In Search of Addiction’s Roots, Part 8

One of the murkier areas of addiction theory is how it relates to the basic biological drives inherent in an organism. Dr. Pretlow has speculated about this:

Displacement behavior represents a bio-behavioral mechanism that essentially allows an animal to displace stress. Theoretically, the mechanism rechannels overflow mental energy built up by the brain’s attempt either to deal with or to avoid the stressful situation. The energy rechanneling occurs to another behavior or drive (e.g., grooming drive), typically whatever drive or behavior is the most readily available.

It has been suggested that with alcohol addiction, this has to do with thirst drive or swallowing drive. This would seem to imply that people drink beer and liquor because they don’t realize that all they really want, deep inside, is a drink of water.

Still, that would not explain the compulsion to keep swallowing until the condition of falling-down drunkenness is reached. How about the possibility of an epigenetic angle to the preference for alcohol? Throughout much of human history, clean water has been unobtainable for many people. They drank beer or wine to avoid contagion because those beverages did not contain microscopic organisms to make them actually sick.

But really, in the modern era, it is more likely that people drink alcohol for the simple reason that they just want to get wasted. This suggests a note of hope, because maybe they can save themselves, as many have, by discovering something they enjoy even more than getting wasted.


While gambling has similarities to other addictions, there are glaring differences. For one, it doesn’t involve the molecules of any substances entering the body. Gambling addiction could be displacement to the foraging drive. That’s a tough call because there is a big overlap with video game addiction, where it has been posited that the displacement is from the hunting drive because projectiles are shot at targets.

A cynic has suggested that there is no connection with the more basic animalistic drives at all. The desire to be right, and especially to be provably right, is an intensely strong human drive. It might be that video gaming appeals to higher-level drives that are only present in humans — like the drive to prove oneself smarter than another person, or even to just prove one’s own cleverness to oneself.

There are many kinds of video games, not all violent, but quite captivating nonetheless. Kids play at home, where the worst outcome is being yelled at by parents to do some homework instead. Grownups, on the other hand, have the privilege of going out to places where they can play video games and lose the mortgage payment.

Some light might be thrown on this by checking out a book called Addiction by Design, whose author is Natasha Dow Schüll. Its essentials are mentioned in a review by Laura Noren.

The old romantic images of someone who hangs out at the race track all day or sits at a poker table all night, are dying out. According to those in the know (who attend the meetings of Gamblers Anonymous), betting on horse races, playing cards, or even buying lottery tickets are activities that have comparatively faded into the background. It is said that “problem gamblers,” generate 30% to 60% of the profits that casinos rake in.

And it’s not the table games that get them. Noren writes,

By the mid-1990s in Las Vegas […] the vast majority of people at Gamblers Anonymous meetings were addicted to machines… In 2003 it was estimated that 85 percent of industry profits nationally came from video gaming.

The surprising part is, for most of these addicts, the thrill is not even about the possibility of scoring a big, life-changing win. The users don’t need to wait for that big payoff, because they’re getting what they need right there, on the spot, with each little win that they are permitted. Noren writes,

Problem gamblers are attracted to the machines because they offer portals to an appealing parallel universe in which they can disconnect from the anxieties and pressures of everyday life… One player in a gambling support group compared video machines to crack cocaine, a comparison frequently repeated by researchers and psychologists. By some accounts, the recidivism rate is now higher for gambling than for any other addiction.

Dr. Pretlow has written,

In drug addiction, the displacement drive is unclear. Putting something into the body might be displacement to the sex drive?

Others would mention that there are many instances of animals eating psychoactive mushrooms, berries, and so forth, on purpose and with full knowledge from past experience of what they are getting. Some would say there is no mystery at all about why people put drugs into their bodies. They want to get high!

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “A Unified Theory of Addiction,”, 03/09/23
Source: “Can objects be evil? A review of ‘Addiction by Design’,”, 09/06/12
Image by Rennett Stowe/CC BY 2.0 DEED

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

FAQs and Media Requests: Click here…

Profiles: Kids Struggling with Weight

Profiles: Kids Struggling with Obesity top bottom

The Book

OVERWEIGHT: What Kids Say explores the obesity problem from the often-overlooked perspective of children struggling with being overweight.

About Dr. Robert A. Pretlow

Dr. Robert A. Pretlow is a pediatrician and childhood obesity specialist. He has been researching and spreading awareness on the childhood obesity epidemic in the US for more than a decade.
You can contact Dr. Pretlow at:


Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the American Society of Animal Science 2020 Conference
What’s Causing Obesity in Companion Animals and What Can We Do About It

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the World Obesity Federation 2019 Conference:
Food/Eating Addiction and the Displacement Mechanism

Dr. Pretlow’s Multi-Center Clinical Trial Kick-off Speech 2018:
Obesity: Tackling the Root Cause

Dr. Pretlow’s 2017 Workshop on
Treatment of Obesity Using the Addiction Model

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation for
TEC and UNC 2016

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the 2015 Obesity Summit in London, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s invited keynote at the 2014 European Childhood Obesity Group Congress in Salzburg, Austria.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2013 European Congress on Obesity in Liverpool, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2011 International Conference on Childhood Obesity in Lisbon, Portugal.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2010 Uniting Against Childhood Obesity Conference in Houston, TX.

Food & Health Resources