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Operant Conditioning

The psychologist B.F. Skinner developed the theory of operant conditioning in the 1950s with the invention of the Skinner box. In operant conditioning, a reward is paired with a specific behavior, such as a rat pressing a lever in order to obtain food or water. The rate and intensity of the lever pressing can be measured against the type of reward offered. The number of lever pressings required can be varied in order to obtain a reward. Varying the numbers of pressings before a reward is given is known as intermittent reinforcement and is the most powerful way to sustain a behavior and hamper the extinction of that particular behavior. The most well-known example of that in everyday life is the slot machine. The length of time extinction occurs after the reward ceases can be measured in order to determine the power of a particular reward and the behavior used in achieving that reward. Offering punishment when a particular behavior is elicited can also modify behavior in order to eliminate it. This model offers one of the most useful ways of testing the power of specifically addictive substances.


The last psychosocial theory is modeling, which refers to learning by witnessing other's behaviors. Role models are powerful learning tools. We generally want to copy the behaviors of those we admire. In our society, for better or worse, our role models are celebrities and that is why companies use them to sell their products. If celebrities were not successful at selling various consumer products companies would not hire them and pay them such handsome fees. Advertisers use celebri

ties as role models to enhance the image of the product. If we find a celebrity we admire using a particular product, that product will become much more attractive to us. If that product is alcohol we will want to use it too. All three of these theories offer insight into behaviors in general and more specifically alcohol addiction.

Putting biology and learning theory together, one can begin to see how they conspire to cause addiction. Alcohol is a substance that alters perception, self- regard, and mood, generally in positive ways. These effects are highly reliable in that they always occur with alcohol use and are a function of alcohol's direct physiological affects. Using alcohol is generally associated with environments and people that are social, engaging, and if not festive, then at least pleasant. Also, when the environment is anxiety provoking, alcohol has the ability to reward the user by reducing his or her anxiety. Consequently, with continued use in a specific environment of choice, the positive effects of alcohol become paired with the environment, making the environment immediately attractive and associated with drinking alcohol. Over time, the number of alternative reinforcers or rewards that can substitute for alcohol decreases, as the immediate reward of ingesting alcohol is more reliably available and reproduced.

This pattern of use that is associated with specific environments that support and reinforce such use leads to a "crowding out" of alternative positive rewards that previously competed with alcohol but now require too much effort and planning when compared with drinking. It is well known that individuals in general gravitate toward smaller but sooner rewards over larger but later rewards. This is true across all ages and all types of rewards. For example, a well-known study has consistently demonstrated that most young children will choose the immediate reward of a few M&Ms rather than wait a prescribed amount of time for a bag of M&Ms. Likewise, the immediacy of the reward from the use of alcohol overwhelms any delayed gratification that abstinence may bring. Over time, with the development of tolerance, an ever-increasing amount of alcohol must be consumed in order to obtain the desired effect, and the immediate discomfort of withdrawal from alcohol further reinforces its use as a way of avoiding the punishing feelings from nonuse. The strength or weakness of these effects obviously depends on the personality (and/or the genetic makeup) of the individual. It is clear that some individuals are more susceptible to the addictive effects of alcohol than others.

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