Maladaptive Application of the Social Learning Theory: A Case Study
The subject of this discussion is Matt, a thirty-nine-year-old white male who lives in Somerville, Massachusetts. He is an individual the author had an involved social relationship with from 2005-2014 at which time she ceased communications with him as a result of his emotionally abusive behaviors. The facts of the case, therefore, are pertinent to the era -- both before and during -- the time in which the author knew Matt intimately and, while the author may speculate as to his current stage of development, she does not have direct experience with him after the end of 2014.
Matt was born on January 29, 1981 in Toledo, Ohio where he grew up with his parents Joy and Russ and his two younger brothers, Jason and Greg. He rarely talked about his childhood, but the impression was always that it was stable and without major incident. In 1997 at the age of sixteen, Matt was accepted to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge, Massachusetts where he completed a combined BS/MS in Chemical Engineering Practice in 2002. After graduation, Matt got a job as a chemical engineer at a small startup in a Boston suburb where he still works to this day. Matt has moved around a fair amount in the Boston area, though he has lived in Somerville since 2011. He lives off and on with his girlfriend Alexis, with whom he’s had an open relationship since 2012. Matt is an avid reader, an animal-lover, a sailor, a biker, and an extremely loyal friend. A natural introvert, Matt is shy with a quirky sense of humor. He often confessed to having high social anxiety, especially while he was sober, and had frequent bouts of depression, though all self-reported and not officially diagnosed by a medical or psychosocial professional.
Matt’s biggest “extracurricular activity” is music. He plays electric/acoustic bass, electric/acoustic guitar, piano/keyboard, drums, and saxophone and sings, though he is best known as a bassist. He plays in numerous Boston area bands, some of which have gone on regional tours. The author met Matt in 2005 in Somerville, Massachusetts while he was playing with one of these bands and the two formed a fast friendship, as they both were “Ohio transplants” and, in general, had a lot in common. When the author first formed a friendship with Matt, he was kind, sweet, open, and approachable. Early in their friendship, Matt confessed to the author that one of the reasons he loved being a musician was that women (and men) found him sexually desirable, something that he’d never anticipated as a quiet, “nerdy” sixteen-year-old freshman at MIT.
After ending a five-year, rocky relationship with a woman named Janice, Matt started dating a woman named Alice in 2006. Their relationship was strong for the first two years but after they started living together in 2008, Matt started to get restless and began regularly cheating on Alice. He had always been a social drinker as well as an occasional drug user (including, but not limited to, marijuana, mushrooms, LSD, and cocaine), but as his discontent in his romantic relationship continued, his drug and alcohol intake steadily increased.
Also in 2008, Matt joined a “psychedelic rock band” in which he adopted a persona called Steve Dave. While the “real” Matt was a brilliant, genius-level mind with a degree from one of the best schools in the country and whose day job was in chemical engineering, Steve Dave was a “white trash,” dumb “partier” who behaved recklessly during performances and after shows, much to the delight of the band’s audience. In addition to personality changes, Matt also experienced drastic change is his outward appearance, going from a bleach-blonde, clean-cut “wholesome” look to long, unkempt dirty-blonde hair, a mustache or goatee, and a shabby manner of dress.
The combination of his discontent in his relationship with Alice and his growing desire to “be” the more socially extroverted Steve Dave persona escalated Matt’s risky behaviors, leading to a daily intense, often “blackout drunk,” level of drinking and drug use as well as increased manipulation of Alice, who he regularly lied to in order to cover up both his unhappiness with their relationship and his cheating. Even after Matt and Alice broke up in 2010, Matt’s adoption of Steve Dave as his social persona continued to impact his ever-escalating consumption of drugs and alcohol as well as his manipulation of those in his life, including a host of casual sexual relationships with both men and women. In the years after breaking up with Alice, Matt was involved in two open relationships with women with whom he also lived, one being Alexis, who is still his girlfriend as far as the author knows. Alexis also regularly abuses drugs and alcohol. She works as a bartender and splits her time between Somerville, Massachusetts where Matt lives and Key West, Florida, which helps cause their relationship to be highly unstable.
