introverted in nature, are not explained by this approach (Masters, 2013).
Behaviourism is a psychological approach that studies scientific and objective means of investigation, only concerned with observable stimulus response behaviours (Macleod, 2017). The area of behaviourism that pertains most to alcohol addiction is operant conditioning discovered by B.F Skinner (1948), which is a method of learning that occurs through consequences of behaviour, where an association between the behaviour and the consequence is made (Cherry, 2019).
Skinner’s experiment involved placing a hungry rat inside a box that is completely empty except for a lever that dispenses food, when the rat has eaten enough, it is taken out of the box and the process is repeated until the rat immediately presses the lever, as the behaviour of pressing the lever has been associated with food (Shrestha, 2017). This has a lot of similarities with Olds and Milner’s experiment, including the flaw of being performed on a rat, but again this flaw can be overlooked as more recent, non rat based research correlates with this experiment.
Operant conditioning can explain addiction as addiction can be seen as a behaviour that is learned because, according to Horvath, Misra, Epner and Cooper (n.d), the initial pleasure or enjoyment was rewarding. They also state that most of the common addictions including alcohol are rewarding almost immediately, which means the behaviour is learned at a more rapid pace. The reward of alcohol is the endorphins it releases, or the feeling of these endorphins, which loops back to the biological approach to alcoholism (Sinclair Method, n.d).
The behaviourist approaches strengths lie in its practicality and objectiveness compared to other approaches, however because this objectiveness, it overlooks a lot of things, for example, how people can make decisions and be conscious of their behaviour. A person can be addicted to alcohol because of factors that have nothing to do with conditioning, like genetics (Advantages and Disadvantages of the Behaviourist Approach, 2016).
All of the approaches to alcohol addiction have their merit. The biological approach explains the effects on ones brain when they drink, the sociocultural approach explains a social context can influence someone’s drinking habits and the behavioural approach explains how someone is conditioned to constantly drink.