Human Behavior and Addiction

Course Description

This course will provide an overview of how and why people develop addictions, how we treat substance use disorders and the societal context of drug use in the US. The main objective of the course is to understand three main topics:

1) What does it mean to be ‘addicted’ to something? How is substance use disorder defined, and why is there controversy over what constitutes harmful drug use? To what extent is it helpful to conceptualize addiction as a brain disorder rather than a behavioral disorder?
2) How do drugs interact with the human brain and behavioral processes to create problematic behaviors? What risk and protective exist that can exacerbate or mitigate the effects of drugs on behavior?
3) What treatments exist to address substance abuse and how effective are they? At the societal level, how can public policy help to reduce the harms of substance abuse, or have unintended consequences that can cause more harm?

To explore these topics, we will use an empirical framework for evaluating different perspectives. That means that we will focus on what the data tells us: for more than 60 years, scientists have been studying aspects of this problem, from the effects of drugs on individual neurons to assessing the effects of treatments, to modeling the impact of country-level drug policy on the incidence of drug use. We will use this body of data to critically examine which theories, treatments, and policies are best suited to understanding addiction and mitigating the harms of substance use. To do this, you will be assigned cutting-edge peer-reviewed literature along with readings designed to provide you with the necessary background to fully engage with that literature.

In class, we will discuss the important empirical data from the readings and lecture materials relevant to the discussion topic for the day. Then, in a mix of small group and whole-class discussions, you will critically analyze the day’s discussion topic, relying on empirical evidence to back up your statements. The class also includes many multimedia depictions of the human costs of addiction, including via podcasts and documentaries, that help bring the discussion back from the academic realm to the real world and keep us focused on the urgent needs of individuals struggling with substance use disorders.

By the end of the class, you will be able to:
• Define and describe substance use disorders;
• Understand how drugs affect the brain and behavior;
• State common risk and protective factors for developing addiction;
• Compare and contrast different treatments for addiction;
• Critically analyze the historical context of drug policy and the current effects of regulations on drug use and harms.


This course provides a foundation for further study in the field of psychology, sociology, public health, and medicine as it provides an introduction to substance abuse pulling from content within these four fields. An introductory level of knowledge of psychology and statistics is preferred but not necessary. I hope that this class will interest open-minded students who are interested in addiction and society and are looking to engage with their peers in an intellectually stimulating setting.


One Section Available to Choose From:

Online sections of Pre-College courses are offered in one of the following modalities: Asynchronous, Mostly asynchronous, or Blended. Please review full information regarding the experience here.

Dates: June 27, 2022 - July 08, 2022
Duration: 2 Weeks
Meeting Times: M-F 8:30A-11:20A
Status: Closed
Format: On-Campus
Instructor(s): Rachel Cassidy
Course Number: 10375