Can Addiction Be Considered Learned Behavior?

The nature of addiction is a complex one. There is some thought that it should be considered as a learning disorder, and therefore treated as such. The tough sentences and harsh consequences doled out by courts is not having the desired effect. And society as a whole is failing to learn the lesson that an individual with addiction requires rehabilitation over punitive measures

Addiction as Learned Behavior

Addiction cannot occur without learning having taken place. Since the majority of addictive behaviors begin in an individual’s teens or early twenties, the learning of addiction takes place during the developmental years, and the patterns of behavior become deeply ingrained.

An individual who is actively participating in substance abuse learns to associate the taking of that substance with feeling better. Because it makes them feel better, they will continue to take that substance, even if it means that there are negative consequences down the line. This is a form of ‘classical conditioning’.

Another form of conditioning is when the individual doesn’t suffer immediate unpleasant consequences, and so it becomes a rewarding experience. That is ‘operant conditioning’. It’s a system of rewards and punishment. In this case, where there is no prompt punishment, the more likely it is that an individual will continue with substance abuse.

Finally, the ‘rational choice theory’ can drive addiction. A rational individual will evaluate all options and possible risk, and make the best choice within the situation. Because substance use can lead to the individual feeling better, it releases dopamine in the brain, which is the feel good neurotransmitter. Therefore the individual feels that they are making the only rational choice by continuing to take substances.

Treating Addiction as a Learning Disorder

Changing perceptions to accept addiction as a learning disorder is the first step towards treating it correctly. For eg, if an individual’s friends and family stop enabling their negative behavior and allow them to face the unpleasant consequences, instead of shielding them, then it is reasonable to think that the individual will want to address their problem.

Since addiction is learned, recovery can also be learned. Such learning can only take place when something unexpected happens to the individual. This could be a brush with the law, losing their job, or loved ones holding them accountable.

The really important thing to realize is that the brain will learn that the old rules don’t apply anymore, and it’s time to learn new, positive associations.


Recovery is hard work but you don’t have to do it alone. Call The Villa to find out how we can support your goals for sober living.