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Social Learning Theory of Addiction and Recovery Implications

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.

According to social learning theory, our observations of other people engaging in addictive behavior can lead to the development of addiction. When we observe the behavior and reactions of other people using addictive substances (or activities) we may wish to repeat what we saw. For instance, suppose we observed an agitated, frazzled parent coming home from work. She drinks a few drinks, then becomes relaxed and fun to be around. We observed that alcohol is a good way of coping with stress.

Recovery consists of learning new ways to cope with stress. This might include developing friendships with people who do not use addictive substances. By associating with people who enjoy life without alcohol or drugs, we observe and learn something new. Recovery might also include watching a friend, coach, sponsor, or therapist modeling healthy behavior. We could then begin practicing these behaviors. For instance, a therapist and therapy participant could role-play a situation where a friend is offering them drugs. With practice, the therapy participant would learn how to cope with peer pressure to use.

Questions for personal reflection from social learning theory: Wouldn't I benefit from realizing that just because my parents smoked pot in order to cope with stress at work, I don't need to do the same thing? Wouldn't I be better off if I developed some relationships with people who didn't smoke pot? What else do I really have in common with my friends except buying and smoking marijuana together? Are those people really my friends? What would happen if I had other friends who enjoyed healthier activities? Wouldn't I learn to enjoy those activities with them?