Aversive stimulation

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Descriptions, Definitions, Synonyms, Organizer terms, Types of

Aversive stimulation is a harsh action that insults the senses (Wolfgang, 2001). It is used as part of the Behavior Analysis model, and is a type of Punishment, since it is intended to decrease the rate or probability of a behavior when it is presented as a consequence. An aversive stimulus may also increase the rate or probability of a behavior when it is removed as a consequence, and in this way it can function as Negative reinforcement (Alberto, 2003).

An aversive stimulus is the opposite of a reinforcing stimulus, something we might find unpleasant or painful. A behavior followed by an aversive stimulus results in a decreased probability of the behavior occurring in the future. It is part of B.F. Skinner's theory.

There are two types of aversive stimuli: unconditioned aversive stimuli and conditioned aversive stimuli.

Unconditioned aversive stimuli result in pain or discomfort to the student. Included in this category are naturally occurring consequences, such as contact with a hot stove, and contrived consequences, such as the use of electric shock. Unconditioned aversive stimuli also include consequences that are considered mild aversives such as administering substances considered distasteful (lemon juice, water, and ammonia), and the use of physical control or restraint.

A conditioned aversive stimulus can be experienced as aversive due to its being combined with an unconditioned aversive stimulus. This type of stimulus would include consequences such as verbal warnings, vocal tones, or gestures. For example, if a child experiences being yelled at while being spanked, yelling may become a conditioned aversive stimulus because the child associates the yelling with the pain of being spanked (Alberto, 2003).


Application in Classrooms and Similar Settings

Aversive stimuli, primarily verbal reprimand, presented as a consequence of inappropriate behavior, is a form of punishment commonly used by teachers. According to Rutherford and Nelson (1995), verbal reprimands have proven effective for reducing mild and moderate behavior problems, and some physical aversives have been effective in weakening severe maladaptive behaviors, such as self-injurious and extreme assaultive behaviors of individuals with severe disabilities in institutional settings.

Three advantages to using aversive stimuli include the following (Alberto, 2003): 1) Use of aversive stimuli rapidly stops the occurrence of a behavior and can have long term effects. 2) Use of aversive stimuli facilitates learning by clearly discriminating between acceptable and unacceptable behavior, or between what is safe and unsafe. 3) Using aversive stimuli demonstrates to other students the results of engaging in inappropriate behavior, lessening the probability that others will engage in that behavior.

Evidence of Effectiveness

B.F. Skinner accumulated a wealth of research on the occurrences and effects of aversive stimulation. Part of what he discovered was that people will try to "get away" from the stimulation they view as aversive. Sometimes a person will escape from the aversive stimulation by simply performing the task that caused the bad consequence in the first place. Other times, they will escape or avoid the treatment by behaving in ways which reinforce those who treated them aversively until they did so. They will also sometimes simply "move away" from the aversive stimulation. In rare circumstances, to avoid the aversive stimulation, a person will "attack" the source. Obviously, aversive stimulation must be used carefully in classrooms, if at all. (From B.F. Skinner, Beyond Freedom and Dignity, 1971).

Critics and their Rationale

Physical contact or strong aversive consequences are only justified under extreme incidences of inappropriate behavior, as when safety is jeopardized. Parents and community groups frequently object to the use of extreme physical aversives, such as the use of aversive tastes and odors, electric shock, slaps, pinches, and spankings; therefore, alternate procedures are required in public school settings (Rutherford and Nelson, 1995).

According to Rutherford and Nelson (1995),physical aversives may not be effective for reducing serious aggressive and violent antisocial behavior when that behavior is rooted in physical abuse and violence. Harsh physical aversives, such as Corporal Punishment, have not suppressed inappropriate behaviors, and often increase the likelihood that the student will behave aggressively in other settings.

Aversive stimulation can be used in both positive and negative ways. It can be used helpfully to reduce the occurance of an unwanted behavior, such as talking in class or biting nails. However, it can also be used to stop good behaviors. For example, if a child is trying to be creative and writes a story or poem and shares it with the class, and gets laughed at and becomes embarrassed, the chances of that student wanted to share an original work again will be reduced. Depending on the child's personal characteristics, after one experience like this, the child may not want to speak up in class ever. You can see how this could be very problematic for a teacher, especially if he or she doesn't understand the cause of this shyness.


Alternative Explanations due to Diversity Considerations

While B.F. Skinner's research is widely accepted, not much research has been done in the area of stimulation and diversity. Because of a student's background, how that child reacts to an aversive stimulation will differ widely. If a child is around violence, using aversive stimulation could have harmful effects. A child may feel cornered by these actions and "attack" the cause of the stimulation. In a classroom, this would either be a teacher or another student. Because of this, a teacher needs to be aware of a student's background before using any aversive stimulation.

Signed "life experiences", Testimonies, and Stories

I think that in our education, we have all had aversive stimulation applied to us--something that was given to us in order to stop us from misbehaving. One that comes to mind readily is the use of detentions. A detention is meant as aversive stimulation. It is given so that the liklihood that a student will repeat the given behavior is lessened because that student will not want a detention. In our world, though, for some kids, detention is a blessing. It gets them out of an abusive home situation, or it puts them in a place they feel safe--school. In order to aversive stimulation to be effective, a teacher needs to be aware of a student's home situation, and make sure that the aversive stimulation applied actually is something that will stop the student's behavior.-Amy Higgins

References and Other Links of Interest

Alberto, P.A. & Troutman, A.C. (2003). Applied behavior analysis for teachers (6th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Merril Prentice Hall.

Rutherford Jr., R. B. & Nelson, C. M. (1995). Management of aggressive and violent behavior in the schools. Focus on Exceptional Children, 27. Retrieved October 19, 2004, from Academic Search Elite database.

Wolfgang, C.H. (2001). Solving discipline and classroom management problems: Methods and models for today's teachers (5th ed.). Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.

For more information on B. F. Skinner, see: B.F. Skinner and this power point presentation.

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