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Compulsion, Obsession and Addiction


Explanations > Motivation > Compulsion, Obsession and Addiction

Compulsion | Obsession | Addiction | So what?


There is often confusion between compulsion, obsession and addiction, with the words being used interchangeably. Yet these are three quite different things.


Compulsion is a feeling of pressure to act. For example if someone holds out their hand to me, I feel a compulsion to shake hands with them, especially if we have just met.

Compulsion comes from needs, desires and other motivation. In many ways it is normal and is a mechanism by which we succeed in life. It becomes dysfunctional when it takes over one's life, as in Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD), where even when the person does not want to do something they feel powerless to stop themself.

Compulsion is of course important in persuasion where you want to get others into action. For example if the other person sees you as a powerful authority then they feel a compulsion to obey you, even if they think the action unwise. This form of blind obedience is often sought by parents, managers and military officers.


Obsession is thinking about something for a significant amount of time. This may be involuntary and unwanted, although it may well give the person some form pleasure.

Obsession may lead to compulsion but it is not the same thing. It is a cognitive process and may stay that way. Lovers think obsessively about one another. Students worry obsessively about exams.

Obsession may also lead to the compulsion to act. Collectors often obsess over their hobby, then feel a compulsion to buy things that perhaps they can ill afford. This can become dangerous, for example where an obsessive stalker seeks to control and harm their victim .


Addiction is chemical. People get addicted to narcotics, alcohol and other drugs which typically stimulate or depress brain functioning. The fact that addiction has a neurochemical basis rather than being psychological in origin makes it difficult to give up. Severe withdrawal symptoms may further dog this process.

Addiction may involve obsession and compulsion, for example where Addicts think obsessively about where the next 'fix' will come from and the compulsion they feel to administer drugs to themselves when they also know the harm they doing.

So what?

Each of these is a spectrum, especially compulsion and obsession. To some extent, all of us experience them, though seldom to the extent where they make us dysfunctional. Use this understanding to help understand where other people on each spectrum, then figure out what to do with this knowledge.

If you are selling, leading or need to motivate people, then creating compulsion is a part of the job. If you can see their existing tendency to compulsiveness, then you can hook into this. If you are in PR for celebrities, then you perhaps want to create obsession, but only so far.

See also

What is Addiction?

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