Habit-forming behaviors get in the way of all of our best intentions. You plan to have one less cocktail, one less cigarette, or one less round at the online slot machine. Then something happens to your good intention, and you’re back in trouble again. One turns into many more than you can count. You can turn your habits around and make them work for you, but it’s not all that easy. Luckily, psychologists are devising new ways to help the addicted manage their bad habits. Two recent experiments highlight these efforts.

Let’s start with pathological gambling. This isn’t just a bad habit, but a serious psychological disorder. Pathological gamblers don’t just head out to the casino for an occasional foray with the black jack table or slot machine. They drain their financial resources, cause their families to desert them, and even put their lives at risk if they become indebted to the wrong people, to name a few problems. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual lists the symptoms of this disorder as fitting the criteria for a diagnosable condition of creating serious mental distress, putting themselves (or others) at risk, and deviating from cultural and social norms.  Among the many recommended treatments is cognitive-behavioral therapy, in which they learn to monitor their thoughts and design alternative reward systems that will eventually allow them to reduce the frequency of their gambling bouts.

Many approaches to treatment of pathological gambling assume that if the gamblers only learn to associate a negative outcome with the gambling, that they will then stop gambling. Of course, if that were true, they would have stopped at their very first big loss.  Based on this assumption, University of Bergen psychologist Geir Brunberg and colleagues (2012) created an experiment in which they compared pathological gamblers with controls in their ability to form associations between an aversive event and a neutral tone. Yes, intro psych fans everywhere, it’s a classical conditioning paradigm. The aversive event wasn’t a gambling loss, though, it was an event that could be easily manipulated on lab equipment; namely, a loud noise piped through headphones. In the key experimental condition, the participants heard a brief audio signal (a “B” above middle “C” on the piano). That B note was paired with a loud (100 dB) white noise signal.  Most people learn, quite rapidly, to associate B note with the aversive stimulus.  However, the pathological gamblers did not. Using a heart rate monitor, Brunberg and his team could track their learning. If they showed aversive conditioning, their heart rate would increase when they heard the B note even when the white noise was no longer presented. If not, they would show no such increase. The fact that, compared to controls, the gamblers did not suggested that they were not able to learn from negative experiences. (Note, in the actual experiment, participants learned to respond to 1 of 2 different notes, just to make the task more difficult).

Brunberg and his fellow researchers tested out a number of competing hypotheses to ensure that the effect they measured wasn’t due to other factors.  For example, people with antisocial personality disorder also have difficulty learning from aversive experiences, so antisocial tendencies were controlled for in the analysis.  They also ruled out other habits such as tobacco use, anxiety, depression, and heavy drinking. Even after all of these factors were controlled, the pathological gamblers failed to learn the association between the note and the unpleasant noise. The findings suggest that if you want to treat pathological gambling, aversion therapy is not going to be a successful strategy. These results support, instead, methods of treatment that help gamblers learn to change their thoughts about gambling and, at the same time, reward themselves when they don’t gamble with other desirable activities.

This was an example of using a classical conditioning method to shed light on treating a problematic behavior. The classical conditioning itself doesn’t lower the gambling frequency, but it does help us understand why some treatments don’t work. Now we’ll take a look at an example of another conditioning method known as instrumental or operant conditioning.  Again, think back on your intro or high school psych class, and you’ll of course remember that in operant conditioning, a behavior is strengthened (“reinforced”) by the consequence that follows it.  

I found a fascinating example of an experiment using operant conditioning to study problem drinking in which alcoholic mice rather than humans were the participants.  Mice, like humans, find the taste of beer to be reinforcing.  The mice in this study, conducted by University of Milan researcher Alessandro Orrù and colleagues (2012), learned to press a lever in return for a commercial malt beverage known as “near beer” (less than .5% ethanol).  In other conditions, mice were given stronger beer with from 4.5 to 9 to 18% alcohol.  The researchers then sat back and watched how the mice performed on a rotating rod (“rotorod”) depending on how much alcohol they had consumed. Needless to say, the more alcohol the mice consumed, the worse was their rod-running performance.  Also, the higher the concentration of alcohol, the fewer the number of presses the mice were willing to perform because each lever press packed more punch.

The point of the study was not just to create a set of inebriated lab mice, but to see how these alcohol-craving creatures would react to a medication to reduce their urge to drink. Having established these baselines of alcohol-induced lever pressing, Orrù and his colleagues then observed what happened when they were given a drug intended to interfere with alcohol's intoxicating effects. The drug, called baclofen acts on a part of the brain involved in alcohol-motivated and rewarded behaviors. In the condition where the mice were given the drug, they either waited longer before they started pressing the alcohol-producing lever, or pressed it fewer times. The experiments showed that this drug could have promise, particularly since it might be better tolerated among people with alcohol dependence than the drugs currently approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

With these simple conditioning studies, then, these research teams provide insights into how we can understand and treat complex and debilitating habits.  What’s more, by understanding how these studies worked, you can also gain insight into how psychologists make some of their most basic, but important, discoveries in the lab.  Life can inform what scientists study in the lab, and it’s rewarding to know that the process can work in both directions.

To sum up, here are the Cliff Notes version of each of these studies:

Pathological Gambling = Classical Conditioning

Unconditioned stimulus was the white noise.

Conditioned stimulus was the “B” note.

Unconditioned response was the heart rate increase. This was also the conditioned response, once it became associated with the “B” note.

Mice Drinking= Instrumental Conditioning

Lever pressing was the behavior that was rewarded.

Alcohol was the reinforcement.

The drug prevented the alcohol from being reinforcing and therefore reduced the behavior.

Many of our habitual behaviors have complex origins and aren’t always broken down into these simple learning terms. However, many are, and by studying them in the lab, researchers are helping us help ourselves to reduce our own tendencies to indulge in what’s bad for us.

Follow me on Twitter @swhitbo for daily updates on psychology, health, and aging. Feel free to join my Facebook group, "Fulfillment at Any Age," to discuss today's blog, or to ask further questions about this posting.


Brunborg, G., Johnsen, B., Mentzoni, R., Myrseth, H., Molde, H., Lorvik, I., & ... Pallesen, S. (2012). Diminished aversive classical conditioning in pathological gamblers. Addiction, 107(9), 1660-1666. do

Orrù, A., Fujani, D., Cassina, C., Conti, M., Di Clemente, A., & Cervo, L. (2012). Operant, oral alcoholic beer self-administration by C57BL/6J mice: Effect of BHF177, a positive allosteric modulator of GABA[sub]B[/sub] receptors. Psychopharmacology, 222(4), 685-700. doi:10.1007/s00213-012-2672-6i:10.1111/j.1360-0443.2012.03891.x

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