Understanding the nature of addictive behaviour can help in raising self awareness and so enable informed self-reflection of all stages of the stimulus response cycle addiction. Many techniques including hypnosis and CBT imagine and practice changes that lead to changes in both behaviour and cognition.

The pleasure versus wanting bind

Experimental animals like people will often continue or increase consumption of freely available foods and drugs. This pertains to other pleasurable behaviours like chocolate and sex. The mesolimbic dopamine system is active when addictive drugs are consumed or when they are introduced directly into the brain. Excluding instinctual behaviours conditioning theory posits contingency to set up learning/reinforcing behavioural sequences. This stimulus-response(S-R) once learned and practiced can often becomes automatic, e.g. driving, smoking or alcohol consumption.

In animal studies behaviour is contingent with ‘reward’, the animal is rewarded for its operant behaviour. Addictive substances hijack the mesolimbic system, exciting the same dopaminergic neurons involved in rewarding/learning. The question arises as to where pleasure belongs in S-R, is wanting different from liking?

The dissociation between wanting and liking is addressed by Berridge, (1999) in the incentive-sensitisation theory. Wanting at preconscious levels involve conditioned homeostatic neural responses to salient drug related cues, acting on a dopamine system already sensitised to drug use. Heightened wanting in this sensitised sense is craving, dopaminergic circuits initiate craving and prime learned drug seeking behaviours below the level of conscious awareness. Typically addicts subjectively rate very low doses of cocaine as worthless but will continue to work to obtain them, Fischman and Foltin,(1992).

According to Berridge animal studies have tended to confound wanting and liking and Berridge concludes that dopamine levels affect wanting but not liking, evidenced by rat facial expressions. Additionally the discovery of naturally occurring endogenous opioids Carlson pp 128,9 supports the separation of wanting from liking.

In summary the separation of pleasure from wanting, with their corresponding substrates in the brain, seems to reflect how these are experienced differently and explain the aetiology of addiction: its changing profile from pleasure to craving.

John Jeffrey, Sept 2010                     Return to welcome page


Berridge, K. C., (1999), ‘Pleasure, pain, desire, and dread: Hidden core processes of emotion’. In D. Kahneman, E. Diener, & N. Schwarz (Eds.), Well-being: The foundations of hedonic psychology pp.525–557. New York, NY: Russell Sage Foundation


Carlson, N. R., (2007), ‘Physiology of Behaviour’, 9th Edition’, Pearson International, USA

Fischman,(1992), cited by Berridge pp.531.