Why do we persist in Addictive Behaviours that bring Negative Outcomes?

In short, because our learning systems are tied up with our dopamine systems.

An area of the brain called the basal ganglia together with the PFC (Pre-Frontal Cortex) function to reinforce learning systems. This area contains the highest dopamine concentrations, and influences critical brain reward networks key to addictive patterns.

Lower levels of dopamine negatively impact how we experience pleasure, reward, joy and contentment. Lower dopamine levels make us anxious, insecure and edgy and encourages the avoidance of painful choices or behaviours perceived as leading to increased anxiety and discomfort. It is far less likely that we will risk change, even positive change when in this state. We find ourselves not doing things, postponing activities without even realising it and wondering later why nothing is happening. This automatic reaction makes change difficult as we go into a defensive pattern when feeling down and nothing moves, nothing new gets started.

A surge of dopamine feels better and reinforces associated behaviours. The complicating factor is that reward pathways in our brain get flooded with dopamine when we use substances or engage in “thrilling” behaviours. Dopamine reinforces learning and encodes that learning in our unconscious.

It’s not hard to see that our unconscious is likely to “conclude” that our addictive pastimes that often lead to negative outcomes are “good ideas” because they are solidly learned as being so.

It’s a tight loop. When we are in a lower dopamine state (insecure, etc.), we are not as likely to be open to new ideas or change. We are more inclined to protect ourselves, often with our less than helpful strategy we “know” will work.

The spike in dopamine that accompanies addictive behaviours solves the problems associated with lower dopamine but ultimately depletes our dopamine resources, which leaves us feeling more anxious and less secure but with a well-learned solution for how to fix the situation – and around we go.

To change, we have to stop unnaturally distorting our dopamine levels and learning systems by stopping the behaviours that spike dopamine, e.g. drinking, gambling. Stopping gives our dopamine system the chance to rebalance itself. Importantly, we can also talk ourselves up or down with our mind chatter, as this impacts the dopamine level and makes us feel up or down as a result. Also, external positive feedback and interactions raise dopamine activity above baseline levels and foster positive learning. Negative feedback or experiences cause a decline in dopamine.

It’s not that we don’t want to change it’s that we get stuck in a pattern because we are unaware of the pull of unconscious processes. But they can change as we are always changing; we are either strengthening what we are currently doing or building something new.