PA115/09 University researchers have discovered a new way to tackle the problem of addictions like alcoholism, drug abuse and even over-eating… after a discovery about the psychology of addictive behaviour.
The research has revealed that addictive behaviour is determined by rapid conscious decision processes, rather than by the automatic attention grabbing power of addictive substance, as previously thought. This new insight has emerged from a joint research project carried out at the universities of Nottingham, Sussex and Cambridge.
The researchers have found that drug related images, such as the sight of someone else smoking, are able to grab addicts’ attention, and that this attentional grab is associated with the likelihood of the person taking the drug. However, the attentional grab does not control the actual decision to consume the drug directly. The discovery, that the visual cues offer only information about the availability of drugs but do not determine the decision to pursue the drugs directly, could help in the development of new and more effective treatments for addicts. The results are featured in the latest edition of Business, the research highlights magazine from the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, which funded the project.
Many previous explanations for addiction make reference to Pavlov’s classical experiments where dogs learned to anticipate dinner when Pavlov rang a food bell. Dogs in this experiment attended to the bell when they heard it and expected food in their mind’s eye. The same applies to the addict who finds himself in an environment in which the drug is available. For example, an addict who sees their dealer walking down the road will have their attention captured by the dealer, and an expectation of the drug will pop into mind. The question asked by the researchers was whether the attentional grab by the dealer or the expectation of the drug was critical in controlling the drug seeking behaviour.
Previous work had suggested that the attentional grab by drug-related cues was critical, insomuch as addicts who show a greater attentional bias for drug-related cues are more likely to relapse following treatment. The implication was that it should be possible to treat addictions by abolishing attentional bias.
“Not so”, explains Dr Lee Hogarth, from The University of Nottingham’s School of Psychology: "You can draw analogies with a person looking at a restaurant menu: they may scan all the items to see what is there, and although their attention my dwell on their favourite dish, the actual choice is determined by the mental image or value that they place on that dish. The person chooses the dish that that is most delicious to them at the time, whereas their visual scanning of each menu item simply serves to gather information about what is available."
He added: "Our results suggest that while attentional bias can be used to measure drug motivation, it does not provide a credible target for the treatment of addiction. Instead, treatments designed to modify the expected value of the drug or food type may prove more effective."
The researchers are currently looking into changing addicts valuation of drugs, to modify their decisions about drug taking. This work may also have applications to other bad habits such as overeating and obesity, especially in childhood, where ones food preferences may be set for life.