Are you plagued by a bad habit that you just can’t seem to get rid of? Understanding how aversive conditioning works might be of some help to you. In this PsycholoGenie post, we will discuss a couple of examples of this psychology concept, to make it easier for you to get the hang of it.
Stanley Kubrick’s film A Clockwork Orange has one the best depictions of aversive conditioning in popular culture.
In his 1971 film, A Clockwork Orange, Kubrick introduced us to a fictional therapy known as the Ludovico technique. It was used to condition the protagonist Alex DeLarge, to experience severe nausea every time he experiences violence or thinks about it, by forcing him to watch violent images under the effect of a nausea-inducing drug. While Kubrick’s Ludovico technique was a fictional therapy, its striking resemblance to aversive conditioning is difficult to miss.
What is Aversive Conditioning?
By definition, aversive conditioning―or aversive therapy to be precise―is a form of conditioning, wherein, the subject is simultaneously exposed to a stimulus (particular behavior) and discomfort, as a result of which he starts associating the two and stops the said behavior. Simply put, the harmful stimulus that acts as a trigger of the bad behavior is paired with a new negative response, which helps suppress the said behavior. The concept revolves around the fact that, if behavior can be learned, it can also be unlearned. You just need to employ the correct technique.
Aversive conditioning can be an effective treatment for a variety of addictions and bad habits, one of the most popular being cussing. A simple but effective method of getting rid of this habit will be to put a rubber band around your wrist and snap it on the inner side of your wrist every time you cuss. It will be more annoying than painful, and eventually, you will refrain from cussing to avoid it.
At times, the subject imagines the association between an undesirable behavior and an unpleasant consequence, instead of actually engaging in it, and avoids it altogether, in what is known as covert sensitization. It is used for the treatment of alcoholism, obesity, etc. As opposed to this, cases where nausea- or fear-inducing drugs are used are considered cases of overt sensitization.
Aversive Conditioning Examples
✦ Nail biting, or onychophagia, is one of the several bad habits that can be treated using the aversive conditioning technique of unlearning. In this case, a foul- or bitter-tasting liquid is applied to the nails of a habitual nail biter. So, every time the person takes his hand to his mouth, he tastes it. The unpleasant experience helps in reducing nail biting―the undesired behavior in this case.
✦ It also comes handy when it comes to alcohol abuse and smoking. In the case of aversive conditioning for alcoholics, a nausea-inducing agent is added to alcohol. The unpleasant experience that follows reduces the positive feelings associated with alcohol. Over the course of time, even the thought of consuming alcohol makes the person nauseous, and therefore, he is able to get rid of this habit.
✦ In children, aversive conditioning is used for the treatment for enuresis or bed-wetting. A wetness sensor-equipped pad is placed in the child’s bed and connected to an alarm. The moment the child starts wetting the bed, the alarm goes off, forcing the child to wake up and go to the bathroom. With time, the child starts associating the act of bed-wetting with the inconvenience it causes, and stops it.
Similarly, the technique can also be used to get rid of the habit of thumb-sucking in children, by applying a foul-tasting liquid on their thumb.
The use of aversive conditioning as a therapeutic technique is on a decline, mainly because of the fact that its effects are context-specific. If conditioned to do so, an individual may stop consuming alcohol in clinical settings―even that will be for a specific time, but the same cannot be said about situations outside the clinic.