Classical, Operant Conditioning, and Cognitive-Social Learning

The Possible Alcohol Learning Experience

The Possible Alcohol Learning Experience

One of the most difficult and misunderstood behaviors is that of alcohol addiction. Many times addictions are considered through the disease model of understanding. However, alcohol abuse can be considered within the framework of learning. While alcohol addiction presents a complex social and psychological problem it might have its roots in learning through operant, classical conditioning, or social learning models.

To understand alcohol abuse, one must understand the differences between operant, classical, and social conditioning learning. Operant conditioning refers to behaviors triggered by outside stimuli. The learned behaviors created by operant conditioning are influenced by psychological forces such as reinforcements, rewards, and punishment. According to Skinner, reinforcements are motivators that increase the likeliness that certain behaviors will be repeated. Skinner distinguished two forms of reinforcement which he designated positive and negative (Chiesa, 2004). There is a common misconception attached with reinforcement in that many people mistake the connotative definitions of negative and positive to mean reward and punishment. In actuality, positive reinforcement is the strengthening of behavior by applying a particular outcome when a desired behavior is performed. For instance: praise and reward. In contrast negative reinforcement is the strengthening of behavior by removal or avoidance of an outcome (Chiesa, 2004). This could include lack of praise or lack of reward. The confusion is that punishment is often seen as negative reinforcement. This is really a misnomer. Punishment really was considered a detractor from reinforcement.

Within this conceptual framework of operant conditioning, one can see how this learning model might accidently create alcohol abuse behavior. Alcohol abuse in this manner can be seen as a learned behavior in that the individual who is caught in the behavioral process is prone to thinking of the stimulus (e.g. work performance) as some form of positive reinforcement (drugs, alcohol, gambling, sex, etc…). The effect of alcohol can be seen as a positive reinforcement in that it makes the person feel good. This idea is however illusionary in that the effect of the alcohol (the positive reinforcement) is what becomes the dominating drive rather than a particular learned behavior or task completion. An alcoholic might say that they are drinking because they had a great day at work and did their job great and they are celebrating with a drink. This becomes the positive reinforcement for good work performance. However, over time the effect of alcohol instead of reinforcing the good performance behavior becomes the drive of person. The same person might reward themselves with alcohol for a good job but at the same time drink because they lost their job. The behavior at this point has become an addiction because the person has conditioned themselves to drink in response to multiple stimulus or circumstance.

In the same manner in which operant conditioning can create alcohol abuse, classical conditioning can also create the same issue. “Generally speaking, classical (or Pavlovian) conditioning involves pairing an involuntary response (for example, salivation) that is usually evoked by one stimulus with a different, formerly neutral stimulus (such as a bell or a touch on the leg) (Kowalski & Westen, 2009).”

In Pavlov’s experiments this point illustrates the four basic elements of classical conditioning:

1. The first is an unconditioned stimulus, such as food, which when presented to a dog prompts a reaction of salivation.
2. The salivation reaction is the unconditioned response and is the second element and always results from the unconditioned stimulus. Thus the dog salivates whenever food is presented.
3. The third element is the neutral stimulus the ringing bell which is called the conditioned stimulus. (Which is sounded whenever food is going to be presented.)
4. Frequent pairing of the conditioned stimulus and unconditioned stimulus produces the fourth element in the classical conditioning process: the conditioned response. (The dog salivates when the bell is sounded.) (Kowalski & Westen, 2009).

Within the Pavlovian framework one might learn to abuse alcohol through conditioning. In an obvious example one might develop a reliance on alcohol for socialization. This might happen if they met a new lover or good friend while they were drinking. The feeling of elation from meeting this person has translated to drinking because the person associates drinking with the meeting the new friend or lover. This is a complex learning process which many people misinterpret. Classical conditioning involves a neutral stimulus to truly be referred to as a classical conditioning. In this case, meeting the new lover or friend is the neutral stimulus and the person has learned to abuse alcohol because they associate it with meeting new people or good feeling wrought from the socialization process. This strikes to the heart of how alcohol abuse can be created. But there is also a built in response or process which can help to reduce this type of learning. This process is known as extinction.

In classical conditioning, extinction refers to a process which the learned response is weakened with the presentation of the conditional stimulus without the unconditioned response. In this way, the person who abuses alcohol might experience extinction of the learned behavior by slowly exposing the person to socializing without drinking. In this way, the person is made cognizant that the need to drink is unfounded. This can be a slow process but can be successful in removing classical conditioning. It should be noted that extinction also occurs within operant conditioning when a stimulus is no longer associated with reinforcement. In the case of alcohol abuse, if alcohol is removed as the reinforcement the negative behaviors associated with alcohol will also cease.

This concept highlights the fact that behavior can be altered through any form of conditioning once the true reinforcements and stimulus are discovered. This gives way to many aspects of conditioning (operant and classical) in which negative and positive outcomes can be achieved. By actively applying these models the causes and cures for many phobias and addictions can be understood better and hopefully cured.

Cognitive-Social Learning may provide another learning model which can adequately explain alcohol abuse. The cognitive-social learning model posits that new behavior is learned through observing what other people do and do not do (McAlister, 2008). This observation extends beyond first-hand observations into media which presents many different learning experiences. The cognitive-social model is based on observation but still takes into account the reward and punishment aspects of behavior. Depending how the behavior was received by others will help to determine whether the behavior is modeled by the observer.

Within the context of alcohol abuse, one might learn to abuse alcohol from observing family or peer groups. For example, a teenager seeing the popular kids at school drinking on a Saturday night might cause the young person to model this behavior in the hope that he or she will become popular. In the same way, parents who abuse alcohol in front of their children have created a behavior that can be modeled since the children may not see a negative impact from the parents drinking.

The extinction of this behavior can also be created by changing the person’s modeling observations. This could be done either purposefully by the person or through indirect action. For example, a person desiring to stop abusing alcohol might begin hanging out with people who do not drink and begin modeling their behaviors. This might also explain why groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous might work. Whether the person is actually quitting drinking as a result of the group interaction is debatable, but merely by associating with a group of people who do not drink anymore might be providing the new behaviors to model.

By understanding these learning processes, individuals who abuse alcohol can be helped to eliminate the learned behavior from their lives through the extinction process. Merely understanding the different learning processes can assist a person tremendously by virtue of understanding why he or she is persisting in the behaviors. The true benefit of understanding these learning models may yet help healthcare professionals in their resolve to help people recover from addictive behaviors.


Chiesa, M. (2004).Radical Behaviorism: The Philosophy and the Science

Kowalski, R., & Westen, D. (2009). Psychology (5th ed.). Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.

McAlister AL, Perry CL, Parcel GS. How Individuals, Environments, and Health Behaviors Interact: Social Cognitive Theory. In: Health Behavior and Health Education: Theory, Research, and Practice 4th Edition. San Francisco, CA: John Wiley & Sons, Inc; 2008: 169–188.

Photo by Michael Discenza on Unsplash


Triola Vincent. Fri, Apr 02, 2021. Classical, Operant Conditioning, and Cognitive-Social Learning Retrieved from

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