In 2012, Matt got a DUI while driving back from a festival in New Hampshire. As a result, his license was suspended for ninety days and he had to do court mandated drug and alcohol counseling. Matt, who does not identify as an alcoholic, completed the counseling and made a point of telling his friends that his counselor “didn’t think he needed [her] services.” After the DUI, Matt cut back on drunk driving (which had been a common thing for him to do) and switched to riding his bicycle around town more often. On at least three occasions in a two year period, Matt got into accidents on his bike while intoxicated, one of those instances requiring a trip to the emergency room for stitches and assessment for a concussion. Additionally, Matt’s general practitioner doctor had warned him about mounting concerns that Matt’s liver was showing signs of cirrhosis.
Despite his DUI, bike accidents, and liver issues, Matt’s consumption of drugs and alcohol steadily escalated. Many people in his life didn’t even know his name was Matt -- they thought it was Steve Dave. His immersion into his persona was in near totality, save for his private interactions with a few longtime, close friends. Because of her unique connection with Matt, the author was frequently nominated by their social group to try to get through to him about his reckless behavior, though the result was increased levels of manipulation, lying, and gas-lighting directed at the author as Matt built up resentment towards her. Matt displayed increasing levels of paranoia and anger towards the author wherein he projected many of his own behaviors onto her, including accusing her of being an alcoholic and of trying to manipulate him. The author made the difficult decision to end her relationship with Matt in November 2014. At that time, Matt still did not identify as an alcoholic and, to the author’s knowledge, had never been diagnosed with another mental or psychosocial issue.
Case Application of Social Learning Theory
Albert Bandura’s social learning theory “suggests that children learn moral conduct by observing models” and “are likely to repeat behaviors that are rewarded and they are likely to feel tension when they think about doing something that they have been punished for in the past” (Hutchison, 2019, p. 126). Despite this theory’s initial focus on children’s moral development, there is little doubt that modeling behaviors continue to influence humans through the complete lifespan. Going further, McLeod (2016) outlines four mediational responses to modeled behavior, including something attention grabbing to elicit a desire to imitate, the retention of that action or behavior, the ability to reproduce that action or behavior, and the will to perform that behavior. While modeled behavior is ideally something positive, in Matt’s case, the behaviors he adopted resulted from a “positive” response he received for actions that would be considered unsavory or negative in contexts outside of the “psychedelic rock band crowd.”
Individual case conceptualization
Before exploring the social learning theory more in depth, it may be useful to have a working definition of alcoholism. Courtney & Hanson (2014) report that “addiction is a major public health and social problem with far-reaching physical, psychological, social, and financial consequences” (p. 54). Until 1952, alcoholism was not even classified as a disease and, even then, it took until 1967 for psychological and medical professionals to recognize addiction as a treatable illness (Courtney & Hanson, 2014). Prior to the DSM-1 “grouping alcohol along with other toxins, such as lead and mercury, that could lead to brain damage” (McClellan, 2017, p. 123), the general assumption was that learning to “hold one’s liquor like a man” was part of the coming-of-age ritual as well as a sign of male sexual prowess (McClellan, 2017). This hyper-masculine normalization of excessive drinking was then modeled for generation after generation, resulting in a cultural understanding that it is socially acceptable for men to consume massive quantities of alcohol. As a result, studies reveal that the prevalence of excessive drinking or alcoholism with men as they are not simply more likely than women to have substance abuse issues, they are also more likely to relapse after receiving treatment and are three times more likely to die from alcohol abuse or a related issue than women (Furman, 2010). The bottom line, as Skjælaaen (2016) reports, is that “alcoholism is not one singular thing. It takes many forms, some more dignified and less destructive than others” (p. 252), adding that it is “inevitably bad but there are nuances of bad” (p. 254).
In a case like Matt’s, his drinking started to get out of control when he adopted a hyper-masculine persona, Steve Dave. Steve Dave had sex with many different people and attracted a great deal of attention and “fame” from a wide audience. Steve Dave was reckless and intentionally stupid and incredibly destructive, in both internal and external ways. Steve Dave was so many things that Matt simply was not: extroverted, crass, attention-seeking. Steve Dave was a man, something that Matt struggled to recognize in himself outside of that persona. The more he allowed himself to become this alter-ego, the more brazen his behavior and the more intensified his drinking and drug use became.
