Aversion Therapy: Definition & Examples

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  • 0:00 Aversion and…
  • 0:53 Stopping Unwanted Behavior
  • 2:39 Critiques of Aversion Therapy
  • 3:24 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Andrea McKay

Andrea teaches high school AP Psychology and Online Economics and has a Masters degree in Curriculum and Instruction.

In this article, you will learn how aversion therapy can help stop unwanted habits and behaviors. Aversion therapy may also be helpful in treating drug and alcohol addiction.

Aversion and Behavioral Therapy

Do you have any bad habits that you would like to stop? Maybe you can't help biting your nails to nubs while studying for exams, and you would like to preserve your manicure another week. Aversion therapy could help.

Aversion therapy is a behavioral therapy in which a patient gives up an undesirable habit by associating it with an unpleasant effect. This approach studies how we learn by association--learning that certain events occur together. That association can be made through classical conditioning, where we pair a specific stimulus to a response. For example, when the clock strikes six, your dog drools because he has associated the clock tone with the arrival of his dinner. Associative learning can also be made through operant conditioning, or learning through rewards and punishments. If your parents ever paid you $20 for each 'A' on your report card, you have learned through operant conditioning.

Stopping Unwanted Behaviors

Aversion therapy works like conditioning, but it's more accurately described as counter-conditioning, where we are conditioned to avoid the unwanted behavior. With aversion therapy, we learn to associate a new negative response to a stimulus that triggers the unwanted behaviors.

If the stress of studying for exams acts as a stimulus and your response is biting your nails, aversion therapy would help you avoid the unwanted behavior of nail-biting. One option would be to paint your nails with an intensely bitter-tasting polish. The next time your hand moves to your mouth, you taste the awful bitterness and move your fingers away. Over time, consistently pairing the nail-biting with an aversive taste will cause you to feel nauseous when you even think of biting your nails. You have now been counter-conditioned, and the bad habit stops.

Perhaps you cuss like a sailor, and your new girlfriend wants you to meet her parents. In an effort to curb your cussing habit and make a good impression on the parents, you attempt counter-conditioning. You wear a rubber-band around your wrist, and each time you cuss, you snap the band on your wrist. While the pain is minimal, each snap is an annoyance that makes you aware of your bad habit. Soon you associate cussing with a zing, and you gradually stop cussing to avoid the pain on your wrist.

Therapists today also sometimes use aversion therapy to treat alcohol addiction. By placing a nausea-inducing drug in an alcoholic's drink, they feel incredibly ill after just one drink. Over time, the alcoholic associates drinking with severe nausea, and they no longer crave alcohol. Vomiting can also produce an endorphin release in the brain, minimizing some of the effects of withdrawal. Some reports show that aversive conditioning is more successful in stopping addiction in drug and alcohol addicts than typical rehab facilities.

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