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Addictions

Learning Theory and Addiction

A. Tom Horvath, Ph.D., ABPP, Kaushik Misra, Ph.D., Amy K. Epner, Ph.D., and Galen Morgan Cooper, Ph.D.

For over a century, psychologists have investigated the ways humans and animals learn. This research has resulted in a vast body of knowledge. Throughout the years, various learning theories have been proposed, tested, and refined. Because of this research, we now have a solid understanding of the how learning occurs. This knowledge is extremely useful in treating many types of psychological and emotional problems. Therefore, it is not surprising that the application of learning theory is critical to the understanding of the addiction and recovery process. As such, it remains an important area of addictions research.

In this section, we discuss only a few highlights of this fascinating area. In particular, we will focus on three fundamental types of learning:

1) Learning that occurs because of paired associations, called classical (or respondent) conditioning.

2) Learning that occurs because of a cause-and-effect relationship between a behavior and the consequences of that behavior (rewards and punishments). Psychologists call this type of learning operant conditioning.

3) The third type of learning called social learning. Almost all of our behaviors are to some degree influenced by these three learning principles.

 

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