Aversive conditioning refers to when an unpleasant stimulus follows a behavior. By associating something aversive with a specific behavior, that behavior will be less likely to occur again.
Behaviors that are associated with an unpleasant stimulus are weakened and less likely to occur again.
Aversive Conditioning Definition and Overview
Sometimes aversive conditioning occurs naturally in our everyday lives, such as when we fail to study then get a bad score in an exam. Similarly, it sometime it is part of a structured intervention to treat an unwanted behavior.
When part of a treatment intervention, aversive conditioning is sometimes called aversion therapy or counterconditioning.
Aversive stimuli include:
- Medications that induce nausea
- Electrical shock
- Unpleasant imagery
- Nausea-inducing smells and tastes
- Physical pain
Aversive therapy can be controversial. Some object to the use of punishment as a therapeutic tool, while others object to its use because of its ineffectiveness.
Aversive Conditioning Examples
- Bike Accident: The first time a child tries to ride their bike without training wheels, they crash into a tree. Thereafter, the child prefers to keep the training wheels on.
- Jellyfish in the Ocean: A person enters the ocean to enjoy frolicking in the waves. Instead, they are stung by a jellyfish. From then on, whenever they go to the beach, they stay on the sand and out of the water.
- Speeding Tickets: Getting a speeding ticket when driving over the speed limit is a type of financial punishment meant to decrease unlawful behavior. As there is an added punishment for misbehavior, this is called positive punishment.
- Getting Angry when Criticized: Some people will have a very aversive response to being criticized that might involve expressing anger at the person delivering the negative remarks. This makes criticism less likely to occur again.
- Rubber-band Snapping: Whenever a person recognizes that an unwanted impulse or thought has occurred, they snap a rubber-band that has been placed around their wrist.
- Taking Away Privileges: When a child misbehaves, many parents will take away certain privileges as a form of punishment.
- Applying Neem Oil: Neem oil has a very bitter taste. When applied to finger-nail polish it can deliver an unpleasant sensation when someone bites their nails.
- Using a Squirt-Gun: To stop a cat from climbing on the kitchen table, its owner shoots it with a squirt-gun filled with water whenever it gets on the table.
- Antabuse to Induce Nausea: This is a prescription medication that causes nausea about 10 minutes after a person ingests alcohol.
- After-School Detention: Many schools have a detention program where students that misbehave have to stay at school for an hour or longer.
Requirements for Successful Aversive Conditioning
There is no guarantee that aversive conditioning will be effective. There are at least 5 factors that should be considered before implementing an intervention.
- Motivation Strength: Will the aversive stimulus be strong enough to overpower the level of motivation to engage in the behavior? An aversive stimulus may not be strong enough to counteract some hard-wired behaviors in animals.
- Contingency: This refers to the reliability of the aversive stimulus being paired with the unwanted target behavior. The more frequently there is no pairing, the less effective the conditioning.
- Intensity: The level of intensity cannot be so strong that it traumatizes the animal or person. This is one of the criticisms of using aversive conditioning.
- Timing: The more contiguous the occurrence of the target behavior with the aversive stimulus the better. Ideally, delivery of the aversive stimulus should occur within .5 second after the target behavior.
- Alternative/Replacement Behavior: Not only should the target behavior be extinguished, but it is best to provide an alternative behavior to replace the unwanted action.
Aversive Conditioning Strengths and Weaknesses
The greatest strength of aversive conditioning is that it tends to lead to rapid behavioral adaptation, such as when a child stops misbehaving to avoid being punished.
It can also be applied to a wide range of contexts and target behaviors, including with animals.
However, it is also seen as developing an adversarial relationship between the authority figure and the animal or person whose behavior is targeted. This can lead to relationship breakdowns and resentment.
Furthermore, when used with humans, if a behavior is avoided simply to evade punishment, people may not learn the moral or foundational rationale for why the behavior should be avoided.
