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Behavioural (learning) models of addiction

Do we learn to be addicted?

How do classical conditioning and operant conditioning explain addiction?

How does social learning theory explain addiction?

What sort of reward is needed to make a behaviour addictive?

Classical and operant conditioning in addiction
Do we develop addictions simply by being rewarded for doing them?

Classical conditioning and the initiation of addictive behaviour
Stimuli that occur just before, or at the same time, as a learned stimulus (e.g. a drug) may become secondary reinforcers by association. An example of this is learning that the sights and sounds of a pub are associated with alcohol – the sights and sounds then produce the same physiological effects as alcohol.

Operant conditioning and the initiation of addictive behaviour
If a behaviour is rewarded (positive reinforcement) it is likely to be repeated. Positive reinforcers cause dopamine release in the mesolimbic dopamine system. The system is designed for natural reinforcers such as food, drink, keeping warm, and sex, however addictive drugs can produce the same effect. Drugs such as cocaine, amphetamine, nicotine and alcohol cause massive over-stimulation of dopamine receptors and are therefore positively rewarded. Gambling leads to a rush of adrenaline when experiencing a win or near-win, is socially rewarding through praise from peers, and financially rewarding after a win (Griffiths, 2009).

Operant conditioning and the maintenance/relapse of addictive behaviour
Repeated use of drugs leads to withdrawal symptoms when stopping. Withdrawal is physically unpleasant and can be reduced by taking the drug again (negative reinforcement).
Commentary (evaluation) for classical and operant conditioning explanations of addictive behaviour

Classical conditioning

Research support comes from a study on US soldiers in the Vietnam war. The soldiers became addicted to heroin while in Vietnam and experienced withdrawal symptoms whilst there, but when back in the USA they were far less likely to relapse because the sights and sounds they had associated with heroin were not present.

There is also an implication for treatment. If certain environmental cues (sights and sounds) make relapse more likely, then a treatment program aimed at exposing the addict to those sights and sounds but without any opportunity to carry out the addicted behaviour will lead to successful treatment (stimulus discrimination).

Operant conditioning
Strengths: Because conditioning does not require free will or conscious awareness, it explains why addicts continue to take a drug even though they know it is harmful and that they do not really want to take it. It also explains why addicts may neglect themselves (such as not eating) as the primary drive to take the drug becomes a priority over other drives such as eating.

Problems: learning theory explanations are very reductionist and ignore other social, physiological and psychological factors that may influence addiction. For example, many people take an addictive substance at some time in their life, but relatively few actually become addicted and so there must be more to the explanation than simple positive reinforcement.

Evolutionary theory: occasional reinforcement for a behaviour is an important part of learning adaptive behaviours. Adaptive behaviour help organisms survive in their environment by working to the organism’s advantage more often than not. This means that a behaviour that is reinforced occasionally can be learned and established as a pattern – an example of this is drug taking that feels good sometimes, or gambling that is reinforced through a variable ratio of reinforcement.

Social learning theory explanation of addiction
Do we become addicted just by watching other people doing something?
Initiation of addictive behaviour:
The addictive behaviour can be learned through observing other people partaking in that behaviour. If the model (other person) is rewarded or receives some kind of approval or pleasure from the behaviour then the observer is likely to copy them. If the model is punished (e.g. becomes ill or gets in trouble) then the observer is less likely to copy them.

Maintenance of addictive behaviour:
Drug users, for example, develop a conflict between wanting reward from the drug and wanting to stop, and so they tend to drop in and out of the behaviour. They also associate environmental cues with the reward s they receive (e.g. presence of other drug users) and so are likely to relapse if those cues are present.

Commentary (evaluation) for the social learning theory explanation of addiction

Research support comes from DiBlasio & Benda (1993) who found that adolescents who smoked associated themselves with other smokers, and were more likely to conform to the social norm of a smoking group. Treatment can therefore be based on teaching individuals the skills necessary to avoid social influence (Botvin, 2000).

Self efficacy is also important because people who believe they have the skills necessary to resist social influence are less likely to copy the norms of a peer group, whereas people who believe they are less able to resist are more likely to become addicts (Lawrance, 1989).

Synoptic links for behavioural (learning) models of addiction
  • The learning model is a determinist explanation for addiction as it states that people will repeat behaviours they have previously been rewarded for, and ignores any notion of free will.
  • It is a reductionist model that focuses on a the simple relationship between environmental stimuli and reinforcement.
  • The learning model is based almost exclusively on animal research, and so caution must be taken when trying to apply the findings of research to human subjects.
A Level exam tips
Answering exam questions (PSYA3 AQA A specification)
Outline and evaluate the learning explanation of addiction (24 marks)
8 AO1 marks. This should be a brief outline of the roles of classical and operant conditioning in learning addictive behaviour. A description of Pavlov's dog experiments would not gain any marks as it does not focus on addiction. The key assumptions of the approach should also be outlined.

16 AO2 marks. Evaluation should focus on human research that supports the classical conditioning explanation, and the effectiveness of treatment approaches based on classical conditioning. Operant conditioning is a beneficial explanation of addiction as it explains how addiction may be maintained even when the addict knows the harm it is causing them, but it ignores factors other than environmental reward. Do not forget to raise synoptic evaluations (issues, debates and approaches) such as determinism, reductionism and animal research.