Using Alcohol & Drugs: A Learned Habit or an Addiction?

Using Alcohol & Drugs: A Learned Habit or an Addiction? | Transcend Recovery Community

The field of drug treatment is still growing after many years of significant advancement. However, for some, the question still remains, whether addiction is really an illness or a conditioned habit. For instance, according to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), the leading causes of death in the year 2000 were use of tobacco, poor diet, lack of exercise, and alcohol use. According to the report, over 35% of deaths that year could have been avoided if people made different choices regarding their health and diet.

This raises the question whether people have the power within themselves to end an addiction, to change those long-held conditioned patterns of behavior, in order to reach a new goal of sobriety or healthier eating or maintaining a fitness regimen.

A habit is different than an addiction. However, both are learned behavior. Learning is any relatively permanent change in behavior brought about by experience or practice. A few theories on the way people learn can illustrate how habits are formed and how addictions develop. For instance, operant conditioning, developed by BF Skinner, is the learning of voluntary behavior, based on the effects of consequences and rewards to that behavior. One can facilitate learning in an animal or another individual through the use of reinforcers. Primary reinforcers are those that meet a basic biological need, and secondary reinforcers are reinforced externally through socially valuable rewards, such as money.

On the other hand, people can also learn through classical conditioning, a term coined by Ivan Pavlov. When studying the digestive system in dogs, he discovered a reflex, an involuntary response of their salivating mouths. He recognized that the food stimulated their response of salivating. After this, he saw that his dogs were salivating at different times and he spent the rest of his career focusing on how to elicit their involuntary response with a particular stimulus. Classical conditioning is learning that changes an involuntary (reflex) response, such as salivating, to a stimulus other than the original, natural stimulus that normally produces the reflex. Pavlov was able to replace the food with the sound of the bell, and eventually, it was the sound of the bell that caused the dogs to salivate.

Operant and classical conditioning might shed light on the development of a habit. A habit is defined as “an association that builds up between a stimulus—cue, [or] context—and a response”. Neuroscientists believe habits form in an area of the brain called the basal ganglia, a key area of which is the dorsal striatum. Operant conditioning plays a large role in the development of those cue-behavior-reward circuits that make up habits. However, addiction involves more than the development of a habit. Addiction includes extremely high levels of craving and motivation, a great deal of behavioral flexibility, and compulsive behavior. Furthermore, addiction involves the basal ganglia, similar to habits, but they also affect the prefrontal cortex, which is an area of the brain associated with self-control.

In a way, classical conditioning affects the development of an addiction. Remember that classical conditioning is learning that changes an involuntary response, such as salivating, from one stimulus to another. In other words, at first it was the food that stimulated the salivating. However, over time, the dogs learned to salivate to the ringing of the bell. In the same way, men and women can learn that feeling happy, for example, can come from drinking or drug use, rather than through an original source of inner satisfaction and nourishment.

Yet, as mentioned earlier, addiction is much more than a learned habit. It is frequently the culmination of negative thinking, poor choices, dysfunctional behavioral patterns, and lack of coping mechanisms. For this reason, drug addiction treatment and sober living facilities are necessary in order to change behavior and maintain sobriety over the long term.


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