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Conditioned Aversion


Techniques Conditioning > Conditioned Aversion

Description | Example | Discussion | See also



A conditioned aversion occurs where a subject associates a stimulus with discomfort and thereafter feels discomfort when the stimulus is presented. As a consequence, the subject seeks to avoid further discomfort.

In training, a conditioned aversion is typically used to send the signal 'stop what you are doing or else something bad will happen'. A common word used is 'No'. Initially, 'No' does not have any particular meaning to the subject. They then learn that 'No' is connected to an uncomfortable situation, so they learn to hold back when they hear 'No'. Further signals like pointing can help them understand what the 'no' is all about or where they should go. Other common aversive stimuli include clapping hands and a low-pitched 'ach'.

Conditioning happens when the subject experiences a negative feeling such as pain, shock or fear while the aversion stimulus is simultaneously presented. Pain should be avoided where possible. A loud noise, flash of light, water spray or other sudden sensory stimulus can be used.

When using the aversive stimulus to train a subject to stop doing something, when they do so, even briefly, reward them.

As with other conditioning, as the subject learns, the actual aversive stimulus should be removed as soon as possible and the aversion word or signal used instead.

Be careful to minimize the use of negative methods, for example keeping them for urgent situations such as when safety is threatened or no other method works. Wherever possible, seek to use positive methods first.


A dog owner drops a tin tray and calls 'No!' The dog is startled. Later, calling 'no' also creates a startle response that causes the dog to stop what it doing. When the dog stops, the owner praises it.

A person training a dog to not eat until told to, gets the dog to sit, places food in front of it and says 'ah-ah' while removing the food if the dog moves. When the dog sits without trying to get to the food, the trainer says 'good dog' and lets it get to the food. Later, saying 'ah-ah' will stop the dog moving towards anything.


While negative methods are largely to be avoided, sometimes they are useful. Of course they should be used with care and at the minimum level to achieve the desired actions.

The basic principle of conditioned aversion is to start with a neutral stimulus and pair it with discomfort, so the subject associates discomfort with the stimulus, thereby making it aversive. In other words, it uses negative reinforcement. Following up desired action with a reward uses positive reinforcement. In this way, conditioned aversion is uses in a 'stick and carrot' or hurt and rescue pattern. Aversion without guidance does not lead to helpful learning. When a dog runs at sheep, they scatter in all directions unless there is a shepherd to attract them in the right direction.

We can become aversive to any sensory input, for example eating too much of a food that makes us sick can cause the discomfort of being sick with the taste of the food, thereafter leading to that food being avoided.

Absent Conditioning happens when you are not there, for example when a dog finds that jumping up on a table leads to trays falling on them. This removes you from the equation and ensures that your presence is not a part of the conditioning. You can also do this remotely by hiding, using video cameras and so on.

If an aversive is not set up well, there is a danger of it falling into a class of general anxieties or stimuli that cause the subject just to feel afraid and not know what to do next. A set of failed aversives can make the target generally fearful as it experiences its existence as a scary set of baffling situations.

Conditioned aversives are more effective than threats as they set up a small stimulus that is far more reliable in causing the cessation required. Threats typically do not work when they are small, leading to an escalation that easily gets out of hand.

Many commands, including to humans, can be conditioned aversion when failure to obey results in punishment. The subject hears the command, feels the anticipated discomfort of the punishment, and decides to comply with the order rather than receiving punishment. In effect, the command is a threat: 'Do as I say or you will suffer'. This is how the principle of 'speak softly and carry a big stick' works. Of course it also has negative repercussions when the subject becomes chronically avoidant or vengeful.

Apart from the obvious cruelty of using pain as an aversive, it can be surprisingly ineffective as subjects (even humans) can become accustomed to it. Again, it can lead to chronic avoidance or vengeance. It can often seem easier to use negative methods and indeed more skill is needed to train using positive techniques (though the effort is almost always worth it).

See also

Negative Reinforcement, Positive Reinforcement, Hurt and Rescue principle



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