Aversive Conditioning (Aversion Therapy)

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Aversive Conditioning (sometimes called Aversion Therapy) is a behavioral treatment for unhealthy emotional or behavioral habits such as alcoholismOpens in new window, smoking, drug abuse, self-injury (such as head banging) among autistic patients, and sexual fetishism, among others.

Aversive conditioning involves associating the unhealthy habit with something highly unpleasant. For instance, drinking alcohol may be associated with nausea and vomiting. The goal is to produce an aversion for the unhealthy habit.

In the example of alcohol, if the addicted individual is in a clinic, s/he could be injected with a drug that causes nausea and vomiting. When the drug begins to take effect, the individual is instructed to drink some alcohol.

The idea is that the nausea and vomiting will be associated in the person’s mind with drinking alcohol. For greater effectiveness, this procedure is repeated over a number of sessions, possibly for several months. In some cases, treatment occurs for a lifetime. Other aversive stimuli that are used in treating unhealthy habits include other medications, mild electric shock, foul odors, and unpleasant tastes.

Aversive conditioning has a long history. Kantorovich (1929) treated alcoholism through associating alcohol with painful electric shocks. As may be apparent, aversive conditioning can be a controversial treatment. However, in some cses of unhealthy habits, other treatments have been of very limited utility, or using aversive conditioning as an adjuct to another treatment increases the success rate.

Perhaps the most controversial use of aversive conditioning is among self-injurious and/or violent people diagnosed with autismOpens in new window or other disorders. These individuals may bang their heads, bit or punch themselves, or injur others.

Some injuries to both self and others can be quite severe, including brain damage and significant loss of flesh from biting, and some individuals attempt to engage in these behaviors almost continuously.

At the Judge Rotenberg CenterOpens in new window in Canton, Massachusetts, after permission involving many levels of review, including a court order, children who do not respond to other treatments are strapped with a backpack that delivers a mild shock when the child is violent to self or others.

Success of aversive conditioning varies. According to the Judge Rotenberg Center Web siteOpens in new window, their use of this technique-to-treat children is highly successful. However, aversive conditioning usually produces only limited success if used as a sole treatment for alcohol or drug abuse but can be moderately successful when used in conjunction with biological approaches (e.g., detoxification in the example of alcohol) or psychotherapy.

See also:
  1. Kantorovich, N. V. (1929). An attempt at associative-reflex therapy in alcoholism. Novoe v Refleksologii I Fiziologii Nervnoi Sistemy, 3, 436 – 447.
  2. Max, L. W. (1935). Breaking up a homosexual fixation bythe conditioned reaction technique: A case study. Psychological Bulletin, 32, 734.