Reinforcement and Addiction

Models pose as drinkers in a pub
Feeling good while drinking and socializing can reinforce alcohol use. Roy Mehta / Getty Images

Reinforcement is a psychology term that refers to the way behaviors increase or decrease according to whether people associate it with a positive experience (a "reward") or a negative experience (a "punishment").

Reinforcement plays a role in many different theories of addiction, and is important in understanding both how addiction develops, and how it can be overcome. Positive and negative reinforcement can come in many different forms, and often only make sense from the point of view of the person affected.

Here are some examples of how reinforcement can cause an addiction to develop:

  • When an addictive behavior is experienced as pleasurable, the pleasure feels rewarding. The person is more likely to want to repeat the pleasurable experience.
  • When someone has a lot of discomfort, for example, through suffering from depression or chronic pain, and they experience relief from the discomfort from taking a drug, such as a painkiller, the experience will be rewarding. This makes it more likely that they will want to take the drug again.
  • When someone finds it difficult to be intimate with a sexual partner, but easy to become sexually aroused when watching pornography, watching pornography will become reinforced by the rewarding feelings of sexual arousal. At the same time, intimate relationships will be negatively reinforced, because the person will experience anxiety instead of sexual arousal. This is how sexual addiction to pornography develops.
  • When someone feels inadequate because they are carrying trauma from being sexually abused in childhood, soothing themselves by overeating can feel soothing and safe. Replacing negative feelings with positive feelings, even temporarily, reinforces overeating as a strategy to cope with feelings of inadequacy.
  • When someone feels lonely┬ábut finds it difficult to socialize, the immediate social lubrication and positive social set and setting of the pub can reinforce the idea that drinking is a good way to make friends and develop relationships with others.
  • When someone believes that winning means they are successful, and that money will make them happy, they will find winning at gambling a rewarding experience. When they lose, they will use cognitive distortion to convince themselves that they "nearly" won, increasing their anticipation of winning, and the rewarding feelings that go with it. This will reinforce the whole gambling experience for them.

Here are some examples of how reinforcement can help someone overcome an addiction:

  • When someone has been feeling out of control of an addictive behavior, and they being to abstain from that behavior, they feel powerful and in control. These positive feelings reinforce the process of abstinence.
  • When someone with depression or chronic pain learns new ways of coping that do not cut them off from their experience of life as drugs do, it reinforces the rewarding feelings of freedom from painkillers.
  • When someone begins to develop intimacy in their relationships with others, they feel more valued and respect others more. These positive feelings reinforce the development of genuine relationships with others, rather than the artificial and imaginary relationship that a person has with a pornographic image.
  • When someone struggling with gambling addiction develops a rational and realistic understanding of their odds of winning, and of feeling better about themselves if they do win, the process of accepting reality and self-acceptance is reinforced.


Hogg, M. & Vaughan, G. Social Psychology: An Introduction. New York: Prentice Hall. 1995.

Orford, J. Excessive Appetites: A Psychological View of Addictions. Second Edition. Chicester: Wiley. 2001.

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