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Social 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. , edited by C. E. Zupanick, Psy.D. Updated: Jun 5th 2019

Classical conditioning and operant conditioning describe how we learn from direct experience. However, humans usually learn by observing others. This is called social learning. Social learning is the most common way that people learn. Therefore, it has important implications for recovery efforts. In this section, we limit our discussion to the learning that occurs within social groups. These groups may include the family, peers groups, and the larger community. We will further discuss the powerful influence of other social groups in another section.

serious womanThe social interactions that have the greatest influence are with the people who mattered to us as we grew up. This includes parents and other family members. It might also include a neighbor or teacher. Maybe we noticed our parents only ever relaxed and had fun when they gambled (perhaps playing cards with friends). Maybe they coped with stress by smoking pot. Maybe we observed they never socialized unless they were drinking. If we observed these sorts of things then we will be more likely to try out these behaviors as well. This is because we have learned through observation that gambling, smoking pot, and drinking achieved a positive result. In the absence of other healthier examples, it would seem those activities were good ways to relax, have fun, and reduce stress. We can attribute this to social learning.

People have a powerful need for social interaction. Therefore, it becomes important to consider the compelling social nature of many addictions. Many types of addiction require at least the cooperation of other people. Some types of addictions afford opportunities for pleasing social discourse and interaction as well. For example, heroin addicts often help one another obtain and use the drug. Alcohol is a frequent and often central feature of many social venues. Gambling casinos strive to provide an exciting social atmosphere.

As addiction progresses, there are fewer opportunities for the addicted person to interact with healthy, non-addicted persons. This is because friends and family eventually disengage from the addict. Simultaneously, the addiction occupies more and more of the addict's time. Gradually, the addict's entire social circle becomes other people who are associated with the addiction. It is nearly impossible to free yourself from an addiction without forming new relationships with healthier people, while disengaging from people who are not.

This is one of the reasons that support groups are helpful in addiction recovery. These groups (such as AA) immediately provide a source of social support. Support groups (promoting moderation or abstinence) date back at least to the 1500s (White, 2011). Time spent with others in recovery reduces the amount of peer pressure to engage in addiction. From a social learning perspective, support groups offer opportunities to observe and interact with healthier people.

When we apply social learning theory to addictions treatment, the usual treatment goals include:

1) Develop a new, healthier network of peers.
2) Observe and adopt the positive coping skills of these new peers.
3) Learn refusal skills to respond to peer pressure. These refusal skills are very important because recovering people cannot altogether eliminate contact with their former addicted friends. This is particularly true during the early stages of recovery.


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

Practical Recovery, established in 1985, is the world's leader in collaborative addiction treatment. Located in San Diego, California (USA), we offer a full range inpatient and outpatient addiction treatment services that are customized for each person. We rely on proven methods, informed by the latest neuroscience and addictions research. Our methods empower people to create their own solutions for healthy living, rather than relying on the 12-step powerlessness approach. Most services are provided by doctoral level, university-trained clinicians. We provide individual and group sessions; medications and detox as needed; flexible length of stay; and optional holistic healing. We offer modern comforts and conveniences such as private rooms; gourmet meals; excursions to the beach; mobile communication; and computer access. For a complimentary consultation, call 800-977-6110.

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