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Habit, Compulsion and Addiction


Explanations > Behaviors > Habit > Habit, Compulsion and Addiction

Habit | Compulsion | Addiction | So what


There can be some confusion between what we call habits, compulsion and addictions. Here's a discussion of each and how they overlap.


Habits are automatic sequences of actions that we enact. Although we may notice how we are acting, they often happen with very little conscious thought (or questioning as to why we are acting this way).

For example, brushing teeth is a good habit that we just do without thinking 'should I or should I not brush my teeth'. Biting your nails may well be considered a bad habit.

Habits typically appear through the process of habituation, where repetitive conscious initiation of the action eventually becomes unconscious and we behave in the habitual way without particular thought.


Compulsions are pressures to act in ways that may be undesirable but the person feels unable to stop themselves acting in this way. It can even seem as if the body is a puppet, being manipulated by somebody else.

Compulsion is often felt as a form of anxiety, where the more the person holds themself back, the greater the anxiety is felt.

In Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD), people feel frequent compulsions to act in certain ways, often repeating the actions endlessly or a certain number of times. Typical compulsive actions include repetitive cleaning, counting or checking.

Compulsions and habits

All habits are, in some way, compulsions, as there is always some pressure to act in the habitual way.

Compulsions are sometimes viewed as habits. For example a person who washes their hands for ten minutes after each meal may see it as habitual, but the psychological pressure and the conscious nature makes it more of a compulsion.

A difference between a compulsion and a habit is that it is easy to interrupt and stop a habit if it is consciously noticed. Even if you know you are enacting a compulsion it can be very difficult to stop the action, even if it is destructive.


Addiction are biological attachments to consumption of substances.

Habits and addictions

Habits become addictions when a chemical dependence is generated, for example in smoking and alcoholism.

Some things can be habitual or addictive, depending on the person. Drinking can be habitual, for example, where a person always has a glass of wine with dinner. It can also become an addiction when they are consuming several bottles per day.

Compulsions and addictions

Compulsions are sometimes viewed as addictions. When a person buys things they do not need, strictly speaking this is a compulsive act, even though they may be called a 'shopaholic'.

The scientific view is that there is a neuro-chemical basis to addictions, particularly in the way that drugs interfere with the normal action of neurotransmitters.

So what?

When talking about habits, compulsions and addiction, know the difference. Understanding this can help you take actions appropriate to each situation.

See also

Brain Chemistry


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