Avoidance learning is a learning process in which a person or animal learns to avoid a negative stimulus.
For example, cows may learn that an electric fence will cause a shock so, to avoid being shocked, they will walk the long way around the fence to get to their food.
By engaging in an adaptive behavior, these cows avoid the aversive stimulus.
Avoidance Learning Definition
In operant conditioning, it is believed that learning can be optimized by providing stimuli (in the form of rewards and punishments). People change their behaviors in order to maximize reward and minimize punishment.
The avoidance learning concept from operant conditioning holds that when we provide an aversive stimulus (i.e a positive punishment), people and animals are incentivized to avoid them by engaging in particular actions.
Avoidance learning can be separated into two types: active and passive.
- Active avoidance learning refers to engaging in avoidance behaviors in order to minimize the chances of a negative stimulus occurring. For example, we might actively choose the long way home at night to avoid a scary dark alley.
- Passive avoidance learning refers to avoiding a situation altogether that involves an aversive stimulus. For example, we might choose to simply not go out at night so we don’t run into dark alleys. Here, we’re not performing an action, but rather avoiding taking action altogether, to avoid a negative consequence.
This difference is summarized in the table below:
|Active Avoidance||Passive Avoidance|
|Definition||“Active avoidance…describes behaviors that reduce the occurrence of aversive outcomes when they are performed.” (Manning et al., 2021, p. 20)||Passive avoidance “reduces the occurrence of aversive outcomes when specific behaviors are not performed” (Manning et al., 2021,p. 20).|
|Behavior||Actively doing something evasive in order to minimize chances of an aversive consequence.||Choosing not to do anything at all in order to minimize chances of an aversive consequence.|
|Example||Taking daily tablets so you don’t get malaria on your holiday to Cambodia.||Not going on holiday to Cambodia at all because you think it’s too risky.|
Avoidance Learning Examples
- Studying to Prevent Failing (Active): Students know that when a test is approaching (warning stimulus) they can avoid failing (aversive stimulus) by studying. This is an example of active avoidance learning.
- Not Eating Foods that Cause an Allergic Reaction (Passive): When a person has learned that they are allergic to soy (aversive stimulus), they will not eat (avoidant behavior) tofu or drink soy milk. This is passive avoidance learning.
- Heeding Early Warning Signs of a Natural Disaster (Active): Observing the early warning signs (warning stimulus) of a volcanic eruption (aversive stimulus) activates a survival instinct in people and animals to flee. This example illustrates the survival value of active avoidance learning.
- Not Going to a Heavy Metal Concert (Passive): Jack’s girlfriend doesn’t go to (avoidant behavior) heavy metal concerts with him because she doesn’t like the decibel levels (aversive stimulus). This is an example of passive avoidance learning.
- Being Extra Nice at the Right Time (Active): If you know your friend is going to be upset because they didn’t make the team (warning stimulus), it is possible to make them feel less horrible (aversive stimulus) by being extra nice. This is active avoidance learning
- Not Antagonizing the Spouse (Passive): When one spouse has had a bad day and is in a bad mood (aversive stimulus), sometimes it is best not to discuss (avoidant behavior) the mess they made in the kitchen earlier that day. This is passive avoidance learning
- In Customer Service Relations (Active): When an irate customer calls in to complain (aversive stimulus), a skilled customer service rep will be more appeasing and use a softer tone of voice (avoidant behavior) to deescalate the situation. This example illustrates a form of active avoidance learning.
- Students not Subjecting Themselves to the Pain of Statistics (Passive): A lot of students will simply not enroll (avoidant behavior) in statistics courses because they know it will be an unpleasant experience (aversive stimulus). This is an example of passive avoidance learning that involves not learning.
- Taking Safeguards Against an Airborne Disease (Active): Wearing a face mask when entering an elevator (warning stimulus) can help prevent the transmission of an airborne disease (aversive stimulus). This is an example of engaging in an active behavior to prevent an aversive stimulus from occurring.
- Reacting to the Facial Expressions of an Unhappy Boss (Active): If about to present negative news (aversive stimulus) about the most recent quarter’s sales figures, it is a good idea to assess the mood (warning stimulus) of the boss first to gauge their receptiveness. It may be necessary to soften the news a bit. This is active avoidance learning that can benefit a person’s employment status.
- Taking Medicine Right Away (Active): One way to avoid getting sick (aversive stimulus) is to take medicine at first sign of getting sick, like coughing or feeling lethargic (warning stimulus). This is an example of active avoidance learning.
1. The Shaker Can
There are many applications of avoidance learning in animal training. Using rewards to shape behavior through successive approximations is a way of training an animal to exhibit a specific behavior.
However, sometimes it is necessary to train an animal to not exhibit a specific behavior. In other words, to apply passive avoidance learning to inhibit a behavior.
Enter the shaker can. A shaker can is a startle device used in animal training. For example, it can placed on a table top and booby trapped to fall when a dog jumps up on the table. This is a common behavior of dogs as they search for food.
Because this behavior is intermittently reinforced, and sometimes with a very large reward, it is very resistant to extinction.
However, after a few trials of the dog jumping on the table, and then being startled by the sound of the can hitting the floor, their jumping behavior will be extinguished.
