Social learning theory is a psychological theory that explains how social interactions and observations can influence a person’s behavior. This theory has been applied to various areas of human behavior, including addiction. In this article, we will explore how social learning theory can explain alcoholism.

What is Social Learning Theory?

Social learning theory was initially proposed by Albert Bandura in the 1960s.

The theory suggests that individuals learn through observing and imitating others’ behaviors. According to this theory, individuals are more likely to adopt behaviors that they have observed being rewarded or positively reinforced.

How Does Social Learning Theory Explain Alcoholism?

Alcoholism is a complex disorder that has both genetic and environmental factors. While genetics plays a significant role in an individual’s susceptibility to alcoholism, social learning theory suggests that environmental factors also contribute to the development of alcoholism.

According to social learning theory, individuals are more likely to drink alcohol if they observe their peers or family members drinking and being positively reinforced for their behavior. For instance, if an individual’s family members regularly consume alcohol and are rewarded for their drinking behavior (e.g., by experiencing positive emotions or improved social interactions), the individual may learn that drinking alcohol is a socially acceptable and rewarding activity.

Moreover, social learning theory suggests that individuals who lack positive coping mechanisms may turn to alcohol as a way of dealing with stress or negative emotions. For example, if an individual observes their parent using alcohol as a coping mechanism for stress or anxiety, they may learn that drinking alcohol is an effective way of managing negative emotions.

Implications for Treatment

Understanding the role of social learning in the development of alcoholism can have important implications for treatment. By recognizing the impact of environmental factors on an individual’s drinking behavior, therapists can help patients identify triggers for their drinking behavior and develop healthier coping mechanisms.

For example, cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is a type of therapy that is based on social learning theory. CBT helps individuals identify negative thought patterns and behaviors and replace them with healthier alternatives. By identifying the environmental factors that contribute to an individual’s drinking behavior, therapists can help patients develop strategies for avoiding triggers and managing stress without resorting to alcohol.


Social learning theory provides a useful framework for understanding the role of environmental factors in the development of alcoholism. By recognizing the impact of social interactions and observations on an individual’s behavior, therapists can develop effective treatment strategies that address both genetic and environmental factors contributing to alcoholism.