There are widespread claims that you can get addicted to video games, shopping, internet, whatever, even sex. Not merely "like it very much", but addicted, as in addicted to alcohol.

According to Wikipedia:

is any activity, substance, object, or behavior that has become the major focus of a person's life to the exclusion of other activities, or that has begun to harm the individual or others physically, mentally, or socially

Whats the backing of this claim? How do you measure if one's really "addicted" and requires help or just likes the activity in question very much? If I'd like to measure i.e. whether Kobe Bryant is addicted to basketball or Stephen Hawking is to science, what methods I'm to use? Or is it all just subjective label without any scientific backing?

  • 8
    Some misinformed individuals add the clause that addiction is only true addiction if it involves physical withdrawl symptoms. This is a truly limited definition as it excludes entire classes of seriously powerful drugs which have serious side effects such as deep depression (anti-depressents) or anxiety. But, then again, some choose to believe that all mental-illness and symptoms can be overcome if they just sufficiently apply themselves, which is unfortunate and reveals how little many understand about the brain and it's chemistry, and how little sympathy we extend to the mentally ill.
    – cgp
    Mar 18, 2011 at 17:49
  • 4
    This seems to me to be a question of definition. It is possible for people to feel compelled to certain types of behavior despite said behavior being harmful (at least in excess). Do we call this "addiction" or do we call it something else? Mar 21, 2011 at 14:01
  • @altCognito those symptoms you describe tend to be caused by physical problems, like hormone deficiencies. So technically the claim is possibly correct. But yes, you're quite correct in stating that mental conditions are often not cured "simply by wanting to be cured", for precisely the same reason.
    – jwenting
    Mar 14, 2017 at 14:51

3 Answers 3


These are soft sciences. You're not looking at a hard science; you can't do an fMRI and say "look at how the addiction-response area lights up when this guy is playing MMORPGs."

The Wikipedia definition does a fine job of drawing the line, I'd like to point especially to:

. . . has begun to harm the individual or others physically, mentally or socially

This question doesn't spontaneously arise from the subset of alleged addictions that you point out. How do you know somebody doesn't just like cigarettes very much? You're always drawing a line based on some criteria.

We know that a person may become addicted to video games (for instance) because there have been people who let their lives be dominated by playing video games to the extent of their family leaving them, and them losing their jobs due to high absence.

The criteria for "harming the individual" is always sketchy. Certainly, it is conceivable that one could engage in a mild form of an activity that might be harmful. Drinking reasonable amounts of alcohol, or even a bit too much occasionally, might be somewhat harmful, but we'd probably argue that it isn't an addiction if the person doesn't have a problem keeping away from it for a considerable amount of time. I'd rather place emphasis on the "or others" part of the definition. If your partner suffers because of your habit, we may be inclined to call those habits addictive. On that note, see the website GamerWidow. Of course, even this criteria has to be coupled with a lot of others. You can't jump immediately from "someone was harmed" to "therefore, I'm addicted to this causal activity."

Again, soft science. I don't think anybody can ever point to a single defining factor, or any definite threshold of anything, that either prove or disprove addiction. Think of it, rather, as a set of weighted inclusion and exclusion criteria that adds up, and that you draw a subjective line.

  • 7
    Lets see. If I play chess all the time at the expense of my social life and even health, I'm rather addicted. But since I play chess all the time I get good at them and once I make my name, I get money, glory, fans, girls, and all of the sudden I am no longer addicted but a famous chessmaster, role model for teenagers? Even if my behavior hasn't changed a bit, i.e. still playing chess all the time? That's a bit far fetched even for soft sciences in my opinion.
    – user288
    Mar 18, 2011 at 10:59
  • 1
    ... "I play all the time, I don't even have time for my dayjob any more, I really like this and think I have it in me to become great at it", that's probably more acceptable. Again, I'm not trying to argue that addiction should be defined solely on whether or not the person enjoys the activity, but you have to consider a lot of factors. Mar 18, 2011 at 11:07
  • 1
    Well if I got it right, it all depends on whether the activity is socially acceptable or not. Or, if it is acceptable to the one who uses the label. Gaming is not socially acceptable yet, in most of the countries, so we have GamerWidow. We dont have ScienceWidow, BasketballWidow or any other PassionWidow because these things are old and people are used to them. Being not content may come from the peer pressure so it's not a factor in my opinion. Well, thank you for your long and detailed answer, probably I really dont understand those "soft sciences". I'll wait for more responses anyway
    – user288
    Mar 18, 2011 at 11:12
  • 1
    I would like to add: If so. tries to stop his behavior, from which he suffers, and can't, we have sufficient prove of addiction, but the opposite isn't true: There are a lot of addicted people who don't started to get rid of their addiction. Mar 19, 2011 at 7:41
  • 1
    @user: that's a very good inclusion criteria, but as all others, there's still a spectrum, and it doesn't say anything unless you factor it in with all others. If you attempt vegetarianism, but fall back to a meat diet, I wouldn't be inclined to say you're addicted to meat, but rather, that you're lacking in self discipline. Mar 19, 2011 at 8:34

