Operant conditioning is a learning principle put forward by an American psychologist B.F Skinner. This type of learning is based on the cause-and-effect relationship between a behavior and its consequences. Operant conditioning in short is based upon the concept that when we reward a behavior, it increases and when we punish a behavior, it decreases. A substance or activity becomes addictive if it is rewarding according to operant conditioning; i.e., if it is pleasurable or enjoyable (at least in the beginning). People who do not like particular substances or activities have less chances of developing an addiction to those activities or substances. Such dislikes are not rare as some people genuinely do not like some activities or substances. This protects them from developing an addiction simply because those substances or activities are not pleasurable and rewarding to them.
Addiction is a learned behavior because of the pleasure or enjoyment being rewarding. According to the concept of operant conditioning, rewarded behaviors will increase and this is alarming because most addictive substances and activities are immediately rewarding for example a person who does drugs such as weed/hash instantly feels the “high/buzz” of the drug intake and the buzz they feel is their immediate gratification. Research has also shed light upon that when a behavior is instantly rewarded people and animals learn it more quickly for example while training a dog to learn the command to “sit” when he listens to the command the dog is rewarded with a treat, this treat acts as positive reinforcement and hence further strengthens the behavior according to operant conditioning.
This also explains why an addictive substance or activity may replace another, healthier source of reward; these other types of rewards are often delayed (for example the return of good health). An unfortunate cycle may also develop as addiction carries on, the availability of natural, healthy pleasures (rewards) may reduce due to the addiction such as strained friendships, loss of meaningful jobs or hobbies. When this occurs, addicted people become very dependent on their addiction as their sole and only source of reward. This leads to creating an unfortunate but powerful addictive cycle. Punishment also plays a significant role in the development of addiction. If there is an early and prominent punishment for example a medical problem at the start of a substance intake or behavior then there is a lesser chance of addiction developing. In most cases, punishments for addiction may occur much later, when the addiction is already prominent and strong. By this time, many chemical and physiological changes have already taken place in the brain making it difficult to break the addiction. Simultaneously, unhealthy cognitive and emotional patterns might have been well-established this too also makes it difficult to break addictive behavior. Hence, in these later stages of addiction punishment on its own is usually not enough to create a lasting change but it is worth a shit.
Operant conditioning has resulted in several effective treatments for addictive patterns. The fundamental idea is to reward addicted people for making healthier, better and recovery-oriented choices. However, research has discovered that the rewards must have value, and the reward has to be substantial. One such treatment for addicts based on operant conditioning may be token economy, which is essentially rewarding people in the forms of tokens for exhibiting a desired behavior and these tokens can later be exchanged for various privileges or treats. An example of token economy being used for breaking an addictive pattern could be a drug addict being given a token for every 2 hours he spends without in taking the drug he is addicted to. Another therapy based on operant conditioning in treating addictive patterns is CRAFT which is a therapy that depends on operant conditioning (Community Reinforcement and Family Training; Meyers & Wolfe, 2004).
The social aspect of the Bio-Psycho-Social-Spiritual model places emphasis on the importance of interpersonal relationships. CRAFT educates the concerned significant others (CSO’s) on how to reward the addicted person’s positive, healthy behaviors, these are the behaviors opposing addiction. The CSO’s also learn how to remove rewards for unhealthy behavior which support addiction. For example, a wife might plan a pleasant evening for her husband when he comes home from office, without stopping at the wine shop. However, if he comes home drunk, her attention and affection for him is withdrawn. In this scenario, she would excuse herself from his company for the remaining of the evening. By rewarding healthy behavior, and withdrawing rewards for unhealthy behavior, the wife is using the fundamentals of operant conditioning. This approach will strengthen the husband’s healthy behaviors but only if he finds quality time with his wife to be rewarding. Some husbands might find time alone to be more rewarding hence it is important to target the rewards of each person to something they actually enjoy.