How can addictions be developed through operant conditioning?

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M.P. Ossa eNotes educator| Certified Educator

I am not sure if you are asking about how OC extinguishes addictions but I am going to go verbatim with your question.

In reality, OC is perhaps one of the most effective interventions because it involves:

  • scheduling
  • motivating
  • rewarding
  • habituating

However, like your question states, the application of OC to increase any behavior can also be applied to negative behavior. 

If you notice, any addiction is a product of involuntary OC. Alcoholism, for example, follows the OC routine in that same order.

Scheduling- the alcoholic often associates drink to something else, namely, socializing, eating, smoking, depression, or celebration. This is scheduling because as soon as the trigger events happen, the body immediately starts to associate it to alcohol and starts to crave it.

Motivating- Knowing that alcohol is available is a source of motivation that in some cases becomes a welcome challenge when it is argued against. In many cases, knowing that there will be an opportunity to acquire the motivator actually increases the scheduling. For example, the alcoholic may create more chances to drink i.e, more parties, more eating, more smoking, etc. 

Rewarding- the alcohol itself is the reward after the wait period during scheduling. Remember, all of this is involuntary and in cases of extreme attachment the scheduling (trigger-reward) is constant. The problem is that, as the body develops tolerance for the alcohol it starts to react differently to it. Then the alcoholic will test the limits of other substances to achieve that first sensation they felt when they drank for the first time. 

Habituating is the last step of the process and it is the moment when alcohol no longer has any need for scheduling nor motivation; it has become a new behavior. In the original OC the habituation that is wished for is to turn a behavior from unacceptable to acceptable. As you can see, the same exact thing can occur when OC is applied to behaviors that go from good to bad. 

William Delaney eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Many Americans--probably millions--have become addicted to gambling via operant conditioning. The modern gambling machines--or "gaming" machines, as the casinos like to call them--are apparently designed by experts to make players addicted with sophisticated reinforcement programming. The behavior to be reinforced is inserting money and pushing buttons. Addicts can be seen pressing buttons in the same way that chickens can be conditioned to peck at piano keys to get grains of corn. The reinforcement includes winning points convertible to cash, and also lights, pleasing sounds, sporadic "bonuses," and even human voices praising the player for winning. If a player wins a big jackpot, the clamor can be heard all over the casino. The reinforcement is irregular, and I believe this has been found to be the most effective kind of reinforcement in operant conditioning.

Gambling addiction has become a serious problem since it is no longer confined to Nevada and Atlantic City but has spread all over the country, particularly with the proliferation of "Indian" casinos.


literaturenerd eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Operant conditioning relies on the presentation of reward or punishment (environmental stimulus) after a specific behavior (naturally occurring reflex) is exhibited. In regards to addictions,many exist given their ability to alleviate a negative feeling or association. For example, one may drink or take drugs in order to remove themselves from the realities of the real world. Addictions essentially become part of a person's behavior based upon operant conditioning.

As an example, consider the following:

A person who has been abused by his or her parents feels depressed and alone. These feelings can be altered by consuming drugs and/or alcohol. The drugs and alcohol make the consumer forget the pain he or she feels. Therefore, the addiction to the drugs or alcohol is inevitable because it removes the bad feelings. The more a person drinks or takes drugs, the less the person feels badly or depressed.