Social Learning Theory of Addiction
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Before moving on, I wanted to quickly review the content from previous blogs. I’ve been discussing the different elements of the bio-psycho-social-spiritual integrative model used for understanding and treating addictions.
The bio portion of the word refers to the physiological or biological factors involved in the development of an addiction. This is also known as the Disease or Medical Model.
The psycho portion of the word refers to the psychological (mental and emotional) factors that influence addiction (e.g., trauma, unhealthy relationships, negative feelings).
In today’s blog, I’ll be writing about the socio portion of the model. This refers to how learning and socialization (the influence of our social environment and culture) contributes to the development of addiction.
Culture and Learning
The main premise of learning theories is that all behaviours, including behaviours of addiction, are learned. Learning theorists will acknowledge the influence of biological and psychological factors; however, for the most part, they believe these processes play a small role in explaining why we do the things we do. For learning theorists (often called behaviourists), it is the cultural and social environments which dictate “why, when, where, and how” we use alcohol and drugs. The fundamental principles of learning are:
1. Social Learning: Watching and observing how others use alcohol and drugs influences our decisions to use. For example, if you notice attractive people drinking or smoking at a bar, and you watch them being rewarded for this behaviour (e.g., they attract positive attention), then there’s a strong chance that you’ll also choose to drink the next time you are in a similar environment.
2. Operant Conditioning: The positive and negative reinforcements we have with alcohol and drugs. For example, if I feel stress and notice that alcohol helps to alleviate my stress, then the next time I experience stress, I will drink alcohol to help me cope.
3. Classical Conditioning: You learn that when “X” exists, then “Y” immediately follows. For example, if you always consume alcohol whenever you attend a party, then you make the association that alcohol must be consumed at every party you attend. This principle is often used to explain cravings and urges: You experience a physiological response (sweating, anxiety, rapid breathing, etc.) to the absence of something in the environment (alcohol). In other words, when the association between “X” and “Y” is interrupted, we begin to experience withdrawal symptoms.
If you think about how these learning principles exist in our lives, you can begin to understand the power that environment, as opposed to just biology and heredity, has on the development of addictions (or any other behaviour, for that matter). Given this, I will continue to discuss the social component of the integrative model in the next few blogs.
Hoping your week is filled with much knowledge and growth…
Dr. Richard Amaral