Incentive Sensitization Theory Explained


Addiction can be a complex issue. The reasons why a person may become addicted to drugs, alcohol, or certain activities can be quite varied. Some may see addiction as a disease, while others may see it as a personal choice that is made repeatedly. If addiction is a disease, however, there is the potential to find a cure. That is what the incentive sensitization theory attempts to find.

First suggested by Drs. Terry Robinson and Kent Berridge in 1993, the idea behind this theory is that a person can change how their brain sees addiction. People consume alcohol, take drugs, or choose certain activities because it feels like a reward. It makes life feel “normal.” Incentive sensitization works to change the definition of “normal” for that person who is struggling with addiction.

What Are the 4 Steps of Addiction?

Addiction is more than just a learned behavior or a repetitive choice. It is a series of circumstances that occurs over the course of 4 distinct steps for every individual.

1. People who are susceptible to addictive tendencies can experience hypersensitization if they are repeatedly or frequently exposed to a trigger. Every time the trigger is accepted, the brain is stimulated and this creates pleasure with great intensity.
2. Over time, incentive salience is developed. People with an addiction begin experiencing physical symptoms when they do not have access to their trigger. This creates a strong desire for the trigger that is more than just “wanting” it. The brain is communicating that the trigger is needed “or else.”
3. The physical or emotional need to have an addictive trigger ensures that there will be repetitive choices to obtain it, use it, or perform.
4. Each use of a trigger strengthens the unconscious force that drives a need for it in the future, which then creates a conscious desire to obtain the trigger.

Addiction is more than just a “need” to obtain a specific item or perform a specific behavior. As a person uses the same item over and over and performs the same action over and over, it requires more of the trigger to bring the same amount of pleasure. An alcoholic, for example, might initially feel satisfied by have three shots, but over time, they might still feel unsatisfied after an entire bottle of scotch.

Behaviors act the same way for individuals who are hypersensitive to addictive tendencies. Someone addicted to gambling might feel satisfied after spending $200 on table games. Over time, they might still feel unsatisfied after gambling away tens of thousands of dollars, even if they have left themselves with enormous debts. It isn’t the payout that is the focus of the behavior. It is the actual process of gambling and the thrill that it provides.

Why Incentive Sensitization Theory is an Effective Resource

As people progress through the steps of addiction, it is quite common for their pleasure of the item to completely disappear. They might be completely disgusted by the sight of alcohol or dread going to the casino, but they are still feel the need to be there because of the physical and emotional dependence on the trigger. It is the unconscious effects of an addiction that cause this behavior.

Many addicts say that they want to change their habits and will try to do it on their own. They fail simply because there is such a dependence on the trigger.

Incentive sensitization helps individuals who are in recovery begin to see that a craving isn’t a personal fault. It is a physical mechanism that is created because of their hypersensitivity to a trigger. The negative stigmas in society regarding addiction often make people look at themselves as “failures” or “undeserving” and this is simply not true.

With incentive sensitization theory, it is the dopamine released by the brain that creates the emotional and physical need to continue following an addiction. Even something as simple as a favorite food can be enough to form a trigger that develops a cue that cannot be ignored.

Dopamine and the Incentive Sensitization Theory

In the past, dopamine was thought to be a pleasure neurotransmitter alone. Today, it is thought to mediate the rewards that a person experiences, leading to incentive salience. That is why many former addicts tend to relapse after quitting, even after several years of sobriety. All it takes is one decision to listen to the incentive salience and the addiction trigger returns to take over that person’s life.

Berridge and Robinson have helped to redefine what we think about addiction in society, but the incentive sensitization theory is only the first step in a complex treatment process. Until a treatment can be developed to stop the brain from awarding the “wanting” mechanisms that are often unconscious, addiction will continue to be a struggle for many.