Operant Conditioning and Addiction

The second learning principle directly after classical conditioning, operant conditioning involves a cause-and-effect relationship between a specific behavior and its resulting consequences. Operant conditioning directly concerns reward and punishment – when we reward a behavior, it increases, and when we punish a behavior, it decreases. If you give your dog a treat after it goes to the bathroom outdoors, you are practicing operant conditioning. This learning principle plays a major role in addiction for a variety of reasons. Firstly, substances are only addictive because they are rewarding. Addiction is considered a learned behavior because drug or alcohol use is initially extremely rewarding to the user. Initial enjoyment provokes continued use, and because most chemical substances provide immediate enjoyment the behaviors are typically learned at a much quicker rate.

Operant Conditioning and Addiction Recovery

Natural and healthy activities and behaviors often produce rewards at a much slower pace. For example, one may need to work out for a month or longer before beginning to see or feel any pleasurable physical results. The rewards of drug and alcohol use are instantaneous, and instant gratification is far more appealing to time-conscious creatures such as ourselves. Unfortunately, for this very reason, drug use begins to overwhelm and take the place of healthy, natural rewards, eventually making obtaining such rewards nothing short of an impossibility. This creates a devastating and powerful cycle of substance abuse, in which greater and greater amounts of a substance are needed in order to produce the same rewarding results. Eventually, of course, the reward begins to decrease, and the evolved psychological, physical, and biological aspects of addiction make continued use a necessity.

System of Reward and Punishment Helps Us to Further Understand Addiction

As addiction progresses, interpersonal relationships become strained, obligations, social and otherwise, take second seat (or are entirely abandoned), and previously cherished activities are found to be too difficult to perform, leaving substance abuse as the only remaining source of pleasure. Punishment is also an important factor when dealing with addiction. If a major punishment takes place very early on in substance use, than an addiction may be prevented from developing. Some who may have been prone to alcoholism will cease drinking entirely after receiving a DUI, for example. Unfortunately, punishment usually begins occurring later on in use, when it is too late and addiction has already developed.

Operant conditioning has proven exceedingly beneficial in the treatment of addiction, and the entire program of Alcoholics Anonymous is based on this learning principle to some degree. The Promises, a set of wonderful assurances every alcoholic receives upon active and thorough participation in the program, are essentially rewards ensured for a comprehensive completion of the 12-steps. Operant conditioning is extremely useful in better understanding why addicts and alcoholics initially and continuously use, and how addiction can be reversed through a program of reward and punishment.

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