Escape learning is when a person or animal learns to terminate an aversive stimulus by engaging in a specific behavior.
Escape learning can range from an individual simply leaving a noisy room to evade the sound, to children engaging in disruptive classroom behavior to escape instruction.
Escape Learning Definition and Origins
Escape learning was originally demonstrated by B. F. Skinner, using an apparatus known as the Skinner Box, which is essentially a metal cage.
Skinner placed a rat in the Skinner Box. When the floor was electrified, the rat experienced the aversive stimulus and eventually learned that pressing a lever in the cage would terminate the electric shock.
Once the contingency between pressing the lever and termination of the aversive stimulus was learned, the rat quickly engaged in the behavior as soon as the shock occurred. That is escape learning.
By studying the behavior of various animals in the Skinner box, Skinner devised a theory of learning called operant conditioning.
Behavior that is rewarded, or reinforced, is strengthened and therefore more likely to occur. Behavior that is punished is weakened and less likely to occur again.
Although Skinner is credited with identifying the basic principles of operant conditioning, part of his theory was based upon Edward Thorndike’s Law of Effect (1898; 1905).
The Law of Effect states that:
“Responses that produce a satisfying effect in a particular situation become more likely to occur again in that situation, and responses that produce a discomforting effect become less likely to occur again in that situation” (Gray, 2007, p. 106).
Escape Learning vs. Avoidance Learning
There is a subtle distinction between escape learning and avoidance learning.
- Escape learning involves doing something to terminate an aversive stimulus.
- Avoidance learning involves learning how to avoid experiencing the aversive stimulus altogether.
For example, a rat in a Skinner Box has learned that following the presentation of a light (the discriminative stimulus), an electric shock will be applied to a portion of the floor.
So, as soon as the light comes on, the rat moves to the portion of the floor that will not be electrified. By engaging in a specific behavior, the rat avoids the aversive stimulus.
There are two forms of avoidance learning: active avoidance and passive avoidance.
“Active avoidance…describes behaviours that reduce the occurrence of aversive outcomes when they are performed” (Manning et al., 2021, p. 20).
Passive avoidance learning is when the organism avoids the aversive stimulus by not engaging in a specific behavior.
Passive avoidance “reduces the occurrence of aversive outcomes when specific behaviours are not performed” (Manning et al., 2021,p. 20).
For example, the rat may know that a certain area of the floor is electrified. So, it simply does not go to that area.
Escape Learning Examples
- Blocking Bright Sunlight: The glaring sun is the aversive stimulus. Fortunately, a person can escape the aversive experience by putting on sunglasses.
- Transferring to a New Department: If the boss is making an employee’s life miserable with unfair criticism and unprofessional tone, then asking for a transfer to a new department may be the only escape.
- Knocking on the Neighbor’s Door: Whenever the neighbors play their music too loudly, the person living below asks them to turn down the volume.
- Asking for a Break: Autistic children in one particular classroom have learned that if they start feeling overwhelmed by a math lesson, they can raise a picture card that shows a student leaving the room. This lets them escape a stressful situation before it gets out of control.
- Taking a Time Out: Parents put their children in time-out if they start quarreling with each other; not as a form of punishment, but as a way for them to escape from a situation that is unpleasant.
- Taking Pain Medication: When experiencing a headache, a lot of people will take an aspirin so the pain goes away.
- Completing Homework: A child’s family has a strict rule: you must complete all homework before being allowed to leave the house. So, finishing homework results in termination of the aversive stimulus of staying inside.
- Escaping Poverty: Living in poverty is one long aversive experience. Theoretically, a person can escape poverty by working hard, saving money, and making wise life choices.
- Terminating an Unpleasant Relationship: When a romantic relationship has turned sour, it can be time to move on. Breaking up is hard to do, but it will put an end to feeling unhappy.
- Practicing Meditation: After a long day of meeting time-sensitive deadlines and dealing with difficult situations, going home and practicing meditation is a great way to escape and rejuvenate.
See More: Examples of Behaviorist Theory
Strengths of Escape Learning
1. Survival Value
Under normal circumstances, escape learning is an adaptive function. Human beings and other species are hard-wired to exit situations that are aversive.
Some aversive situations are not only unpleasant, but may also be potentially dangerous.
For example, extreme environmental conditions can be harmful, even life-threatening. Excessive heat or cold environments can lead to physical impairment and even hospitalization.
Organisms have a built-in survival mechanism that will compel them to escape such situations.
2. Psychological Well-being
For children and adults that suffer from emotional disabilities, escape learning is psychologically adaptive. For these individuals, many situations are simply emotionally overwhelming.
Classrooms can be very noisy places. Some children with autism can be easily disturbed by a noisy classroom environment. The number of different noises and the decibel levels can create intense feelings of anxiety.
In this case, it is highly adaptive for them to escape that environment. Although it seems maladaptive to classmates and teachers, it is in fact a very adaptive response.
Weaknesses of Escape Learning
1. Missed Academic Opportunities
Unfortunately, escape learning can result in children missing academic opportunities. Being unable to function in a classroom environment means performing poorly in school.
In some cases, this may occur over the long-term. That will eventually lead to the inability to obtain employment and the sustained reliance on family members.
Lifelong dependence on others is an unsatisfying life and creates additional burdens on family members.
2. Missed Opportunity for Growth
Although escape learning can have survival value in life-threatening situations, most of us do not encounter these kinds of circumstances.
