Behavioral Model of Addiction

An image of a woman learning about the behavioral model of addiction
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By: Renaissance Recovery

Clinically Reviewed by: Diana Vo, LMFT

Last Updated: 7/1/2021

Authored By: Joe Gilmore

Table of Contents

Viewed through the lens of the behavioral model of addiction, addictions occur over time, created by external rewards.

Research into the reasons for addiction is ongoing, and the findings are fluid and open to multiple interpretations.

For most of the 1900s, two opposing theories of addiction and motivation were dominant.

In the first of these models – the moral model – addiction is viewed as a moral failing, and intervention is punitive rather than rehabilitative.

The opposing model, the disease model, holds that addiction is a specific brain condition triggered by neurobiological changes in response to sustained alcohol or drug abuse. This model contends that addicts have no choice or control over substance use.

Over time, and as researchers gained greater awareness of the neurobiological variables underpinning addiction, the disease model of addiction dominated addiction research and became the common public understanding of addiction.

Today, even if addiction is still stigmatized, a robust body of evidence refutes the moral model of addiction.

What is the Behavioral Model of Addiction?

Per the behavioral model, addiction unfolds over time, created as a result of external rewards.

Over the years, researchers have explored the drivers of addiction and formulated theories to explain the cause of addiction.

Some researchers, for instance, hypothesize that the primary driver of addiction is avoiding intensely uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms. While this theory may apply to those with severe heroin use disorder, it does not account for many mild and moderate addictions.

Other researchers theorize that addiction is an entirely medical phenomenon, with addiction caused purely by a lottery of genetic and exposure to substance abuse.

As a theory gets more research behind it, it may grow into a behavioral model of addiction – the cognitive-behavioral model of addiction, for instance.

An image of a woman holding pills | Behavioral model of addiction

What are Some of the Models of Behavioral Addiction?

The most common models of behavioral addiction are as follows:

The moral model of addiction is underpinned by the inverse theory to the disease model of addiction. This model does not account for the biological or genetic component of addiction at all. It is now widely understood that at least half of the risk profile for addiction is genetic. This understanding alone renders the moral model of addiction invalid.

According to this outdated theory – propped up both by politicians and religious institutions over the years – addiction stems from someone exhibiting a lack of willpower, making poor choices, and showing a steadfast refusal to make positive changes.

Current research does not support the moral model, and the millions of people addicted to alcohol or drugs and unable to simply quit demonstrably prove that addiction is not a choice or a matter of refusing to sober up. Compulsive substance use is involuntary, and it is not driven by a lack of morality.

While this antiquated theory may have fallen from favor in light of contemporary addiction research, society does not always view those with addictions compassionately. Indeed, addicts are still often treated as criminals, with harsh penalties still in place for the simple possession of illegal substances.

How about the opposing theory to the moral model?

Unlike the moral model, the disease model of addiction is grounded on hard research.

In 2016, Vivek Murthy, MD (former US Surgeon General) stated that addiction is a chronic condition and that the medical and scientific communities support the disease model of addiction due to the significant brain changes triggered by sustained substance abuse.

DSM-5, a diagnostic tool used by therapists and doctors, defines compulsive substance use – addiction – as a mental illness.

The disease model of addiction differentiates between people with and without the disease, whereas a biological model of addiction sharply focuses on the genetic risk for addiction. Per the disease model, addiction is chronic brain disease or brain disorder. Brain abnormalities, according to the disease model, cause people with this disease to develop addictions when exposed to certain substances or activities.

Addiction is a zero-sum game according to the disease model. Once acquired, this model contends that addiction is irreversible. The only antidote offered is recovery through complete and ongoing abstinence.

Given the challenges for many people of maintaining total abstinence, the disease model underscores the value of peer-support groups. Through 12-step groups like AA and NA, or secular alternatives like SMART Recovery, those with an array of addictions can share their experiences in an anonymous and confidential setting.

The first psychodynamic theories pertaining to addiction flagged self-destructive and hedonistic behaviors as the reason for addiction. Modern psychodynamic perspectives place more emphasis on the problems addicts face when trying to regulate their internal emotions, struggling to adjust to reality.

This model of addiction suggests responses and interventions that address these issues of regulating behaviors. Safety, comfort, and control are the core treatment goals according to the psycho-dynamic model.

A single medical professional will coordinate care and treatment. In line with this model, the benefits and drawbacks of psychotherapy and peer-support groups are considered before these avenues are pursued.

A social model of addiction holds that the negative effects of society and culture lead to people developing addictions.

Cultural standards relating to alcohol are not only tolerant, but almost celebratory at times. Drunkenness is often portrayed comically on-screen, for instance. Contrast this with some societies where alcohol is illegal and its use heavily penalized. This model of addiction contends that cultural standards lead more people in those more permissive cultures to pay the price with alcohol use disorder than in less permissive cultures.

Poverty is another wide-reaching factor believed to be a driving force for addiction per the social model. The conditions in impoverished communities are undeniably ripe for addiction to flourish.


An image of a beach near a recovery center | Behavioral model of addiction

Get Help with Addiction at Renaissance Recovery

If you have been struggling to cope with a growing addiction to drink or drugs, we can help you fight back here at Renaissance Recovery Center.

Even better, you won’t need to pack your bags and head to residential rehab either. We offer outpatient treatment for alcohol use disorder and substance use disorder at varying levels of intensity, including:

  • Outpatient program (OP)
  • Intensive outpatient program (IOP)
  • Remote outpatient program (virtual IOP)
  • Partial hospitalization program (PHP)

Regardless of the level of time commitment that best suits your circumstances and your addiction, all our treatment programs combine evidence-based treatment with holistic rehab, helping you to build the firmest foundation for life substance-free.

Medication-assisted treatment (MAT) can help reduce the cravings and withdrawal symptoms associated with alcohol and opioids. You will also have access to individual and group counseling sessions, as well as talking therapies like CBT and DBT.

Crucially, you will have a personalized aftercare and relapse prevention plan in place when you complete your treatment and the ongoing support of the team in your recovery from alcoholism or drug addiction. Make this a reality by calling admissions today at 866.330.9449.

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Pat C

“I owe my life and my happiness to these people. October 8th, 2019 marked two years of sobriety for me, and prior to finding Renaissance I hadn’t had 24 hours sober in nearly 20 years.”

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Paige R

“They truly cared for me and the other people that I served with! From this group, I have made 8 new brothers and friends for life! We have continued on, after the program, to take care of each other”

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Courtney S

“Great staff who took the time to get to know me. They have a lot of experience in this field and have first hand experience with what I was going through. IOP is outstanding and really built up a ton of great relationships and found this program to be a ‘breath of fresh air’.”

Joseph Gilmore has been in the addiction industry for three years with experience working for facilities all across the country. Connect with Joe on LinkedIn.

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