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Paper published: Evolution of Substance and Behavioural Addictions

New paper published! Addictions to substances and behaviours (e.g. gambling, social media, video games) can be understood through an evolutionary lens…. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neubiorev.2024.105603



Addictions arise almost exclusively in relation to novel substances or behaviours: they are textbook examples of ‘evolutionary mismatch’. Motivational systems, once serving functional purposes, get inappropriately activated. Two major evolutionary explanations for substance-seeking exist: self-medicating by ingesting various plants with psychoactive effects, and ingesting substances which manipulate reward systems. We review evidence for these hypotheses to explain addiction to alcohol, nicotine, cannabis, opioids and stimulants. Both seem valid to some degree: modern harmful consumption comes downstream of problematic quality/quantity of substances.


More novel is our examination of ‘behavioural disorders’, which often have beneficial ancestral correlates, now manipulated by modern technologies… Gambling addiction likely occurs due to the ancestral benefit of risky reward-seeking – tendencies towards such risks were once status boosting, but now we incorrectly sense benefit/costs. Video game addiction occurs due to game design playing on core human motivations for skill development, opportunity seizing, altruistic cooperation, and gaining prestige and resources. Of course such activities are more enticing than ‘real life’! Social media addiction is similarly expected – humans are quintessentially social creatures! We should care how we are perceived, and about interacting with our peers! Sadly, the drive for socializing online doesn’t carry ancestral benefits. Sex and pornography addiction, again, should be expected – we are sexually reproducing creatures! Weird industrialized and online environments allow manifestations of those drives which aren’t beneficial, though.


Understanding tendencies towards substance and behavioural addictions through an evolutionary lens is, we believe, enlightenening and destigmatizing. Vulnerabilities are inevitable, and aren’t moral failures. We finish by noting that GLP-1 agonists, which manipulate satiation, and are anecdotally preventative of addiction, may be the natural counter-action for an overactive motivational system, core to addiction. This is a question for the future: for now, we hope this review stands as a useful introduction to substance and behavioural addictions from an evolutionary perspective! https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neubiorev.2024.105603

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