Compare and Contrast the Use of Animals and Humans in Psychological Research on Substance Abuse Essay

Compare and contrast the use of animals and humans in psychological research on substance abuse When explaining substance abuse both nature and nurture have a role to play in understanding, through the processes of dependency and withdrawal. Dependency is how difficult someone finds it to cope without another fix. Withdrawal is the effects of coming off of the drug. These processes are similar for everyone; however, they can differ because of how nature and nurture modify these experiences.

The nature side of the debate is the biological explanation which explains how when an individual takes a drug that alters the availability of one or more neurotransmitters, it affects the mood or behaviour of the person. Depressant drugs slow the brains activity and stimulants make the stimulation between one neuron to another easier. A repeated use of any drug is likely to change the chemical balances within the brain. This is due to the level of neurotransmitters in the brain being regulated.

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When a person takes a psychoactive drug which artificially changes the chemical levels within the brain, the mechanisms in the brain adjust the level of natural production. This results in the person then having to carry on taking the drug so that they can function normally. Withdrawal symptoms support the biological viewpoint strongly as they can explain how the brain is relying on the drug to function normally, so without the drug they will struggle to act normally. It can also be used to explain how drugs are used to induce psychosis.

Self-report evidence from drug users show the development of psychological needs correlates positively with dependency. However, according to the biological explanation everyone is at risk of misuse developing, for example, the drug alcohol is used by a large majority of people but only a few misuse it. Cultural norms and peer-group influences play a major part in misuse developing and if biological factors were what determine the amount required for a fix then overdosing because of context dependency would not occur.

Operant conditioning is important to consider when starting and maintaining drug taking. Positive reinforcement is effective at explaining the early stages of drug taking; it is rewarding because it produces pleasurable and desired feelings, so the behaviour is likely to recur; however this is only short-term as the effects wear off quickly. Social approval of friends also positively reinforces the taking of drugs, and the young person may also feel like they are ‘grown up’ by taking the drug.

Maintenance of drug taking and the development of substance misuse is seen as more to do with negative reinforcement. As the effect of the drug starts to wear off it can be unpleasant, which could be seen as punishment so the drug taking is continued to avoid the unpleasant experience. The learning explanation can be used to explain why different cultures react to drug taking in different ways, as they could be taking the drug to gain social reinforcement within their culture.

However, not everyone will conform to social pressure and take drugs so operant conditioning cannot be used to explain why some people resist the social approval which comes with drug taking. Some drugs produce unpleasant side effects which should put the user off however; this is not always the case as it could still lead to addiction. Biological explanations help us to understand psychological dependence better than learning explanations because they show how changes in neurotransmitter levels cause addiction.

The learning explanations are better when explaining the psychological dependence as they deal with reasons as to why people find it hard to cope without the specific drug. The biological explanation shows how misuse can appear in someone who has no contact with other drug users as the explanation only requires exposure to the drug; whereas social learning theory requires contact with others to act as models.

Learning theory would be better at explaining why someone might start taking the drug because of how they will be influenced by the social requirements and reinforcement of the drug, whereas, the biological can be used to explain chronic drug use as it explains why an addict needs to continue taking the drug. Both of these explanations use unpleasantness of withdrawal symptoms to explain addiction. The biological explanation explains how everyone is susceptible to the drug regardless of the culture, whereas the learning explanation describes how we are influenced by the people around us to take the drugs.