Let’s Explore The Learned Component Of Motivation

By Darlene Silvernail PhD LMHC CAP


Let’s explore the learned component of motivation in relation to substance use, abuse, and addiction to understand the concept better.

The development of substance dependence can be seen as part of a learning process. For instance, if you heard from somewhere that a drink at the end of a hard day’s work lessens your stress and helps you unwind and if commercials also advertise this notion and support this thinking, then environmental factors support your decision to use alcohol and drugs to cope with stress. Motivation and incentive are important concepts with regard to substance dependence.

A person abusing a substance experiences a psychoactive effect. This effect is highly rewarding or reinforcing and activates the circuits in the brain that makes it more likely that this behavior will be repeated. The brain has systems that have evolved to guide and direct behavior toward stimuli that are critical to survival (Robbins & Everitt, 1996). Therefore, each time the person feels stressed, he or she associates it with a drink or a pill (associated learning; conditioned stimuli). Let’s look at an example.

Stimuli associated with drinking and coping with stress activate specific pathways and reinforce the behaviors that lead to obtaining corresponding goals (Cardinal, Parkinson, Hall, & Everitt, 2002). Psychoactive substances artificially activate the same pathways, which are activated by important stimuli, such as food, water, danger, and mates. The brain is tricked by the substances into responding as if the substances and their associated stimuli are biologically needed, therefore, leading to enhanced motivation to continue this behavior (Robinson & Berridge, 2000).

Thus, according to this theory, dependence is the result of a complex interaction of the physiological effects of substances on brain areas associated with motivation and emotion, combined with learning about the relationship between substances and substance-related cues (Robbinson & Berridge, 2000).

Dr. Silvernail is a Licensed Mental Health Counselor with a PhD in Psychology and Addictionology Counseling. Dr. Silvernail is the CEO of Silvernail Consultant Services, (www.SilvernailConsultantServices.com) and currently is the Clinical Supervisor for Total Recovery Now in Lake Worth.