We are however, much more likely to encounter stressful situations. For example, many careers can have intense work demands or unpleasant work environments.
Escaping those situations may seem like a good idea, but sometimes it is better to confront challenges head-on. Working hard and overcoming obstacles helps build both confidence and character.
If a person chooses to escape those situations all the time, then they will never have the opportunity for personal growth.
Applications of Escape Learning
1. In the Development of OCD
Obsessive-compulsive disorder is characterized by unwanted thoughts and impulses followed by repetitive behaviors.
For example, a person may be plagued by the constant thought of germs getting on their hands. So, in order to reduce those feelings of anxiety, they wash their hands frequently.
This is escape learning. The individual engages in a specific behavior that results in the termination of an aversive stimulus. As soon as the person washes their hands, their anxiety is reduced immediately.
Unfortunately, the person has just reinforced their hand-washing behavior. This creates a vicious cycle reinforcing escape behavior which can lead to the development of OCD.
Once this behavioral pattern has developed, OCD patients will then engage in passive avoidance learning. They simply stay away from situations that will activate their anxiety.
The person that obsesses over germs will avoid touching unfamiliar objects or avoid what they believe to be unsanitary places.
2. In Classroom Escape Behavior
Children with learning disabilities often engage in escape behavior in order to avoid classroom instruction (Beavers et al., 2013). Their efforts can include crying loudly, throwing temper tantrums, or simply running out of the classroom.
These actions result in less academic instruction (McComas et al., 2000), fewer opportunities to engage in social behavior (Schmidt et al., 2013), and present obstacles to acquiring health-related skills (Schmidt et al., 2013; Wilder et al., 2005).
Although there are numerous strategies teachers employ to eliminate escape behavior, functional behavioral analysis (FBA) is one of the most effective (March & Horner, 2002; Bruni et al., 2017; Chazin et al., 2022).
FBA is “a collection of methods for gathering information about antecedents, behaviors, and consequences in order to determine the reason (function) of behavior” (Gresham et al., 2001, p. 158).
An FBA is conducted by the classroom teacher or a team of trained professionals (e.g., school counselor, clinical psychologist) to identify the antecedent factors that give rise to the behavior, the exact expressions of the escape behavior(s), and factors that maintain those behaviors.
Replacement behaviors are identified that will serve the same function as the escape behavior, and those behaviors are then taught to the child.
Escape learning is when a person/organism has learned that an aversive stimulus can be terminated by engaging in a specific behavior.
Escape learning can be seen in everyday life. Taking an aspirin will terminate a headache, while requesting a transfer can put an end to being supervised by an unpleasant boss.
From an evolutionary perspective, being hard-wired to escape aversive situations has survival value. While at the same time, in today’s modern world, escaping stressful situations can prevent the kind of personal growth that comes from overcoming obstacles.
Children with learning disabilities are especially prone to engage in escape learning because traditional classrooms and instruction can feel overwhelming.
Fortunately, an FBA can help these students learn adaptive behaviors that will help them endure and have a more positive educational experience.
Beavers, G. A., Iwata, B. A., & Lerman, D. C. (2013). Thirty years of research on the functional analysis of problem behavior. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 46, 1–21.
Bruni, T. P., Drevon, D., Hixson, M., Wyse, R., Corcoran, S., & Fursa, S. (2017). The effect of functional behavior assessment on school‐based interventions: A meta‐analysis of single‐case research. Psychology in the Schools, 54(4), 351-369.
Carr, J. E., Severtson, J. M., & Lepper, T. L. (2009). Noncontingent reinforcement is an empirically supported treatment for problem behavior exhibited by individuals with developmental disabilities. Research in Developmental Disabilities, 30(1), 44-57.
Chazin, K. T., Velez, M. S., & Ledford, J. R. (2022). Reducing escape without escape extinction: A systematic review and meta-analysis of escape-based interventions. Journal of Behavioral Education, 31(1), 186-215.
Gray, P. (2007). Psychology (6th ed.). Worth Publishers, NY.
Gresham, F., Watson, T., & Skinner, C. (2001). Functional behavioral assessment: Principles, procedures, and future directions. School Psychology Review, 30, 156-172. https://doi.org/10.1080/02796015.2001.12086106
March, R. E., & Horner, R. H. (2002). Feasibility and contributions of functional behavioral assessment in schools. Journal of Emotional and Behavioral Disorders, 10(3), 158-170.
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.
McComas, J., Hoch, H., Paone, D., & El-Roy, D. (2000). Escape behavior during academic tasks: A preliminary analysis of idiosyncratic establishing operations. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 33, 479–493.
Schmidt, J. D., Luiselli, J. K., Rue, H., & Whalley, K. (2013). Graduated exposure and positive reinforcement to overcome setting and activity avoidance in an adolescent with autism. Behavior Modification, 37, 128–142.
Skinner, B. F. (1953). Science and human behavior. Macmillan.
Staddon, J. E., & Cerutti, D. T. (2003). Operant conditioning. Annual Review of Psychology, 54(1), 115-144.
Thorndike, E. L. (1898). Animal intelligence: An experimental study of the associative processes in animals. The Psychological Review: Monograph Supplements, 2(4), i.
Thorndike, E. L. (1905). The elements of psychology. New York: A. G. Seiler.
Wilder, D., Normand, M., & Atwell, J. (2005). Contingent reinforcement as treatment for food refusal and associated self-injury. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 38, 549–553.