Secrets of addiction

29 Apr 2009 00:01:00.000


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.

Click here for full story

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.




Notes to editors:

The University of Nottingham is ranked in the UK's Top 10 and the World's Top 100 universities by the Shanghai Jiao Tong (SJTU) and Times Higher (THE) World University Rankings.


More than 90 per cent of research at The University of Nottingham is of international quality, according to RAE 2008, with almost 60 per cent of all research defined as ‘world-leading’ or ‘internationally excellent’. Research Fortnight analysis of RAE 2008 ranks the University 7th in the UK by research power. In 27 subject areas, the University features in the UK Top Ten, with 14 of those in the Top Five.


The University provides innovative and top quality teaching, undertakes world-changing research, and attracts talented staff and students from 150 nations. Described by The Times as Britain's “only truly global university”, it has invested continuously in award-winning campuses in the United Kingdom, China and Malaysia. Twice since 2003 its research and teaching academics have won Nobel Prizes. The University has won the Queen's Award for Enterprise in both 2006 (International Trade) and 2007 (Innovation — School of Pharmacy), and was named ‘Entrepreneurial University of the Year’ at the Times Higher Education Awards 2008.


Nottingham was designated as a Science City in 2005 in recognition of its rich scientific heritage, industrial base and role as a leading research centre. Nottingham has since embarked on a wide range of business, property, knowledge transfer and educational initiatives ( in order to build on its growing reputation as an international centre of scientific excellence. The University of Nottingham is a partner in Nottingham: the Science City.

Story credits

More information is available from Dr Lee Hogarth , School of Psychology, University of Nottingham, on +44 (0)115 846 6360,


Emma Rayner - Media Relations Manager

Email: Phone: +44 (0)115 74 84413  Location: University Park

Additional resources

No additional resources for this article

Related articles

Smartphone gambling encourages "fruitless" bets

Published Date
Friday 22nd February 2019

Learn to pay attention!

Published Date
Wednesday 8th June 2011

Media Relations - External Relations

The University of Nottingham
C Floor, Pope Building (Room C4)
University Park
Nottingham, NG7 2RD

telephone: +44 (0) 115 951 5798