An Insight into Aversion Therapy

*Written by the Ocean Performer*

Aversion therapy involves taking a primary stimulus (such as alcohol) and a secondary stimulus which is likely to cause discomfort to a subject (such as an emetic). The stimuli are administered either simultaneously or within a short time in order for a link to be associated between the discomfort from the secondary stimuli and the presence of the primary stimuli. Over time a memory is formed of discomfort from the primary stimuli which creates a schema based on an expectation of discomfort whenever the primary stimuli are presented to the subject. Thus the subject, in order to avoid this expectant discomfort, shall over time come to alter their behaviours even in situations when the secondary stimulus is in fact absent so no discomfort is actually due.

This form of behavioural condition links to the psychological school of behaviourism as it relies on the principle of negative reinforcement in order to alter the behaviour of a subject via stimuli. This principle is one of the main ideas behind behaviourism as argued by Skinner who discovered this via some laboratory experiments involving rats, in addition to work done by Pavlov involving dogs (the famous Pavlov’s dogs experiment) and also his lesser known (and unethical) work on children.

The elements of behaviourism evident in aversion therapy are negative reinforcement, behavioural conditioning (which alters the subjects behaviour) and cognitive conditioning (which alters the way the subject thinks about the stimuli).

As to the effectiveness of aversion therapy. A series of papers during the 1960s by Seligman showed aversion therapy to have a success rate of 50% in conditioning men against homosexual behaviours. However it was later shown that these results were flawed as a significant amount of the subjects who were conditioned ‘successful’ were bisexual so were able to fall back on heterosexual behaviours without any undue stress. Whereas a significant number of those deemed ‘unsuccessful’ in their conditioning later went on to become asexual or remained homosexual in their behaviour and also developed mental abnormalities; largely related to depression and stress related disorders; with some even committing suicide. Hence based on these findings I do not think aversion therapy to be an effective method of behavioural conditioning in humans as it leads to long-term complications in favour of short-term successes or fails to produce any actual success as any change in behaviour was present already within the subjects’ psyche. In defence of aversion therapy these findings only purport cases where negative reinforcement had been administered success rates and long-term effects may be different should positive reinforcement be used instead.

Posted on December 2, 2013, in psychology and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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