As a result, at times, it is better to teach a person to evade a behavior for moral reasons rather than selfish reasons. This prevents young people from being overly reliant on external motivations for behaviors.
It may also lead to negative side effects such as increased anxiety or fear.
Additionally, ethical concerns may arise from the use of aversive stimuli, particularly if they cause significant distress or harm to the individual.
|Aversive Conditioning Strengths||Aversive Conditioning Weaknesses|
|Is applicable to various contexts, including in schools and workplaces, and even with animals.||The effects may not be long-lasting as people avoid a behavior merely to avoid punishment rather than out of intrinsic desire.|
|Tends to lead to rapid behavior change due to the strong negative incentive for engaging in certain behaviors.||It may have ethical consequences, and should only be used once ethics have been taken into account.|
|May lead to unintended negative associations, where the punishment is generalized to other stimuli.|
Case Studies of Aversive Conditioning
1. Bed-Wetting (Nocturnal Enuresis, NE)
According to the Mayo Clinic, bed-wetting is “involuntary urination while asleep after the age at which staying dry at night can be reasonably expected.” It may not be a reason for concern before the age of 7.
The Sleep Foundation estimates that “Bedwetting affects five to seven million children in the US and 5 to 10% of all seven-year-olds.”
Although often not a severe issue, children that struggle with bed-wetting may experience social anxiety and be reluctant to attend school.
The most common treatment for NE is the urine alarm or the bell-and-pad. This system works by sounding an alarm whenever liquid is detected in the bed or on the clothing.
Adler (2011) reports that “There is a high level of evidence for using an alarm to treat NE and this has well-supported efficacy…which increases with the duration of therapy” (p. 17).
3. Nail Biting (Onychophagia)
Nail biting is a common behavior, but in some cases can become a serious issue. This occurs when nail-biting starts to interfere with a person’s daily life or is not within the person’s control.
Koritzky and Yechiam (2011) recruited 80 participants that wished to cease their nail-biting habit to take part in a 6-week program.
Half of the participants wore non-removable reminders (NrR) in the form of wristbands. The bands serve as a constant reminder of their resolution to cease their nail-biting behavior.
The other half of the participants wore a bitter-tasting nail enamel mixed with the color of their choosing.
Nail-biting was assessed at the beginning of the program, as well as in week 3 and end of week 6.
The results indicated “that both NrR and aversion methods were significantly effective in reducing nail-biting levels throughout the program…revealing an advantage to aversion-based method” (p. 521).
3. Aversive Conditioning and Animal Behavior
Some people object to the use of aversive conditioning because they imagine its most extreme form, such as delivering an intense electrical shock to curb behavior.
However, there are much milder versions that can be very effective and are often applied in animal training.
For example, training one’s dog to not put their front paws on the table to prop themselves up and snatch someone’s meal. Larger dogs are especially prone to this behavior because it is so easy.
It is also a behavior that is quite difficult to extinguish because the reward is so powerful and occurs on an intermittent schedule of reinforcement.
Enter the “shaker can.” A shaker can is a soda can with a few coins or small pebbles placed inside.
It’s placed on the edge of the table so that when the dog jumps up to look for food, the can falls easily. When it does, it creates a loud noise that startles the dog.
This is a form of aversive conditioning that can be very effective after just a few trials.
Aversive conditioning involves delivering an unpleasant stimulus when an unwanted behavior occurs. The animal or person associates their behavior with an unpleasant stimulus. This makes that behavior less likely to occur again.
Mild forms of aversive conditioning occur in our everyday lives, such as when receiving a speeding ticket or when a student must endure after-school detention.
Aversive conditioning is also used in the treatment of more severe unwanted behavior, such as nail-biting and alcohol use.
Although aversive conditioning can be effective, it also has several negatives. For instance, delivering unpleasant stimuli can be traumatizing if not calibrated correctly. Some individuals object to using punishment to modify behavior based on principle.
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