I think we can make a case for several activities being addictive if we measure brain activity, in particular brain activity associated with dopamine and reward centers of the brain. Setting drug addiction as the benchmark, many studies like this one establish dopamine reactions as key component:

Brain imaging studies, while extending these finding to humans, have shown a correlation between psychostimulant-induced increase of extracellular DA [dopamine] in the striatum and self-reported measures of liking and ‘high’ (euphoria).

If one can prove similar reactions in humans while they are engaging in other actions, and if one can couple these activities with negative social behaviors also associated with conventional (drug and alcohol) addictions, I think that's a strong case for the person being addicted.

Studies are being conducted on several activities related to this phenomena. For example, there is evidence for striatal dopamine release during video game play, as measured by PET scan during video game play.

Likewise, studies involving gambling also show similarities to drug addiction. In the abstract Pathological gambling is linked to reduced activation of the mesolimbic reward system, (the mesolimbic reward system is involved with dopamine release) it states:

By analogy to drug dependence, it has been speculated that the underlying pathology in pathological gambling is a reduction in the sensitivity of the reward system. Studying pathological gamblers and controls during a guessing game using functional magnetic resonance imaging, we observed a reduction of ventral striatal and ventromedial prefrontal activation in the pathological gamblers that was negatively correlated with gambling severity, linking hypoactivation of these areas to disease severity.

I think that these active brain studies should be the scientific litmus test for "addiction".

  • 1
    I think you're correct that a neurological marker of addiction is possible, however I think it's a step too far to call it a litmus test. A diagnosis of psychological addiction shouldn't depend on the existence of neurological markers. Not the least because psychological and behavioural treatment is necessary to treat a psychological/behavioural problem, possibly even it there is a severe neurological disorder (though that doesn't seem to be the sort of problem this question is about). Mar 19, 2011 at 2:38
  • I totally agree, and I don't think that in order to call any one individual addicted you need to do a PET scan on them. I was just trying to establish a scientific definition. Once an activity has been shown as potentially addictive through scientific study, actual diagnosis of addiction should be based on the person's bad behavior. I don't need to do a scan to call a drug addict addicted. Knowing that the behavior has a neurochemical addictive quality can aid in treatment, but I was just trying to answer "does addictive behavior exist".
    – Dogmafrog
    Mar 19, 2011 at 17:24
  • 1
    I was also trying to show that its not necessarily a "soft" science, and that it is possible to have a testable, repeatable benchmark for addicted.
    – Dogmafrog
    Mar 19, 2011 at 17:26
  • mindhacks.com/2009/05/18/numbers-up-for-dopamine-myth is a good article that argues against reading too much into dopamine responses.
    – Christian
    Mar 22, 2011 at 18:20

In addition to David Hedlund's answer, which is excellent, I'd also like to point out that behavioral addiction is a continuum disorder, like many psychological problems such as ADHD, autism, and anxiety. It isn't really valid to state that is a person "is addicted" or "is not addicted"1. That's why the clause about being harmful is in there. Until the point where an addiction becomes harmful, it wouldn't be worth while to treat. It may even be unethical.

Also the degree of harm matters quite a bit. If a person plays video games 8 hours a day, loses all social ties, but can keep a job and maintain other commitments: is that addiction? Is that addiction combined with social anxiety disorders? You can't know just from these hypotheticals. The person's video game attachment could be (medically) treated as an addiction, but only would be if someone (or the person themselves) wanted it to be treated.

You must log in to answer this question.