What Is the Difference Between Addiction and Compulsion?

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Addiction and compulsion are terms that are often used interchangeably. It is easy to see why, as both conditions feature behaviour that is difficult to stop. However, as we will discuss in this piece, while there is some overlapping, these two words mean different things. So, what is the difference?


Addiction refers to a type of condition where it is difficult, if not impossible, to stop some sort of harmful behaviour. This includes addictive substances, like alcohol, cigarettes, and narcotics and activities, like gambling.

The thing with addiction is that it usually starts off small and innocent. Factors that introduce the individual to a risky environment are curiosity, boredom, and peer pressure. After the initial rejection by the body in the case of harmful substances, we get accustomed to the presence of these things and even derive some sort of pleasure from them. The problem arises when there is no more pleasure to be had.

That’s when addiction rears its ugly head. While the person no longer feels satisfaction from the substances or activities, they certainly feel the displeasure, irritability, anxiety, and, in some cases, pain when they are not present. What you do is no longer something that makes you happy, but a need you must fulfil at the expense of yourself and the people around you.


Compulsion is present in rituals that we perform. The difference between an everyday person and the one experiencing compulsion is that the latter has little control over whether they perform these rituals. Imagine a person with OCD. They often have compulsions, like turning the light on and off several times in a row, incessantly washing their hands, or perfecting certain skills as they practice them over and over again.

Here, there is no pleasure and no reward. The only thing that justifies such behaviour is that it is a method, conscious or otherwise, to stave off anxiety and stress. Compulsive liars, for example, start lying to avoid an unpleasant situation or confrontation, but they are unable to stop doing so even in the most basic settings, where it is not necessary to lie.

The fear that the person with compulsions faces is often irrational and the rituals are there to help them function as a defense mechanism. People suffering from the condition are aware of their problem and the fact that their methods might not work, they are just unable to stop.


As we’ve mentioned before, there is some overlapping between the two. Compulsion is something like a subset of addiction. Additionally, addicts fail to recognize their condition as a problem. They usually rationalize, meaning that they don’t accept their behaviour as harmful to themselves or others, but a harmless hobby or release. Those with compulsion know what their problem is, but can’t stop. They also have no sense of reward in their rituals as addicts do. In short, the two terms are related, but not so much that they can be used interchangeably correctly.