The truth about Bitcoin addiction

It all depends on the price.


Fran Berkman


Published Aug 8, 2014   Updated May 30, 2021, 7:31 pm CDT

While Bitcoin is gaining in popularity every day, early adopters have been excited about the digital currency for years now. Some of them may even be a bit too excited.

Featured Video Hide

Several users even speculated that they might be addicted to Bitcoin in a recent online discussion on Reddit. The thread was prompted by a user who wrote that Bitcoin “is like a drug.” Other users quickly chimed in with their own Bitcoin addiction symptoms. Here are a few examples:

Advertisement Hide

“People who use it kind of remind me of cult members. (myself included).”

“Im addicted to F5’ing reddit and checking bitcoinwisdom every second of every minute of every hour of every week of every day of every year.”

“I stopped posting on Facebook about it so I wouldn’t bug my friends/family.”

“It’s a drug I just don’t want to kick, though.”

The Reddit thread was definitely more tongue-in-cheek banter than anything, but as the saying goes, “There’s a grain of truth in every joke.”

“You could replace the words ‘digital currency’ with ‘crack cocaine,’ ‘methamphetamine,’ ‘marijuana,’ [or] ‘gambling’ and you’ll see some of those same kind of ways people talk about it,” Dr. Timothy Fong, an associate professor of psychiatry at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), tells the Daily Dot.

Fong is the co-director of UCLA’s Gambling Studies Program. He’s not a Bitcoin user, though he says he knows about it through discussions with friends and from reading up on the topic. At our request, Fong agreed to scan the Reddit thread to evaluate whether or not Bitcoin addiction could be an actual condition.

The answer is not exactly cut and dry for two reasons: Bitcoin is multifaceted, and addiction means different things to different people.

Advertisement Hide

The science of addiction

To medical professionals like Fong, addiction is “a diagnosable, chronic brain disease” that causes “extensive problems” in a person’s life. As is the case with other mental disorders such as depression and anxiety, people often self-diagnose, or use these terms to describe very mild examples of the condition they observe in themselves and others.

The other complicating factor is nailing down what about Bitcoin might cause addictive behavior.

Bitcoin is like money in that one can spend it to buy things that bring them happiness. It’s also like a stock in that the value fluctuates constantly, causing investors to make or lose money at the whims of the market. For miners—the collection of people who buy specialized computer equipment to make the Bitcoin system work—Bitcoin is sort of like a slot machine. Every 10 minutes or so, a miner discovers a new block and reaps the reward of thousands of dollars worth of bitcoins.  

Advertisement Hide

As it turns out, the Reddit original poster was correct in that Bitcoin is even like a drug.

“Oh yeah, there is truth to that,” Fong says. “But it’s a funny statement because you could say the same thing about sex, sports, handbags, a freshly-cut lawn, an ocean view—all those things are naturally rewarding and they activate the portion of our brain that’s rewarding.”

A rewarding behavior stimulates a part of the limbic system in the brain called the nucleus accumbens, sparking the release of dopamine and other neurochemicals that cause a person to feel good.

This occurs frequently in the brains of addicts and non-addicts alike. For addicts, this activation process is usually malfunctioning in some way.

Those malfunctions, which can be due to brain hyperactivity or hypoactivity, are what can cause a person to become addicted to nearly any behavior. It’s generally not until a particular type of addictive behavior becomes prevalent and begins to cause societal harm that researchers will begin to take notice, conduct studies, and define the behavior as an addiction.

Advertisement Hide

Needless to say, Bitcoin is not anywhere near that level quite yet.

The ‘wealth addiction’ debate

Despite its technological and ideological foundations, at its core, Bitcoin is money.

The question of whether or not Bitcoin can foment addiction could even be seen as an offshoot of the debate over so called “wealth addiction.” In a New York Times op-ed published earlier this year, a former Wall Street trader turned philanthropist named Sam Polk wrote about how he broke away from what he considered to be a “toxic culture” because he felt he had become a “giant fireball of greed.”

Advertisement Hide

Fong describes Polk’s story as a “good discussion” of cultural values, but he says that there is no scientific proof of wealth addiction.

“We don’t have diagnostic criteria. We don’t have biological markers. We don’t have a description of what this ‘condition’ would look like in different countries,” Fong says. “It appeals, though, to a general sense that if people are pursuing certain rewarding behavior and it is excessive, that it can create harm.”

Polk also agreed to read through the Reddit discussion, and he says the excessive and potentially harmful behaviors people wrote about “ring true” to his past feelings of wealth addiction.

“Bitcoin would be, for me, very dangerous,” Polk tells the Daily Dot in an email. “Because it seems like making a bet on Bitcoin would not only be about making money, but also being ‘right,’ about having the correct worldview.”

Even though Polk uses the term “making a bet,” the cautionary tale he tells would not necessarily be applicable to a gambling addict. Though Bitcoin has a history of volatile value fluctuations, it has stabilized in recent months, and its value has increased sixfold from where it was at this time last year.

Advertisement Hide

Rather than cautioning potential Bitcoin addicts against potentially losing all their money like one might with a gambler, Polk offers something more subtle—a warning to them to be mindful of investing their self-images along with their money.

This seems especially poignant for the Bitcoin community, which often seems to feel it must prove that its currency is the wave of the future.

“If that’s how Bitcoin users are feeling, then what I recommend is they first become aware that Bitcoin isn’t just about a trade for them, it’s part of their identity,” says Polk. “And whenever I attached something outside me—my job, my bank account—to how valuable I was, well, I knew I was headed down the wrong path.”

The ends may justify the means

In addition to its similarities to traditional objects of addiction, like gambling and drugs, Bitcoin could fall into a newer category of addictive stimuli.

Advertisement Hide

“What’s so unusual about Bitcoin as a cultural phenomenon is that it touches on a lot of different things,” says Fong. “It goes into technology—the leading edge of something really revolutionary in terms of the economy.”

Technology addiction, specifically Internet addiction, is something that Fong says he’s seeing at an increasing rate. The Internet is still very much a new frontier for humans, and it’s one that’s easily accessible. With feelings of Internet addiction, people can get hooked to exploring this frontier.

On the Reddit discussion, one user justified obsessing over Bitcoin, writing that the group is actually “making history” by serving as the currency’s stewards.

For Fong, there’s something to that attitude. He likened it to being a workaholic. Sometimes a person will obsess over his or her career in a way that will cause a negative impact on that person’s life. Other times, a person’s diligence will lead to satisfaction, such as when that person is able to work to create something that makes a positive impact on the world.

In this sense, the ends could justify the means when it comes to the Bitcoin obsession described on Reddit. If Bitcoin begins to fail and these people stubbornly go down with the ship and lose their money in the process, it might be something of an addiction in hindsight.

Advertisement Hide

On the flip side, if Bitcoin evangelists end up ushering in a new world order of financial freedom, they will likely feel their obsessive behavior served a worthwhile purpose.

In the event that things do go south for Bitcoin, the community might take some small comfort in knowing that the Reddit “addicts” have already come up with a mitigation plan. TiPs4tat, who started the Bitcoin addiction thread, wrote that he’s going to open up a Bitcoin rehab center, and yes, patients will be able to pay for treatment using Bitcoin.

Photo via Janels Katlaps/Flickr (CC BY 2.0) | Remix by Jason Reed

Share this article
*First Published: Aug 8, 2014, 12:11 pm CDT