Operant Conditioning for Addictions
Operant conditioning is the second learning principle. This type of learning occurs due to the cause-and-effect relationship between a behavior and its consequences. Operant conditioning has a common sense element. When we reward a behavior, it increases. When we punish a behavior, it decreases.
A substance or activity can only become addictive if it is rewarding; i.e., if it is pleasurable or enjoyable (at least initially). Individuals who dislike particular substances or activities have little risk for developing an addiction to those substances or activities. Such dislikes are not uncommon. Some people do not enjoy certain substances or activities. This protects them from developing an addiction simply because those substances or activities are not enjoyable. They are not rewarding.
Addiction is a learned behavior because the initial pleasure or enjoyment was rewarding. According to the principles of operant ...view middle of the document...
Friendships are strained. Meaningful jobs or hobbies are lost or abandoned. When this happens, addicted people become more and more dependent on their addiction as their sole source of reward. This creates an unfortunate but powerful addictive cycle.
Punishment also plays an important role in the development of addiction. If there is an early and significant punishment (perhaps a DUI, or a medical problem) then the addiction might not develop. In many cases, punishments for addiction occur much later, when the addiction is already firmly in place. At this point, many chemical and physiological changes have already occurred in the brain. This makes it more difficult to discontinue the addiction. Simultaneously, unhealthy cognitive and emotional patterns have become well-established. This too makes it more difficult to change addictive behavior. Therefore, in these later stages of addiction punishment alone is usually insufficient to create a lasting change. The most successful approach is to increase rewards for healthy behavioral choices while eliminating rewards for addictive behavior.
Operant conditioning has resulted in several effective treatments. The basic idea is to reward addicted people for making healthier, recovery-oriented choices. However, research has made it very clear: The rewards must have some value, and the reward must be substantial. Again, this has a common sense ring to it. It's unlikely an addicted person would give up their addiction for a piece of chocolate. However, they might give it up for a car, or at least i would!
It follows that what might be rewarding to one person, would be meaningless to the next. For a very hungry person food might be very rewarding. However, if someone just finished a Thanksgiving feast, food is unlikely to be rewarding. Addictions research has demonstrated that by rewarding some people with inexpensive but desired items they can increase the number of abstinent days. This is particularly true for people with limited financial means. These same inexpensive items would not likely serve to change the behavior of someone with greater financial means.