Nonprofit, nonpartisan journalism. Supported by readers.


UCare generously supports MinnPost’s Second Opinion coverage; learn why.

Is Tiger Woods really addicted to sex, or are we too eager to label troublesome behavior an ‘addiction’?

Are we addicted to the concept of addiction?

Neuropsychologist Vaughn Bell thinks so. In a provocative article published Friday in the online magazine Slate, Bell (who also writes the always interesting blog Mindhacks) discusses how the “creeping medicalization of everyday life means that almost any problem of excess can now be portrayed as an individual falling foul of a major mental illness.”

“While drug addiction is a serious concern and a well-researched condition,” writes Bell, “many of the new behavioral addictions lack even the most basic conditions of scientific reliability.”

Bell points to the eagerness with which the media has been labeling Tiger Woods’ extramarital behavior a “sex addiction” and the opening earlier this year of the first clinic (in Washington state) for the treatment of “Internet addiction” as examples of how we apply the concept of addiction “to any behavior that seems troublesome or ill-advised.”

“Despite the scientific implausibility of the same disease — addiction — underlying both damaging heroin use and overenthusiasm for World of Warcraft, the concept has run wild in the popular imagination,” he says. “Our enthusiasm for labeling new forms of addictions seems to have arisen from a perfect storm of pop medicine, pseudo-neuroscience, and misplaced sympathy for the miserable.”

One “vacuous piece of pseudo-neuroscience” that mental health professionals themselves often tout, says Bell, is the idea that addiction can be explained by the actions of the neurotransmitter dopamine.

“When anyone wants to convince you that something should really count as an addiction, they’ll quote the fact that it ‘raises dopamine levels,’” he writes. But the science is much more complicated than that, as Bell points out:

There’s no direct one-to-one relationship between dopamine and addiction, and knowing that this particular brain chemical is released during an activity predicts nothing about how problematic the activity might be. As the dopamine system starts working when we encounter anything pleasurable, the popular myth would suggest everything we like could be addictive: reading books, scratching an itch, building model steamships out of matchsticks, whatever floats your boat.

In fact, Bell points out, one dopamine-fueled behavior — being a sports fan — can have all the same serious personal and social consequences as being a fan of the World of Warcraft, but it wouldn’t get you admitted into a private clinic for “addiction therapy.”

There are consequences for our addiction to the idea of addiction: People may not be getting the kind of help they really need. Writes Bell:

Currently, we are concerned about young people using the Internet, eating too much, spending irresponsibly, and being promiscuous, and these worries are being expressed in the language of addiction…. For these problems, addiction is little more than a fig leaf for a realistic understanding that would address why people return to unhelpful ways of coping with isolation, stress, and depression. Instead, we prefer to rely on a trite and unhelpful catch-all label that prevents people from getting appropriate help for their difficulties. We need to break the addiction habit, before it breaks us.

You can also learn about all our free newsletter options.

Comments (7)

  1. Submitted by Susan Lesch on 12/21/2009 - 12:11 pm.

    In “The Healthy Mind, Healthy Body Handbook” (1996, Time-Life Books), the authors say addiction treatment is a last resort, only recommended after one has tried doing something else. Nice when it is this simple (to give up smoking, Russell Baker said, one must give up smoking).

    I’m curious about dopamine. Antipsychotic medicine works on this receptor. But unfortunately nobody (including Pfizer, Eli Lilly, Astra Zeneca, Johnson & Johnson and the rest of big Pharma) knows why that works to reduce psychosis. Thank heavens for Consumer Reports, who must be the only working journalists who bothered to read the US CATIE and UK CutLASS studies–CR recommends perphenazine.

  2. Submitted by Paul Scott on 12/21/2009 - 12:34 pm.

    I would be careful about assuming that any medication works on any single neurotransmitter. The drug industry likes to present this view of targeted intervention but any textbook on brain biology will tell you that neurotransmitter movement initiates other neurotransmitter movements. The drugs are never “clean” in other words.

  3. Submitted by dan buechler on 12/21/2009 - 01:44 pm.

    The playoff where Woods played with a broken leg and possibly ruined his body/career was the day I knew he was a bit of a nutcake. Common decency would have had him default and let the other guy win.

  4. Submitted by Erik Hare on 12/21/2009 - 04:32 pm.

    Thank you. I very much appreciated this article – it gave me a lot to think about.

    I hate to dwell on “responsibility” as a concept, but if the choice is between that and “addiction”, I think I’m willing to risk sounding way too much like my parents. It does seem a lot more useful, especially when dealing with my own kids.

    Thanks again.

  5. Submitted by Susan Lesch on 12/21/2009 - 08:52 pm.

    Yes, thank you, Ms. Perry. Food for thought for a long time. Mr. Hare’s good manners remind me. Thank you again.

  6. Submitted by Ambrose Charpentier on 12/22/2009 - 09:46 am.

    In the last paragraph quoted from Mr. Bell, he pooh-poohs addiction as a label that keeps people from getting the appropriate help they need. He doesn’t describe what he thinks is appropriate help. What is it? Cognitive psychotherapy? Something else? If it were simply taking personal responsibility and willpower, many people wouldn’t behave in these self-destructive ways. Mr. Bell doesn’t like the addiction model for things like compulsive sexual acting out. What does he think is useful? Does he have studies that bear that out?

  7. Submitted by Ruth Houston on 12/22/2009 - 05:45 pm.

    Is Tiger Woods a Sex Addict? Judge for Yourself at

    Check the list of behaviors common to sex addicts in this article and decide for yourself.

    You may also want to check out the articles below

    Tiger Woods Infidelity Due to Sex Addiction Plus Drugs that Boosted His Sex Drive at


    New Details about Tiger Woods Secret Love Life Reveal He May Be Addicted to Sex at

Leave a Reply