The Psychology of Compulsive Behavior

How Compulsions Differ From Addictions and Habits

White, organized dishes in a cabinet

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A compulsive behavior is an action that a person feels “compelled” or driven to do over and over again. While these compulsive actions may appear to be irrational or pointless, and may even result in negative consequences, the individual experiencing the compulsion feels unable to stop him or herself.

Key Takeaways: Compulsive Behavior

  • Compulsive behaviors are actions a person feels driven or compelled to do repeatedly, even if those actions appear to be irrational or pointless.
  • A compulsion is different from an addiction, which is a physical or chemical dependence on a substance or behavior.
  • Compulsive behaviors can be physical acts, like repetitive hand washing or hoarding, or mental exercises, like counting or memorizing books.
  • Some compulsive behaviors are symptomatic of the psychiatric condition called Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD).
  • Some compulsive behaviors can be harmful when practiced to an extreme.

The compulsive behavior can be a physical act, like hand washing or door-locking, or a mental activity, like counting objects or memorizing telephone books. When an otherwise harmless behavior becomes so consuming that it negatively impacts oneself or others, it may be a symptom of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).

Compulsion vs. Addiction

A compulsion is different from an addiction. The former is an overwhelming desire (or sense of physical need) to do something, while an addiction is a physical or chemical dependence on a substance or behavior. People with advanced addictions will continue their addictive behavior, even when they understand that doing so is harmful to themselves and others. Alcoholism, drug abuse, smoking, and gambling are perhaps the most common examples of addictions.

Two key differences between compulsion and addiction are pleasure and awareness.

Pleasure: Compulsive behaviors, such as those involved in obsessive-compulsive disorder, rarely result in feelings of pleasure, whereas addictions typically do. For example, people who compulsively wash their hands get no pleasure from doing so. By contrast, people with addictions “want” to use the substance or engage in the behavior because they expect to enjoy it. This desire for pleasure or relief becomes part of the self-perpetuating cycle of addiction as the person suffers the discomfort of withdrawal that comes when they are unable to use the substance or engage in the behavior.

Awareness: People with obsessive-compulsive disorders are typically aware of their behaviors and are bothered by the knowledge that they have no logical reason for doing them. On the other hand, people with addictions are often unaware of or unconcerned about the negative consequences of their actions. Typical of the denial stage of addictions, the individuals refuse to admit that their behavior is harmful. Instead, they are “just having fun” or trying to “fit in.” Often, it takes a devastating consequence like a drunk-driving conviction, a divorce, or getting fired for persons with addictions to become aware of the realities of their actions.

Compulsion vs. Habit

Unlike compulsions and addictions, which are acted out consciously and uncontrollably, habits are actions that are repeated regularly and automatically. For example, although we may be aware that we are brushing our teeth, we almost never wonder why we are doing it or ask ourselves, “Should I be brushing my teeth or not?”   

Habits typically develop over time through a natural process called “habituation,” during which repetitive actions that must be consciously initiated eventually become subconscious and are carried out habitually without specific thought. For example, while as children, we may need to be reminded to brush our teeth, we eventually grow to do it as a matter of habit.

Good habits, like tooth-brushing, are behaviors that are consciously and intentionally added to our routines in order to maintain or improve our health or general wellbeing.

While there are good habits and bad, unhealthy habits, any habit can become a compulsion or even an addiction. In other words, you really can have “too much of a good thing.” For example, the good habit of exercising regularly can become an unhealthy compulsion or addiction when done to excess.

Common habits often develop into addictions when they result in a chemical dependency, as in the cases of alcoholism and smoking. The habit of having a glass of beer with dinner, for example, becomes an addiction when the desire to drink turns into a physical or emotional need to drink. 

Of course, the key difference between a compulsive behavior and a habit is the ability to choose to do them or not. While we can choose to add good, healthy habits to our routines, we can also choose to break old harmful habits.

A son prepares to clean out his mother's cluttered home
The Home of a Hoarder. Getty Images/Sandy Huffaker

Common Compulsive Behaviors

While almost any behavior can become compulsive or addictive, some are more common. These include:

  • Eating: Compulsive overeating—often done as an attempt to cope with stress—is the inability to control one’s amount of nutritional intake, resulting in excessive weight gain.
  • Shopping: Compulsive shopping is characterized by shopping done to the extent that it impairs the shoppers’ lives, eventually leaving them financially unable to meet their daily needs or support their families.
  • Checking: Compulsive checking describes the constant checking of things like locks, switches, and appliances. Checking is usually driven by an overwhelming feeling of the need to protect oneself or others from imminent harm.
  • Hoarding: Hoarding is the excessive saving of items and the inability to discard any of those items. Compulsive hoarders often become unable to use rooms in their homes as they were meant to be used and have difficulty moving about the home because of the stored items.
  • Gambling: Compulsive or problem gambling is simply the inability to resist the desire to gamble. Even when and if they win, compulsive gamblers are unable to stop wagering. Problem gambling typically results in serious personal, financial, and social problems in the person’s life.
  • Sexual Activity: Also known as hypersexual disorder, compulsive sexual behavior is characterized by constant feelings, thoughts, desires, and behaviors about anything related to sex. While the behaviors involved can range from normal sexual behaviors to those that are illegal or considered morally and culturally unacceptable, the disorder can cause problems in many areas of life.

As with all mental health issues, persons who believe they may be suffering from compulsive or addictive behaviors should speak to a healthcare professional.

When Compulsion Becomes OCD

Obsessive-compulsive disorder is a form of anxiety disorder that causes a recurring, unwanted feeling or idea that a certain action must be done repetitively “no matter what.” While many people compulsively repeat certain behaviors, those behaviors do not interfere with their daily lives and may even help them structure their day in order to complete certain tasks. In persons with OCD, however, these feelings become so consuming that the fear of failing to complete the repeated action causes them to experience anxiety to the point of physical illness. Even when OCD sufferers know their obsessive actions are unnecessary and even harmful, they find it impossible to even consider the idea of stopping them.

Most compulsive behaviors attributed to OCD are extremely time-consuming, cause major distress, and impair work, relationships, or other important functions. Some of the more potentially damaging compulsive behaviors often associated with OCD include eating, shopping, hoarding and animal hoarding, skin picking, gambling, and sex.

According to the American Psychiatric Association (APA), about 1.2 percent of Americans have OCD, with slightly more women than men affected. OCD often begins in childhood, adolescence or early adulthood, with 19 being the average age at which disorder develops.

While they have some characteristics in common, addictions and habits are different from compulsive behaviors. Understanding these differences can help in taking appropriate action or seeking treatment.

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