Why are some things addictive, while others that are also "fun" are not?

For example gambling is addictive, but player football obviously less so. Ive never come across somebody that had to excuse themselves at a dinner table to kick a ball outside but have seen that behaviour with gambling.

Im just wondering why one of those things is highly addictive, while the other is less so?

  • 2
    $\begingroup$ Pursuant to showing your prior research, perhaps you might start by taking a look at the human brain's reward system, and going from there. $\endgroup$ Apr 16, 2022 at 12:36
  • $\begingroup$ I'm not so sure that player football is "obviously" less addictive than gambling. To properly test this premise, you could ask a casino for help, as I'm sure they can make just about anything addictive. On the other hand, they would have little motivation to do so, as player football is tiring, and nowhere near as accessible, or space-efficient, as slot machines. $\endgroup$
    – Arnon Weinberg
    Apr 18, 2022 at 8:39
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    $\begingroup$ "or substance" should be removed from the Title. It makes it a completely different question, one not even mentioned in the body of the question. Physical addiction is quite a different thing, and doesn't even need to relate to "fun". (E.g. if I kidnapped you, injected you daily with heroin, and then released you, you'd be an addict, but I doubt you would have enjoyed the experience or considered it to be fun.) $\endgroup$ Apr 18, 2022 at 14:54
  • $\begingroup$ Fundamentally, it's the combination of the action's availability, cost and bias that the physical response to the stimulus is simply a rest-reloading or attenuating feature. Also, experimentation on the action/substance or a perchance variation due to overarching conditions leads to different effects which if the addict finds rewarding, will lead to a further inviolable hedonistic macro. (ie, the loop of engaging in the experience is made stronger with quicker relapse) This is regardless of how enjoyable (or "fun") the experience is as opposed to the strength/qualia of discriminable effect(s) $\endgroup$
    – Nick
    Apr 21, 2022 at 15:10
  • $\begingroup$ pnas.org/doi/10.1073/pnas.191352698 $\endgroup$ Nov 7, 2022 at 13:54

1 Answer 1


As suggested in the comments, behavior and substance abuse might not be (easily) interchangable, although certainly related. Also, you should start by looking at the rewarding system in the brain and how it links to behavior and learning. Of course this is a broad topic and you may consider it from different perspective. I would suggest digging into the computational/theoretical side of it. Again, a lot of references to check here, but big names on the field who have written wonderful reviews and works include Gershman, Botvinick, Niv, Uchida, Dayan, Romo, Daw, Schultz, Schoenbaum ... And a lot more that should be mentioned here as well.

I can try to give you my perspective on this. You may already know that certain stimuli get linked to certain rewards even if these are delivered some time in the future. These "linking" occurs mainly due to dopaminergic neurons. These neurons located in the midbrain region (VTA, Substantia Nigra, ...) have long projections to several areas of the brain and have the capability of modifyin synapses in cortical and sub-cortical brain areas responsible for motor, efforful and probably even cognitive actions.

An interesting fact is that if a reward is given after a lot of time of performing a certain action, the value of this reward will be diminished at the precise moment of decising whether or not to perform the action that will lead to it. Also, if the action requieres some kind of energetic expenditure, cognitive effort, or implies difficulty the value of the (future) reward will also be diminshed.

I am quite sure that for some behavior to become addictive, the consequences of such behavior need to fall in the "easy" side of the table. What I mean is that short-term rewards that do not require any kind of expenditure are great candidates of causing addictive behaviors such as gambling. Futbol in contrast is far from short-term (training, 90 minute games, tiring, ...). I think that it is also worth mentioning that for any behavior to become addictive it needs to be repeated a sufficient amount of times in order for it to "suppress" or "overcome" all the others when faced with a dilema. Once this happens, this behavior becomes habitual and it is done without even being conscious about it. Similarly to what happens with social networks.

This answer is of course incomplete, but might be useful.


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