The Sinclair Method (TSM) and Operant Conditioning

The process underlying the Sinclair Method (TSM) is known as Operant Conditioning, which many have learned about in their Psychology 101 courses.

Operant Conditioning explains how alcoholism (or alcohol use disorders) develops in the first place, as well as how naltrexone treatment works with TSM to eliminate the alcohol cravings and excessive drinking associated with alcohol dependence.

Operant conditioning is a type of learning in which the frequency of a behavior is influenced by the consequences of the behavior.  If a behavior results in a rewarding or otherwise positive experience, the likelihood of the behavior occurring again increases.  On the other hand, behaviors that result in negative experiences are less likely to be repeated.

Operant Conditioning and Alcohol Addiction

In terms of how problematic drinking behavior develops, we need to focus on why the behavior of drinking alcohol is repeated.

Within the model of operant conditioning, the explanation for why people continue drinking is simple:  Alcohol causes our brains to release naturally occurring opiates called endorphins, and these endorphins feel great.  We like the buzz!

Endorphins are a Positive Reinforcement, which means it’s an experience rewarding enough to repeat.

Operant conditioning differs from the widely known classical conditioning (Pavlov) in one major way. While in both instances environmental stimuli control or influence our behavior, they differ in their inherent natures. In examples of operant conditioning, the rewards or punishments of an action or behavior increase or decrease the frequency of the behavior.

For example, we learn not to touch hot stoves because of the pain it causes.  Or, a child may learn to open a box to get the candy that is inside of it. In both examples, the stove and the box are the discriminative stimuli.

In the case of classical conditioning on the other hand the stimuli that mark significant events produce a reflexive behavior. In the example of Pavlov’s dog the sound of the metronome made the dog salivate in anticipation of having meat.

The distinctions between operant and classical conditioning is important to know as we move forward and explore extinction as it occurs in psychology. Extinction is observable in both types of conditioned behaviors, but for the purposes of our article we will focus solely on extinction in regards to operant conditioning from this point forward.

Pharmacological Extinction

When it comes to operant conditioning the term extinction refers to the absence or process of removing or no longer providing the reinforcement, whether negative or positive, that has been maintaining a behavior or action over time. Extinction is different from forgetting.

To put it simply, forgetting refers to the decrease in the strength of an action or behavior after it has not been emitted for some time. For example, a child may climb under a bed or hide to get attention, once the attention has been cut off the attention-seeking behaviors no longer occur.

When the extinction of a response occurs the discriminative stimuli then gets referred to as the extinction stimuli. When this occurs the positive or negative reinforcements that used to occur after a certain behavior or action no longer occur. As a result, the behavior that preceded the reinforcement will generally stop as well.

In order for extinction to work it must be done on a consistent basis. Extinction is only considered successful if and when the original behavior or action no longer occurs. If said behavior were to come back it would be termed a resurgence.

Reinforcement and Rewards

Reward and punishment are the key ways that behavior and action is shaped and modified. Reward and punishment are defined by their effect on behavior. Reward serves to increase the probability of a behavior or action that they follow, while punishment serves to decrease the probability of the action or behavior that they follow.

An example of a reward would be a piece of candy for a child who behaved well, and on the other side of the example spanking a child who acted up would be a common example of punishment. Extinction can only occur when a previously reinforced behavior or action is no longer reinforced either positively or negatively.

One important thing to understand about reward and punishment is that, in the example of the child above, it is not the child who is being punished or rewarded, but rather the action or behavior.

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