Reinforcement refers to the response that is probable after a stimulus. Reinforcement can be positive or negative. Positive reinforcement means that the activity or situation have beneficial outcomes such as pleasure or reward. Negative reinforcement refers to the removal or cessation of negative feelings or behaviors when an activity or situation occurs. In relation to drugs, positive and negative reinforcement are both required to instill a certain behavior in a person such as an addiction. When a person takes drugs or consumes alcohol, they may have rewarding outcomes, have fun and perhaps make new friends. When they are not under the influence, there may be negative outcomes, such as feeling socially awkward and shy. These two combined may increase the chance that a dependency or addiction may develop. The positive and negative reinforcement of the drug use may contribute to the behavior being repeated.

Drugs can make a person feel pleasure, excitement and happiness. A person may begin to take drugs as a way to forget problems, reduce stress, be part of a group and to have fun. Initially these experiences will be positive reinforcements to continue using the drugs. Subconsciously, a person may feel that when they are not under the influence that their life is boring, dull and sad and it makes them feel lonely and angry. Additionally, when a person becomes addicted to a drug, they may experience physical and psychological pain if they are not using the drug which reinforcers the use of the drug with positive feelings.

Reinforcement of the Behavior

The brain contains what is commonly referred to as the reinforcement system, or scientifically known as the mesolimbic pathway. This system is made up of reinforcers that are thought to increase the levels of dopamine in the brain. Dopamine is associated with feelings of pleasure and happiness and this chemical is also stimulated in the brain when drugs like amphetamines, ecstasy, opiates or cocaine are used.

Dopamine has a strong motivational effect on a persons’ attitude towards a behavior. If the activity results in feeling good, then a person will work towards experiencing that feeling again. Conversely, that person will also work towards escaping from the negative reinforcement. In the case of drug use, the drug synthetically makes a person experience pleasure and euphoria which feels good, then that person will pursue that experience again.

When an addiction begins to be instilled in a person, a condition known as motivational toxicity occurs. Motivational toxicity refers to the deterioration of the ability for normal rewards to stimulate or govern behavior. A person will find that former pleasurable or rewarding activities such as sex, relationships, exercise or their career are not exciting or not stimulative. This is because the ingestion of drugs are the only thing that are able to stimulate the reward system.

Negative Reinforcement

Negative experiences, feelings and emotions can also contribute to the reinforcement of a behavior. For people who have a dependency or addiction to a substance, the use of a drug as a means to get relief from stress, anxiety and depression are strong reinforcers. Many people use drugs as a way to escape from the real world which they associate with negativity. They self medicate psychological conditions with drugs because they make them feel good and help them forget. The use of drugs in this way is particularly harmful because not only is there a high risk of developing chronic addiction or dependency, but the problems and issues that a person is going through are only worsened by their drug use. Drugs do not solve problems, and chronic drug use simply magnifies the issues. If a person has an addiction to drugs, they will often experience physical and psychological suffering when they do not use the drug. This pain and suffering is a negative reinforcement. The body associates not using the substance with sickness, pain and hurt, and using the substance with no pain. When a person is high, they are not going through withdrawals.

Changing Reinforcement Patterns

A significant hurdle for many addicts to overcome is the breaking of these positive and negative reinforcers. Individuals who have the motivation to change their behavior and stop their addiction need to be engaged in activities and with people who do not reinforce the drug taking behavior. This can include distancing relationships with people who judge, humiliate or criticize a person for their addiction or for the choices they have made in their life, positive or negative. People who are on the road to recovering from their addiction need to be in environments where they can be supported to choose a life that is safer and healthier.