When examining social learning theory, there is significant role-modeling at play in addictive behavior, which indicates that there are social cues that the environment, including peers, deeply influence the escalation of substance abuse (Courtney & Hanson, 2014). Anderson (2017) reports that “deviance is learned behavior and such learning is principally based on social interaction” (p. 70), so social learning theory “has a strong foundation in the assumption that most forms of deviant -- and non-deviant -- behaviors are dependent on some degree of learning from and with other people” (p. 71). In this way, such behavior can be tinged as “normal” and therefore acceptable for folks to adopt (Gui et al., 2015). Guo et al. suggest that “social learning theory distinguishes two concepts: imitation and operant conditioning. When first initiated, delinquent behavior is often imitated or learned by observing similar behaviors in others. Operant conditioning is also a form of learning in which an individual’s behavior is shaped by its consequences” (p. 918-919).
For Matt, becoming so involved with the “psychedelic rock band” placed him more frequently in the company of heavy drug and alcohol users than his other social circles did. Not only did he receive positive feedback from those in that “scene” who valued becoming intoxicated every single day, he manifested a persona that “fit” with his new friends. Therefore, Matt parroted not only external forces that modeled deviant behaviors, he projected a new version of himself into that world, which allowed him to create an internal force to mirror. The changes Matt displayed would therefore indicate that he felt as if he’d achieved a heightened sense of social value with this new group of people as well as unlocking a shadow self that allowed him to stand very nearly outside of his own body and observe the deviant and destructive behavior of that persona without taking any responsibility for Steve Dave’s actions. McClellan (2017) writes, “Alcoholics [can] be obstinate and noncompliant. Denial, evasion, and lying proved particularly formidable obstacles...and physicians and family members lost patience with alcoholics who would not cooperate” (p. 123). Matt certainly fit this mold in his continuing refusal to admit his drug and alcohol abuse had gotten out of control, insisting, instead, that his behavior was “normal,” based on his surroundings. Furman (2010) states, “Compulsive behavior and addiction have immeasurable costs in the lives of many men, and in the lives of those who love them” (p. 257). In this instance, Matt’s stubborn refusal to own his destructive behavior caused him to project outward and simultaneously downplay and blame others for his actions, which ultimately lead to those who had known him for a long time to distrust their old friend and devote less time and energy trying to support him.
In tandem with his complete state of denial, both in regard to his abuse of drugs and alcohol as well as his callous treatment of other people, Matt became an expert at pointing fingers and shifting blame. Skjælaaen (2016) classifies this kind of scapegoating as “a common way of neutralizing” (p. 255) his own behaviors and other’s judgment of them. By spending so much time standing seemingly outside of his own body and watching Steve Dave lie to and manipulate so many men and women, so many sexual partners, so many “drinking buddies,” so many close friends, Matt easily convinced himself that he wasn’t doing anything harmful. In fact, it was everyone around him who was participating in destructive behavior. Based on his genius-level ability to justify his own actions as “normal,” and based on the models he drew inspiration from within Steve Dave’s world, Matt was able to turn his back to the full picture of what his behavior was doing, not only to himself but to those connected to him.
Perhaps as a way to convince himself that he did not have a problem with drugs and alcohol, Matt -- along with Alexis -- would occasionally remain intentionally sober for stretches of time, ranging from one week to one month. Here, Matt and Alexis would hyper-focus on themselves, isolating from interacting socially with others unless Matt was playing a show, which allowed them to model behavior for each other during these short stretches of sobriety. Of this mentality, Skjælaaen (2016) warns, “Dry spells as a theme of conversation signals that people are heavy drinkers” (p. 259). Going on, Skjælaaen (2016) points out that the toxic impact on the physical body as well as mental sharpness can take a significant toll, so when an alcoholic can commit to periods of sobriety, they do so with a great deal of pride. Not only is it something that couples like Matt and Alexis can cling to, it is something their audience can applaud as well. Skjælaaen (2016) writes, “Stories of abstinence are readily told and they are well-accepted by others, as listeners often react with a ‘good for you’” (p. 260). Here, again, is the echo-chamber of those engaging in deviant and toxic behavior allowing the cycle of denial to be perpetuated as they all can point to their ability to “stop whenever they want to” as evidence that they are not alcoholics or under the control of their impulse to engage in risky behaviors.
