Whether it’s addiction to a substance or addiction to a behavior, different types of addiction share certain features. Generally, these involve a strong urge to engage in some type of rewarding behavior despite negative consequences.
For psychologists, understanding what ties together different forms of addiction is a key to learning more about how addiction works. One such common thread that psychology researchers have found is a type of thinking called desire thinking.
Desire thinking involves thinking about and anticipating something rewarding – in this case, something addictive. It’s about imagining in advance and anticipating the act of engaging with the addictive substance or behavior.
Often, desire thinking is divided into imaginal and verbal subtypes. In its imaginal form, desire thinking involves visualizing future engagement with the addictive substance or behavior, or past such experiences. The verbal form of desire thinking is about using verbal thinking to plan out how to engage with the substance or behavior, or thinking up justifications for doing so.
A recent review by researchers in Italy and Germany showed that desire thinking is a factor in several different types of addictions. Reviewing ten studies on the topic, they found both the imaginal and the verbal forms of desire thinking were prevalent in alcohol use, nicotine use, gambling and problematic Internet use. The verbal subtype of desire thinking was stronger in the substance addictions than in Internet addiction, but in general, both types of desire thinking factored into all four types of addiction considered.
There’s evidence that desire thinking is involved in other compulsive behaviors as well. A couple years ago, I wrote about a study showing that people with more food-related desire thinking were more prone to binge eating.
Desire thinking is essentially about visualizing and reflecting on any desired act. As such, it’s a thought process that tends to pop up in any context where people experience craving, from binge eating to smoking to Internet use, and probably to other addictive behaviors not examined in these studies. This thought process may turn out to be essential in driving many superficially very different types of addiction.