Liking Vs. Wanting

According to Berridge and Robinson (2016), “liking” is described as a sense of pleasure experienced from reward consumption. The article goes on to state that there are common expressions among humans that signal “liking” or pleasure is taking place. For example, “sweetness elicits relaxed facial expressions and rhythmic tongue and mouth expressions of “liking” where bitterness elicits “disgust” gapes and turning away” (p.670). The article also mentions that there are two types of “wanting”. Incentive salience or “wanting” is the one we are more concerned with because it describes “a form of motivation, [that] is generated by large and robust neural systems that include mesolimbic dopamine” (p.670). This type of wanting has less to do with cognitive goals and more to do with reward cues or visual imagery about the reward.

The main difference between “liking” and “wanting” is the way each of them are mediated in the brain. According to Berridge and Robinson (2016), “‘wanting’ is mediated by a robust brain system including dopamine projections, whereas ‘liking’ is mediated by a restricted brain system of small hedonic hotspots” (p.671). In other words, the role of dopamine is strictly associated with “wanting” and does nothing with the “liking” or pleasure principle. The more dopamine released the more an individual craves/wants the reward; increases in dopamine does not increase the likability of the reward.

According to Berridge and Robinson (2016), sensitization is described as a learning process in which repeated administration of a stimulus results in the gradual increase of a response. Once sensitization occurs it is long lasting and sometimes permanent due to the changes in physical structures that alters the structures ability to receive incoming signals. “The central tenet of the incentive-sensitization theory is that addiction becomes compulsive when mesolimbic systems become sensitized and hyperactive to the incentive motivational properties of drug cues” (p.673). This theory explains the intense almost compulsive urge to take drugs and the continuous possibility of relapse even after long periods without the drugs.

When it comes to behavioral addictions such as eating, gambling, and sex or pornography addiction, to name a few, sensitization plays a role here too. According to Berridge and Robinson (2016), “behavioral addictions may have some sensitization-like patterns of brain hyper-reactivity to cues related to their own personal addictions…sensitization-related brain changes arise in some highly susceptible individuals to produce these addictions without need of drugs” (p.675). In other words, their behaviors can cause hyper stimulation of dopamine related systems, which leads to strong urges, craving, “wanting” to continue the behavior and that causes addictions.

I encourage you to take a second and think about the fact that addiction is really a mental health disease. Understanding the difference between liking and wanting is a step in the right direction to understanding addiction.

Berridge, K. & Robinson, T. (2016). Liking, wanting that the incentive-sensitization theory addiction. American Psychologist, 71, 670-679. 

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Tierra Youngblood-Field