Learning/Behavioural Approach to Addiction

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Learning/Behavioural Approach to Addiction


  • Social Learning theory explains intiation of addictions through modelling and vicarious reinforcement.
  • People learn addictive behaviour by observing valued role models being rewarded for taking part in an addictive behaviour - vicarious reinforcement. 
  • Role models are more likely to influence a person's behaviour if they are the same age/sex/ethnic background and have a perceived high status. 
  • Bandura argued that social learning invovled 4 processes:
  • Attention - a person has to pay attention to addictive behaviour of the model in order for it to be imitated
  • Retention - behaviour has to be remembered if it is to be imitated
  • Reproduction - observer must have ability to replicate behaviour
  • Motivation - observer must want to imitate behaviour


Operant conditioning can explain maintenance of addiction:

a) Postive reinforcement - behaviour likely to repeated if results are pleasureable. So people may maintain addiction to continue receiving powerful positive reinforcement of peer approval. e.g weight loss (smoking), winning money (gambling)

b) Negative reinforcement - people more likely to repeat behaviour if it removes/avoids unpleasant stimulus. e.g avoid withdrawal symptoms, loss of peer group support.


Classical conditioning  can explain relapse.

  • Addicts link materials/situations associated with their addiction. 
  • This may lead to experiencing strong cravings. 
  • As the addict is surrounded by these materials/situations they experience pressure to return to their addictive behaviour.

Negative reinforcement: smokers also relapse through negative reinforcement - smoking enables them to avoid withdrawal symptoms.

Abstinence may be directly punished by weight gain or loss of social support, making it more likely the addict will relapse. 

Evaluation of Learning Approach

  • Compare with other approaches - ignores well documented biological base to addiction. However can be used in conjuction with the biological approach - dopamine is invovled with how we learn.
  • Simplistic view of human behaviour - addiction needs to be seen as more than simple stimulus-response patterns of behaviour
  • Best explanation: biopsychosocial


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