In its alternative name ‘Pavlovian Conditioning’, his studies

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Last updated: February 16, 2019

In studying classical conditioning, it is evidencedthat behavioural processes and reinforcement responsible for drawingconnections between addictive behaviour, psychological and environmental cueswithin one’s context plays a key role in developing dependent patterns ofaddiction.

Most famously investigated by Ivan Pavlov, hence its alternativename ‘Pavlovian Conditioning’, his studies uncover the “adjustments organismsmake in response to observing the temporal relations among environmental orproprioceptive stimuli” (Gottlieb, 2011). Originally an accidental discovery, Pavlovobserved the appetitive procedure involving an unconditioned stimulus elicitinga response from organisms. Although it was observed in the form of a dog’sautomatic response to food, the “adjustments” made by the dog is equivalent toJohn’s liking of the drug effect which is the “pleasant feeling of smoking”.

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Hencethe “temporal relation” established between the unconditioned stimulus as itcauses the unconditioned response, John’s desire to initiate drug use followingan involuntary reflex. Moreover, the conditioned relationship between cigarettesmoking and other drug related cues such as “social smoking”, “sharing with friends”,a drink at the bar, and the ending of a meal is an order of events well known andcarried out by smokers that can be classified as the conditioned stimulus (Orleans& Slade, 1993). This is a clear cascade of physiological reflexes thatexemplify how a behaviour – which in the case of John is smoking cigarettes;can become closely associated with already existing cues that trigger reflexesof anticipation (Galizio & Maisto, 1985).

As John’s smoking behaviour becomesincreasingly paired with a range of occasions from social events and situationswhere he consumes alcohol, it becomes very much established throughout hislifestyle. Thus, it can be classified as an addiction that will cause John toidentify more events and locations that can be transformed into opportunitiesfor the “pleasant feeling” and “enjoyment” to occur. Additionally, John’s learning can also beclassified as operant conditioning due to process in which reward andpunishment vary in relation to the likelihood of the individual repeating thesame action in future (Skinner, 1952). These consequences, such as positive reinforcersare responsible for the frequency of behaviours whereas negative reinforcementsdecrease the frequency (McSweeney & Murphy, 2014). Furthermore, operant conditioningalso encompasses punishment which is ideally avoided by decreasing the probabilityof performing an action. Within the passage, John’s experiences of “agitation”and “discomfort” due to a period of abstaining are crucial cues that causevoluntary instrumental behaviours directing him to further approach cigarettesthrough purchasing, ordering alcohol or “sharing” with friends. Hence, theculmination of these “symptoms” John experiences can only be fulfilled throughvoluntary instrumental behaviour that will ultimately lead him towards theunconditioned stimulus that is “relief”.

 Similar studies by Skinner in 1932 examined the pace in which ratslearned to perform free operant procedures through learning to press a leverpresented to them that presents a desirable food pellet as the outcome. Having thentrained the rats to press the lever, Bolles et al. trained rats to both pressand push levers upwards to deliver food pellets. He then scheduled the food tobe released occasionally for presses and for pushes at other times. Over time, ratslearned to adapt to the adjustment and dispersed their presses and pushes.

Withthe addition of punishment in the form of shock applied to either the push orpress, the former was performed at significantly lower rates by the rat. These variablesmade to the experiment allowed Bolles et al. (1980) to successfully demonstratethat actions were sensitive to their instrumental relationship with the outcome.Where Skinner’s (1932) original study observed the growing possibility betweenaction and outcome in pressing the lever as an example of positive reinforcement,by contrast, Bolles et al. (1980) procedure for punishment exemplified how negativerelations between action and outcome could eliminate events that would haveotherwise occurred (Dickinson, 2012).

Much like John, when such a relationincreases the probability of the action, this further highlights the role of positivereinforcement. Furthermore, John’s relationship with nicotine reveals hownegative reinforcement applies to drug use despite being perceived as a rewardin the early due to the “pleasant feeling” they impart, the rewards of perhapsfriendship and social engagement. But later having “quit smoking” highlights withdrawalsymptoms due to “greater unease and stronger cravings”. Through theseexperiences, John may continue to take cigarettes to avoid these unpleasant symptomsand although the positive reinforcement may have receded, tolerance indicatesthat the drug would be needed to achieve a high, it may be hard to deliver. Thisconfirms that John’s drug use is because of negative reinforcement as he avoidsthe unpleasant cravings he experiences in these social occasions. Moreover, John’s behaviour can be used toreveal how processes of Pavlovian Learning may relate to those of instrumental learning.Not only do Pavlovian conditioned stimuli elicit unconditioned responses butthey also elicit voluntary instrumental responses that focus on a shared conditionedstimulus.

In the first phase of Pavlovian training we may observe a ratlearning that a conditioned stimulus such as a sound may predict the presenceof an unconditioned response such as food. Additionally, in a second phase, instrumentaltraining will see that the rat is able to learn that lever pressing is alsoable to produce food. Once these types of learning have been established, thereis a critical transfer stage referred to as the Pavlovian Instrumental transferwhere the instrumental lever pressing response is performed but only to presentthe Pavlovian conditioned stimulus periodically. The rate of lever pressingthen increases when the conditioned sound response is presented if the Pavlovianassociation can successfully motivate further instrumental behaviour (Domjan,2014). In the case of John where both the drug and atmosphere are relevant tothe state of unease and craving, the atmosphere can be more effective as the drugcue, specifically an atmosphere with the alcohol consumption can be responsiblefor retrieving an expectation of the drug effect thus setting up a platform forvoluntary instrumental behaviour (Mackintosh, 2013).  Using these ideas of learning, we canunderstand how John’s withdrawal continues to contribute to the maintenance ofhis substance addiction to nicotine.

Previously John’s drug use was maintained throughrecreational use and being a “social smoker” due to the rewarding properties ofthe drug which can be classified as positive reinforcement. It is also importantto remember that drug addiction is only rewarding when it provides anindividual pleasure. Without pleasure from the substance, it is unlikely that theindividual will become addicted. In trying to “quit” and “abstain” fromsmoking, John’s addiction is further driven by the manifestation of thewithdrawal syndrome where learning to take the drug to undo his cravings willbe seen as negative reinforcement. Those addicted like John undergo withdrawalin an environment such as “beer with mates”.

This kind of environment is theconditioned stimulus that elicits a conditioned withdrawal state whenencountered again in the future. This commonly motivates relapse due to hisdrug use via negative reinforcement (Wikler, 1973) while neurochemical changes occurringwithin the brain’s reward and stress pathway encourages the negative motivationstate behind addiction (Koob, 2006). Furthermore, this drug taking promotion followsthe shift from goal-directed actions of socialisation towards more habitualones where John must rely on cigarettes every few hours of a day (Ehlers , 2017).Ultimately, we realise that addiction is aformulation of habits that are positively or negatively reinforced through our surroundingenvironment, thoughts and experiences.

Not only individually, but all learning phenomena’smay be experienced in various combinations that effectively demonstrate theirresponsibility in influencing patterns of relapse despite attempts inabstaining from substance use and addiction. 

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