If you’ve tried to quit smoking or defeat an alcohol addiction, you likely have a sense of the crucial role that motivation plays in that battle. An addiction is essentially the “hijacking” of the human motivation system — a system that exists to encourage our survival.

Motivation and Cognition

Our brain responds to the pleasure we experience from achieving success in activities like finding and eating food, wooing a mate or gaining social status by motivating us to achieve that success again and again. Consider what would happen if you weren’t motivated to eat: You would die of starvation. The pleasure you gain from eating motivates you to do it repeatedly and thus stay alive and healthy.

Addiction and Motivation

While our brains’ motivational response to pleasure is intended to promote survival, sometimes it can be “short-circuited.” Addiction can occur when we begin to obtain pleasure on demand, as we can from drug use. For some people, the pleasure associated with consuming drugs and alcohol is so intense that the resulting motivation to consume more has the potential to become compulsory.

Because the pleasure associated with drugs and alcohol is so great, the motivation to use them eventually supplants the motivation to go about normal activities. Pretty soon, we start to suffer physical and emotional distress when drugs are not available. We begin to seek them desperately, often crossing social and legal boundaries in the process.

From a health perspective, the problem with a drug or alcohol addiction is that the substances are destructive. Often, addicts forgo healthy behaviors in favor of drugs and alcohol, thus creating a double-whammy effect on their health: Not only do they ingest harmful substances, but they avoid healthful substances.

Motivation and Overcoming Addiction

Fortunately, motivation can be one of our strongest weapons against addictions. Unless we are institutionalized or otherwise physically cut off from the substances we abuse, we have to want to quit so that we can succeed in doing it. People who have tried to quit smoking or drinking alcohol know that they have to feel ready to make the attempt. This motivation can arise from many sources, such as money problems, the loss of a job or the anger of a loved one. Usually, true motivation to defeat an addiction comes from combination of factors.

But is motivation truly enough? It can be. A recent study that intended to determine how well various drugs help alcoholics reduce their drinking ended up revealing that the motivation to quit drinking was in and of itself a powerful predictor of success (MSNBC, 2006).

Critics of the study pointed out that the drug-related results weren’t applicable to real life because all the participants were highly motivated to quit drinking. While that fact may reveal an error in experimental design, it also revealed that a reasonably high percentage of people who took dummy pills instead of real medications were able to significantly reduce their drinking based on motivation alone. One participant summed it up by saying that taking a placebo every day helped her focus on defeating her alcohol addiction. In other words, the pill merely augmented her true weapon: motivation.


Bell, D. (1995). The motivation of addiction. Retrieved September 21, 2010 from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/8571788.

MSNBC website. (2006). Study: Alcoholics motivated to quit can succeed. Retrieved September 21, 2010 from http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/12599835/.

 Posted on : June 12, 2014