The dog learns to avoid the aversive stimulus by inhibiting its behavior.
A shaker can is easy to make. Simply take an empty soda can and fill it with a few pebbles.
2. The Color Wheel
The color wheel system (CWS) of classroom management is a system for guiding student behavior across a variety of learning situations. Because different learning situations often involve different desired behaviors, the number of alternatives across those situations can become confusing for young students.
The color wheel is usually created by the teacher on a large sheet of paper and placed at the front of the classroom. It consists of three colors, red, green, and blue, and one moveable arrow.
Each color designates a set of behavioral expectations. Green means its work time, so students should be on-task, working either independently or in small groups.
Yellow means it’s time to listen to the teacher. Students can raise their hand if they have a question and should stay in their seats.
Red means it’s transition time. When the teacher places the arrow on red, it means that students should stop what they are doing, clean-up, and get ready to do something else.
The CWS is a form of active avoidance learning because each color serves as a warning stimulus that tells students which behaviors they should engage to avoid discipline.
The color wheel system can be used in different classes, such as PE, Art, Music.
3. Conditioned Place Aversion
Conditioned place aversion is an example of passive avoidance learning. It involves the organism associating an aversive stimulus with a specific location.
The example is illustrated in the above video on conditioned place preference.
As seen in the animation, when the organism (rat) receives an injection of a rewarding stimulus that is repeatedly associated with one side of the box, it develops a preference for that side. Hence the term, conditioned place preference.
Further along in the video, the narrator explains that if the rat is injected with an aversive stimulus that is repeatedly associated with a particular side of the box, it will develop an aversion to that side.
The rat will stay on the other side of the box. This is an example of passive avoidance learning. The rat avoids the aversive stimulus by not going to that side of the box.
4. Training Off-Leash Behavior
Training a dog to come on command when walking around outside can be a bit challenging. Dogs are immersed in the smells of the environment and enjoy exploring. So, when their owner says “come,” they may not comply right away, or at all.
Training the dog to come using active avoidance learning is one strategy. Remember, active avoidance learning is when the organism engages in a behavior to avoid an aversive stimulus.
In the above video, starting at 1:30, we see a dog being trained to come on command. It’s wearing a shock collar. The trainer administers a mild electric shock if the dog does not come on command (warning stimulus) within 2 seconds.
At 2:28 the trainer calls the dog (Stella come!). The dog immediately turns around and goes to the trainer to avoid the shock. This happens again at 3:18, 3:32, and 4:16.
The dog has clearly learned that it can avoid being shocked by coming when it hears its name.
5. Active Avoidance Learning of a Zebrafish
Active avoidance learning can be applied to fish as well. The zebrafish in particular is useful for study because they are small and responsive.
The above short video depicts 5 days of active avoidance learning. On the first day the fish experiences an electric shock (aversive stimulus) shortly after an LED light turns on (warning stimulus).
Over the next several days of trials, although not depicted in the video, the fish gradually learns that it can avoid the sensitive shock by swimming to the other side of the tank.
On day 5, the fish swims to the other side of the tank when the light comes on, demonstrating active avoidance learning.
Avoidance learning is when an organism has learned to avoid an aversive stimulus by engaging in a specific behavior. There are two types of avoidance learning: active and passive.
Active avoidance occurs when the organism has learned that it can avoid an aversive stimulus by engaging in a specific behavior.
Passive avoidance occurs when the organism has learned that it can avoid an aversive stimulus by not engaging in a specific behavior.
These forms of operant conditioning are used extensively in animal training. For example, a dog can be trained to “come” on command to avoid receiving a mild electric shock.
Likewise, students can learn to avoid being disciplined by following the directions portrayed on a color wheel.
Aspiranti, K. B., Bebech, A., Ruffo, B., & Skinner, C. H. (2019). Classroom management in self-contained classrooms for children with Autism: Extending research on the Color Wheel System. Behavior Analysis in Practice, 12, 143-153.
Krypotos, A. M., Effting, M., Kindt, M., & Beckers, T. (2015). Avoidance learning: A review of theoretical models and recent developments. Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience, 9, 189. https://doi.org/10.3389/fnbeh.2015.00189
Manning, E. E., Bradfield, L. A., & Iordanova, M. D. (2021). Adaptive behaviour under conflict: Deconstructing extinction, reversal, and active avoidance learning. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, 120, 526-536.
Skinner, B. F. (1953). Science and human behavior. Macmillan.
Skinner, Christopher & Scala, G. & Dendas, D. & Lentz, Francis. (2007). The color wheel: Implementation guidelines. Journal of Evidence-Based Practices for Schools, 8, 134-140.
Staddon, J. E., & Cerutti, D. T. (2003). Operant conditioning. Annual Review of Psychology, 54(1), 115-144.
Thorndike, E. L. (1905). The elements of psychology. New York: A. G. Seiler.
Watson, T. L., Skinner, C. H., Skinner, A. L., Cazzell, S., Aspiranti, K. B., Moore, T., & Coleman, M. (2016). Preventing disruptive behavior via classroom management: Validating the color wheel system in kindergarten classrooms. Behavior Modification, 40(4), 518-540.