Comparison and Contrast of the Biological and Sociocultural Models of Addiction

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Models of addiction are schematics that attempt to answer questions regarding the causes of drug abuse and dependency, the effects of a drug on human functioning, and a course of treatment that will result in the reduction or use of drugs (Frances & Miller, 2005). These models coincide with the understanding of other mental disorders as being biological, psychological, social, cultural, and spiritual in nature. That is, they have an identified effect on one or more of these basic areas of human function. While a biopsychosocial model sees an interaction between three of these areas, various models of addiction place a stronger emphasis on a single or set of related domains (Bozarth, 1990 ).

Biological Model
A biological model of addiction focuses on a neurological or genetic cause of addiction and would classify addiction as a disease. It identifies three main phases that explain how addiction begins, reasons why the behavior continues, and what causes the individual to go back to the addictive behavior after a period of abstinence. (Frances & Miller, 2005) Based on neuroscience, this model pinpoints the reward pathways in the brain as the primary area of impact for addictive behaviors and the maintenance of these. Addictive substances are described as changing both the structure and function of the reward systems neurons. Such changes are seen as contributing to tolerance, dependence and craving. Treatment under this model focuses on avoiding, removing or reducing the use of psychoactive substances. The effects of the drug on the brain itself makes this process difficult and sometimes physically dangerous. In some cases, treatment may involve replacing a drug with another that has less chance of causing damage and/or death (Frances & Miller, 2005).

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Modern day technology such as PET scans have made it possible to observe the effects of drugs on areas of the brain. Genetic studies also have made it possible to identify the genes responsible for creating a biological predisposition for drug dependency. However, other theories recognize the importance in environmental influences in the development of addiction. (APA, 2000)

Criticism of a Biological Model of Addiction
While the science behind a biological model appears more objective because of the physical and scientific confirmation of the theory, a solely biological view of addiction excludes the ability and propensity of humans to exert free will. It lacks a consideration of other psychological explanations and influences such as stress, thought processes, or a social context. The science involved in exploring the function of the brain is new and the research base is far from longitudinal (APA, 2000). These factors do not negate the relevance of a Biological Model but a singular explanation, this deterministic view disempowers the addict and removes the responsibility of an individual choice.

Sociocultural Model of Addiction
A sociocultural model is a relatively new addition within the past two decades (Frances & Miller, 2005). Its popularity has gained ground in the light of studies into the effects of culture on the experiences of individuals and society as a whole. The model highlights a correlation between societal inequalities and drug use. According to this model, people who belong to marginalized groups are more likely to experience substance abuse problems. Embedded in this model are concerns about stereotyping and perpetuation of stigmas that increase the likelihood of substance use and dependency. The treatment for drug issues involves changing the social environment, rather than treating individuals. Strategies could include addressing poverty, poor housing and discrimination. It also employs techniques from social psychology and social learning theories to encourage individuals to challenge the beliefs that have developed through their cultural learning (Bozarth, 1990).

“Learning would be exceedingly laborious, not to mention hazardous, if people had to rely solely on the effects of their own actions to inform them what to do. Fortunately, most human behavior is learned observationally through modeling: from observing others one forms an idea of how new behaviors are performed, and on later occasions this coded information serves as a guide for action. (Bandura, 1977, p 23).”

Social Learning Theory highlights the importance of culture in shaping the behaviors of individuals. In a Sociocultural Model, addiction is seen as a product of the challenges of the environment in combination with learned responses that are modeled within the context of an individual’s culture (Frances & Miller, 2005).

Limitations of a Sociocultural Model of Addiction
Addiction as a societal issue has an effect on individuals as well as entire groups. However, a purely sociocultural model overlooks the biological and psychological factors that have also been shown by research to have a significant impact on the development of addictions and the treatment models that are part of individual recovery. Not all individuals respond the same way to environmental conditions. For example, some may choose to react to environmental stressors by transcending their conditions while others may follow along with less functional coping mechanisms (Frances & Miller, 2005).

The two theories presented in this paper share a singular and exclusive approach to the problem of addiction. While each theory is based upon a relatively new and incomplete foundation of research, each presents a compelling foundation for further study. Both theories lack a consideration for the immeasurable element of individual choice that may offer a motivation to overcome both heredity and circumstances. Perhaps the best answers to the questions of where addiction originates, how it affects performance, and how to treat it are those that focus on a combination of factors rather than a single domain (APA, 2000).

  • American Psychiatric Association (2000). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders. American Psychiatric Association: Washington, DC.
  • Bandura, A (1977). Social learning theory. Prentice Hall: New York.
  • M.A. Bozarth (1990). Drug addiction as a psychobiological process. In D.M.
  • Warburton (Ed.), Addiction controversies (pp. 112-134 + refs). London: Harwood Academic Publishers
  • Frances, RJ, Miller, SI.(2005). Clinical textbook of addictive disorders, Third edition. Guilford Press: New York.

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