The Learning Approach


Initiation of a Gambling Addiction

Initially, the person may see others winning at gambling. Their expectations may then drive them to place their first bet, e.g. starting with the lottery or a small bet. Once started, the excitement is associated with the whole gambling process, reinforcing the positive feeling it produces. This may be furthered with their occasional win, especially in the start, which then leads them to become addicted.

Maintenance of a Gambling Addiction

The operant conditioning model proposes that people continue to gamble because of the intermittent reinforcement (reward) that is characteristic of most types of gambling. As a result, they become used to long periods without rewards and their gambling behaviour is reinforced by the occasional payout.

Constant association of excitement with gambling reinforces the relationship between the two. The compulsion is stronger if they don’t win.

Relapse of a Gambling Addiction

Adults learn to associate their stimuli with their gambling behaviour (classical conditioning). Their stimuli (e.g. slot noise) act as triggers for gambling because they have the ability to increase arousal. If, after a period of abstinence, an individual comes into contact with one of these conditioned cues, they are at higher risk of relapse.


A problem for explanations of gambling based on operant conditioning is that it’s difficult to apply the same principles to all forms of gambling. For example, some forms have a short-time frame between the behaviour and the reward, such as a scratch card, whereas others have a longer time frame and are less to do with chance and more to do with skill.

A problem with the study is that it doesn’t take individual differences into account. It explains addiction in terms of the consequences of the gambling behaviour and although this may explain why some people initially engage in gambling (or an addictive behaviour) however there are some aspects that are not dealt with by this explanation. Although many people gamble at some point during their lives and experience the reinforcements associated with the behaviour, relatively few become addicts. This suggests that there are other psychological factors involved in a gambling addiction.

There are different types of gamblers and understanding these may help understand the treatment needed. Gamblers with behaviourally conditioned pathways start gambling because of their exposure to gambling and are motivated to seek treatment. (Blaszczynski and Nower.) Emotionally vulnerable gamblers have accompanying anxiety and/ or depression and have a history of poor coping skills. Their accompanying psychological dysfunction makes them resistant to change and means they’ll require treatment for their other vulnerabilities as well as their gambling problem.


  • Social Learning Theory (or observed learning) was proposed by Bandura. (1977)

Initiation of a Smoking Addiction

SLT theory suggests that people will imitate behaviours of others. They are more likely to imitate if they observe others being rewarded for the behaviour. This is called Vicarious Reinforcement.

SLT also takes into account some cognitive functions such as:

  1. Role Models- respect for a role model may increase likelihood of imitation
  2. Self-efficacy- their confidence in performing the behaviour
  3. Self-concept- what they think of themselves

SLT proposes that young people begin smoking as a consequence of the social models they have around them who smoke. (Kandel and Wu 1995) This indicates that experimental smoking is primarily a function of parental and peer role modelling and the vicarious reinforcement that leads young people to expect positive and social consequences from smoking.

Popularity could also be an incentive as there has been a positive relationship between smoking at age 16 and boy popularity 2 years later.

Maintenance of a Smoking Addiction

People learn and behave because of how they are rewarded or punished for their behaviour.

A reward increases the likelihood oh behaviour and a punishment decreases the likelihood.

Therefore if you get rewarded for an addictive behaviour, you will continue but you may stop if you then are punished.

The repetition of the act of smoking eventually leads to a strong conditioned association between the sensory aspects of smoking (sight of a packet, smell of smoke) and the reinforcing effects of nicotine.

Relapse of a Smoking Addiction

People learn and behave because of conditioned associated stored in memory. (Classical Conditioning)

Pavlov first discovered this.

Conditioned cues associated previously with receiving nicotine increase the likelihood that the smoker will respond by smoking.

Hogarth et al (2010) found that the amount of craving increased. Significant when a conditioned stimulus related to smoking was presented.

A concept related to the social learning explanation of smoking is self-efficacy, a person’s belief in their ability to succeed in a situation.

Among adults, those who smoke have frequently have less confidence in their ability to abstain and are more likely to relapse. (Laurance and Rubinson 1989)


Many of the claims of role models on the development of addictive behaviours have been supported by research evidence.  For example, DiBlasio and Benda (1993) found that peer group influences are the primary influence for adolescents who smoke or use drugs. Those adolescents who smoked were more likely to ‘hang out’ with those who also did. Kardner and Finn (2005) found that youth whose parents smoked were 1.88 times more likely to start. If they had siblings who smoked they were 2.64 times more likely and close friends were 8 times more likely.

There is supporting evidence for the importance of conditioned cues. Thewissen et al (2008) had two rooms, in one they presented 33 smokers with a cue predicting smoking and the others presented a cue predicting smoking unavailability. Results supported the view that a cue will later lead to a greater urge to smoke.

The learning approach may have implications on treatment for addictive behaviour. Drummond et al (1990) propose a treatment approach based on the idea of cues playing a major role in the maintenance of the habit. The proposed treatment, cue exposure, involves presenting the smoker cues without the opportunity to smoke. This leads to a phenomena known as stimulus discrimination, as without the reinforcement of nicotine, the association between the cue and the smoking is lessened. Meaning that the craving will be reduced when they are exposed to that particular cue.