What Makes Things Addictive?

“The three most harmful addictions are heroin, carbohydrates, and a monthly salary.” Nassim Nicholas Taleb

‘Addiction’ is a dirty word. It’s a word that carries heavy connotations of drugs, sex, violence, and criminality. However, addiction is not as clear cut as it used to be perceived. In eras gone by, one could only really be addicted to drugs, whether that be alcohol, opium, and so on. However, in the industrial-modern age, one could now be said to be ‘addicted to’ activities (typically ones that were deemed sinful or anti-establishment) such as sex, pornography, or gambling.

Yet now we see an emergence of new kinds of addiction. Teenagers are ‘addicted to’ their phones, people are becoming ‘addicted to’ fast food, and so on. In the modern age, where almost anything can be had at the tap of a screen, or the click of a button, addiction permeates every pore of life. And so, the age-old question returns: what is addiction? How does it work? And how can it be harnessed?

“Not everybody is comfortable with the idea that politics is a guilty addiction. But it is.” Hunter S. Thompson

Now, I won’t pretend that I’m going to crack the case of addiction in this one article, but what I want to highlight is the philosophical nature that the topic of addiction harbours. First, let’s examine what we mean by addiction.

To me, addiction is the self-compulsion, physically or mentally, to partake in a particular activity (whether that be as simple as cracking one’s knuckles, or as dangerous as illegal drugs). I say physically or mentally because this compulsion can come in two ways: either it physically makes us want to partake in the said activity more (nicotine has this effect for example), or mentally it can cause the same thing (I feel as though I cannot do activity y without first doing x, even when there is no correlation between the two).

Now, physical addiction, although still present in the modern age, is not what I want to focus on. Instead, the concept of being mentally addicted to something fascinates me much more, as one cannot resolve it by pointing out the biochemical reaction in the body that causes such addiction (as with physical addiction).

My hypothesis is this: mental addiction is, by definition, mind-dependent, and occurs when individuals require a crutch or a supplement in their daily lives. It is, in essence, the body attempting to discover and cling to a coping mechanism. Philosophically, this is intriguing: what in life makes people addicted to certain things? There are evidently trends in addiction – so what is it about modern life that makes groups of people ‘addicted to’ the same things?

“You must suffer me to go my own dark way.” [from] The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

Let us take a contemporary example, a craze that has swept the nations of the world: ‘Fortnite’. Now, I know this seems flippant, but hear me out. For those who have not heard of this phenomenon, Fortnite is a video game where 100 players go head-to-head and battle it out until there is only one player left standing. The game has over 250 million users registered and has massive publicity online, where gamers upload videos of their matches.

However, in recent months, there has been a surge of people claiming that the game has addictive properties, and that children and adults alike are becoming ‘addicted’, so much so it causes relationship degradation between children and their parents, and between spouses. Individuals are playing the game non-stop for several hours a day: approximately 5% of individuals in the US have self-reported that they play 24 hours’ worth of the game per week.

I have not indulged in the game myself, and I am sure it is terrifically good – but there must be something else about the game that causes this kind of interaction. People are genuinely putting their lives on hold, destroying relationships, and ignoring their body’s natural needs in order to continuously play this game – there is no doubt that some individuals are addicted to this game, and the numbers look to be growing.

To find an answer as to why people look to this game, I posit that we must flip back in time and re-read a bit of Plato and Socrates (I never thought I would see the words Plato, Socrates, and Fortnite, in the same piece of text). According to Plato, in The Republic, the soul is formed of three parts (also corroborated in the Phaedrus dialogue):

1. Reason – one could imagine this as the mind/brain.

2. Spirit – one could imagine this as the heart.

3. Appetite – one could imagine this as the stomach.

So, imagine each of us has a soul, and that soul is a chariot. The chariot is driven through life by three horses, which just so happen to be the three parts listed above. All three horses must ride at equal pace and in the same direction – if one horse goes off kilter, the chariot will swerve, go in the wrong direction, and/or crash. In essence, for our lives to be safe, happy, and healthy, we must operate with equal amounts of reason (good thinking ability/rationality), spirit (energy and fortitude), and appetite (physical desires and raw emotion).

This kind of idea has ingrained itself in human thought – live a balanced life. Keep this in mind as we now flip forward to the present day.

“Technological progress has merely provided us with more efficient means for going backwards.” Aldous Huxley

Johann Hari gives a fantastic Ted Talk discussing addiction. In the talk, he talks about a study conducted on rats, which was orchestrated to find out what caused addiction, and what addiction was like. I won’t go into the details of the talk (although I highly recommend you watch it), but he points out that another study was conducted where the rats were given the same choices as the former study, but were also given ‘rat park’.

This park was heaven for rats – it was filled with slides, toys, activities, and other rats (so they could have sex, and make friends). In the second study, no rats became addicted to the heroin water they were supplied with, whereas in the first study, all the rats became addicted and overdosed.

Now, let’s bring ‘rat park’ and Plato’s soul theory together. In the first rat study, the rats had nothing to do. Their soul was out of balance, which meant they had to look for a crutch or a coping mechanism to get through the awful and boring life. However, in the second study, the rats were all happy – their lives were fulfilled, and they had no need for a coping mechanism or crutch.

Okay, so we can now see that addiction or this mental compulsion to repeat an activity comes about when one has an unfulfilled life, or when one’s internal mechanisms are out of balance. Let’s transpose this analysis to Fortnite. Let’s see what Fornite provides. It provides entertainment, connection with others, community, a sense of purpose/a goal, and a common ground between other people. Not to mention such things are easy to access, and can be accessed without even getting up out of bed.

It is a fact of life that younger people (whom the game attracts) have less face-to-face interaction with their peers. This is not because young people don’t want to meet their friends, but it is much more convenient to text, FaceTime, or interact via games, than to get dressed and leave the house. However, humans are social creatures, and we are biologically wired to require social interaction in person.

Yet such needs are subconscious, and when ignored, the body looks for a coping mechanism – and it appears that such games provide a little bit of what the body desires (although it is no substitute for the real thing). People don’t get face-to-face interaction, so they look for a coping mechanism; such a mechanism is playing games or texting, etc., so they get less face-to-face interaction, and the cycle continues, eventually forming this mental addiction and compulsion.

“Cell phone: a private convenience that has become a public nuisance.” Richard E. Turner

Modern day mental addiction is less about something being so deliciously insatiable, and more about the individual consumer having something lacking in their quotidian lives. Humans are wonderfully adaptive creatures, which means that we can adapt and alter our own lives and routines without us actually realising we’re doing it. When we become dependent on a ritual, habit, or activity, it is actually just us trying to cope with a deficit of some kind. The key is to notice such a trend in behaviour and find the locus of the problem before the ‘addiction’ and its effects become too damaging. Addiction is a key part of the philosophy surrounding how to live a ‘good life’, and as such has stakes in topics such as ethics, politics, economics, and more.

So, at the very least, this modern age mental addiction is not some unconquerable beast, but rather can be overcome with a healthy dose of introspective philosophy, and a support network (yes, this is a drastic oversimplification, but I think such will suffice for a Fortnite addiction). Often, with modern age quandaries, people always ask about the what, when, who, and how – but they almost always forget the ‘why?’; and this is where Philosophy can really shine and provide, if not the answer, then a few pointers in the right direction.

Neville is currently studying BA Philosophy at Warwick University..Neville has entered the Times Advocacy Competition three times, and each time was shortlisted into the top ~20 candidates in the country. In his free time he writes his own scripts, as well as other fictional and non-fictional works.

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