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Social Learning Theory of Addiction

January 31, 2011

Read this post on my new site!

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.

We learn to drink from watching others.

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

  1. Such interesting information. As a mother to a son with an alcohol addiction, who has tried everything to help him, I shall follow your blog in the hope I can find that key to helping him. Thank you, great blog!

    • Hi Wordangell,

      Thank you for sharing. There are many parents struggling with the same thing. Know that you are not alone.

  2. David Pimentel permalink

    Great blogs, Dr. Amaral. Your clear and concise approach is very well received. In your most recent posting (January 31st), I noticed you did not speak specifically of parental influence in your summary of learning theories. Will you be touching upon this in future postings? Thanks.

    • Hi David,

      Thank you for your positive feedback.

      Dr. Albert Bandura, one of the pioneers of learning theories (and a Canadian, I might add…) is most responsible for the ideas of Social Learning – that we learn from imitating what we observe in the environment. One of his groundbreaking studies involved children observing an adult punching a Bobo Doll (the inflatable doll that bounces back up after you hit it). When left alone with the Bobo doll, the children imitated the adults. He called this Modeling, and it became a core principle of Social Learning Theory.

      With regards to alcohol and drug use, behaviourists and learning theorists emphasize the concept of modeling when explaining why children develop similar patterns of use as their parents. If they see mom and dad drink regularly, they will likely model this behaviour. However, there is strong evidence to refute this as well: Many children who grow up in alcoholic homes choose not to drink when they have their own families.

      In future blogs, I’ll summarize studies that investigate the concept of modeling in the development of aggression in children. Thanks for raising this question.


  3. William Heng permalink

    Interesting website. I want to know more about Learning theories and addiction

  4. Armstrong Rono permalink

    Your explanations are simple to understand and brief. I can now comfortably relate these theories to drug abuse.
    I am an addiction counsellor in Kenya.

    Thank you.

    • Hi Armstrong,

      Thanks for this feedback. It’s great to see how this information is helping people around the world! Keep up the valuable work you are doing! If ever you come across an issue that you are struggling with as an addictions counsellor, please drop me a line. It might turn out to be a great topic to blog on.


  5. Hi

    This has been of greatful use to me, as said above your explanations are easy and simple to understand.
    And you have simply helped me finish my assignment!

    • Thanks, JD! I really appreciate the feedback. I know I haven’t worked on a blog in several months, but that’s because I’ve been saving my “writing energy” to finish off my first book. It’s on the topic of when bad habits turn into addictions. It will also address learning theories. I’ll keep my readers posted. Good luck on future assignments.


  6. The internet allows the facilities to provide not just something better for addicts but also an opportunity
    of a new life. Of course, the person may not even be aware that they have
    an addiction issue. One thing that defines an alcoholic is
    a dependence on alcohol. You might see secretive behavior, lying to cover up drug
    abuse, stealing, ask for money, or selling possessions to support their habit.
    New treatment facilities are now opening at an alarming rate.
    That rehab back in John’s time included service work like washing floors. In a hurting family, that is the last thing that is needed, hurt compounded upon hurt. The first step in rehab is detoxification.

  7. Hey there, I think your site might be having browser compatibility
    issues. When I look at your blog in Ie, it looks fine but when
    opening in Internet Explorer, it has some overlapping.
    I just wanted to give you a quick heads up! Other then that, superb blog!

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