I have been told by many people that some behaviours which people usually call "addiction" are not addiction, but instead "compulsion", without any further explanation about how they are different. However, I can't find any formal definition that actually distinguish them.


3 Answers 3


How people use a given word and how that word is defined in a reputable dictionary are very often at odds with one another. A truism in the history of virtually any given language is: Words evolve in both meaning and usage.

Moreover, exactly how a person uses a given word, such as the word addiction for example, is affected not only by a person's grasp of the a word's denotation but also by the connotation with which that person wants to endow the word.

To make things even more complicated, two given words may share certain elements but not others. This is true of the words addiction and compulsion. There is certainly an element of compulsion in an addiction and an element of addiction in compulsion, but where does one draw the line? Put differently, where does addiction begin and compulsion end, and vice versa?

We all know that for a person to be addicted to something literally, such as an illegal drug like heroin or a prescribed medicine like Percocet, an opioid, is to experience unpleasant symptoms of withdrawal when the user stops taking the drug "cold turkey." Those symptoms will be primarily physiological until the addicting substance is "flushed out" of the person and he or she emerges "clean and sober."

Afterwards, however, the psychological symptoms will become more pronounced than the physiological symptoms, to the point where the addict might manifest a compulsion to return to the drug of choice or to start taking a different drug which provides some measure of relief and/or act as a gateway drug leading back to the original addicting substance.

When a person says with tongue in cheek,

I have to admit it: I'm addicted to sugar,

another person will not likely remonstrate with them by saying

Oh, you mean you have a compulsion to eat sugary foods, and not that you are literally addicted to sugar.

A disinterested bystander might be tempted to remonstrate with the remonstrator by saying they're being too rigid in their understanding of the word addicted. I would concur with that bystander!

Notice that earlier I used the expression "tongue in cheek" to indicate how the speaker was using the word; namely, with perhaps a combination of a little deliberate imprecision, a bit of exaggeration, and a soupçon of humor.

Perhaps, however, the remonstrator is not terribly skilled in picking up on the nonverbal clues evinced by a person who is speaking with tongue in cheek and consequently mis-reads a person's intention or purpose in using a given word.

In conclusion, there is a time and a place for precision in the use of words. In mathematics, in the writing of laws, and in the hard sciences (medicine, for example), precision is much more critical than in an informal conversation. You might as a lay person, for example, accuse an interlocutor of being apoplectic in his or her affect, but as a doctor in a clinical setting you would not be in accusatory mode but in compassionate treatment mode with a person who is suffering from apoplexy!


If you have an addiction, you will feel withdrawal symptoms if you cannot fuel/satisfy it (like people feel ill if they suffer from a drug addiction).

If you have a compulsion, you will feel irritated/annoyed if you cannot fulfil it (like some people feel irritated if a room isn't symmetrical and they feel a compulsion to fix that)).


Both addiction and compulsion mean a very strong desire.

But you have an addiction TO SOMETHING and a compulsion TO DO SOMETHING.


  1. He needed money to feed his addiction to gambling.
  2. I discovered an addiction to housework which I had never felt before.
  3. He felt a sudden compulsion to drop the bucket and run...
  4. It's a compulsion to write, more than talent, that makes a writer.

In addition, a compulsion is like an irresistible urge, an impulse to do something. While an addiction is a very strong desire or need for something.

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