Matt was the author of this paper’s best friend for ten years and as she watched his steady decline into base and destructive behavior, her heart broke. She -- along with other mutual friends -- were not able to overpower the appealing models that fed the Steve Dave persona and gave him life. Matt wanted to shed the version of himself that was genius-level and dumb himself down to a stereotype that he felt would give him more social credibility while allowing him to overcome -- or perhaps outright ignore -- his crippling social anxiety and bouts of depression. Those were Matt problems, not Steve Dave’s. Steve Dave was there to party and nothing more. For Matt, slipping into the skin of his alter-ego opened up his world, released him from the trappings of introversion and feelings of self-loathing or unworthiness and allowed him to be a powerful, charismatic social force. By modeling the behaviors and expectations of a specific social scene, Matt was able to have more sex, feel more valued, and numb out the feelings of inadequacy that besieged him otherwise. As Courtney & Hanson report, “Loneliness and poor sense of self are psychological risk factors” (p. 60). Likewise, McClellan (2017) echoes, “Psychiatrists did not necessarily focus on excessive drinking as the primary problem. Instead, they generally identified underlying emotional conflicts or weaknesses to which excessive drinking was a maladaptive response or symptom” (p. 121-122). Matt abused drugs and alcohol as a means to travel out of his own skin and into that of the person he thinks he would rather be in order to feel “normal.” He learned to do so by retreating so far inward that a persona pushed outward and adopted the characteristics that he thought would make him popular with his new friends.
To that end, McClellan (2017) writes, “Men who relied on alcohol in the hope that its masculine connotations would compensate for feelings of confusion and inferiority risked becoming alcoholics” (p. 124). The scary truth is that 30% of suicides are committed by those who struggle with that dangerous cocktail of depression and alcoholism (Courtney & Hanson, 2014). In many ways, self-abuse through excessive drinking and drug use is little more than a slow suicide.
Alcoholism is one disease that is widely believed to have no cure (Courtney & Hanson, 2014). That seems to be doubly true for a case like Matt’s where denial features so heavily. For him, he feels balanced in what he has selectively chosen to model as normal behavior for the world of Steve Dave. Without any sense of ownership of his own deviant and destructive behaviors, Matt seemingly carries on with willful ignorance to the damage he is inflicting on his physical mind and body as well as on his spiritual core. Perhaps someday, he will take ownership of his choices and seek new behaviors to model in order to eliminate drugs and alcohol from his lifestyle and take ownership of the decisions he has made along the way. Perhaps he will morph more and more into Steve Dave and everything that was Matt will shrink to nothing. Ultimately, those choices are his to make. In the meantime, Matt’s struggles with drug and alcohol abuse will continue to plague both his inter- and intrapersonal relationships as he erroneously seeks the “rewards” of deviant behavior over making healthier life choices.
Anderson, L. (2017). Positivistic theories of deviant behavior. Deviance: Social Constructions and Blurred Boundaries, pp. 49-79. Univ of California Press.
Courtney, D and Hanson, M. (2014). Alcoholism and other drug addictions. Handbook of social work practice with vulnerable and resilient populations, pp 54-72. Gitterman, A. (Ed.). Columbia University Press.
Guo, G., Li, Y., Wang, H., Cai, T., & Duncan, G. J. (2015). Peer influence, genetic propensity, and binge drinking: A natural experiment and a replication. American journal of sociology, 121(3), 914-95.
Hutchison, E. D. (2019). Dimensions of human behavior: The changing life course. Sage Publications.
McClellan, M. L. (2017). A special masculine neurosis: psychiatrists look at alcoholism. Lady lushes: Gender, alcoholism, and medicine in modern America, pp. 119-140. Rutgers University Press.
McLeod, S. A. (2016). Bandura-social learning theory. Retrieved from https://www.simplypsychology.org/bandura.html
Skjælaaen, Ø. (2016). How to be a good alcoholic. Symbolic Interaction, 39(2), 252-267.
Research paper written in pursuit of my MSSA (2020)
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