Avoidance conditioning: what it is, and its characteristics.
A summary of the characteristics of avoidance conditioning, widely studied in psychology.
Conditioning is one of the most basic forms of learning that exist, both in humans and in many other species.
Within this methodology there are important concepts to take into account, and one of them is avoidance conditioning. Below we will see in depth what it is based on and how this type of response to various stimuli is generated.
What is avoidance conditioning
The avoidance conditioning is a form of response that can be generated in the The response that can be generated in the processes of operant conditioning, when it is achieved that the individual gives a determined response to avoid a determined aversive stimulus.The behavior of the subject has learned that by means of this behavior he has achieved the non-appearance of the aforementioned unpleasant stimulus.
To understand the concept correctly, we must first understand the logic of instrumental or operant conditioning. In this form of learning by association, the aim is for a subject to increase or decrease certain behavior through reinforcement (stimuli that make the behavior more probable) or punishment (stimuli that make the behavior less probable), either by applying them (positive) or eliminating them (negative) when the behavior we are looking for is exercised.
Focusing now on negative reinforcement, we would obtain a type of stimulus that, when withdrawn (that is what negative reinforcement refers to) would increase the probability that the individual would display the desired behavior (hence reinforcement and not punishment). Once these basic concepts are clear, it is easier to understand what avoidance conditioning consists of.
Common mistakes: reinforcement and incentives
Here it is worth highlighting an issue that often leads to error, and that is that we are talking about negative reinforcement and aversive stimuli. we are talking about negative reinforcement and aversive stimulus.. Many people mistakenly believe that all reinforcers must be stimuli that are pleasant for the subject, but we have already seen that reinforcement only refers to the increase in the probability of the response we are looking for, no more and no less.
On the other hand, it is also important to bear in mind that whenever we speak of aversive stimuli (or rewards, in the opposite case), these acquire this condition due to the perception that the individual in question has of them; it is not an intrinsic characteristic of the stimuli, although it may sometimes seem so.
And the fact is that, What is pleasant for one person or animal may well be unpleasant for another, or may even vary depending on the circumstances.or may even vary depending on the circumstances. For example, a food will be a pleasant stimulus for an individual as long as he or she is not already satiated, likes the taste, does not have allergies, etc.
It is very important to keep these issues in mind, otherwise we may have difficulty understanding the fundamentals of both avoidance conditioning and operant conditioning processes in general.
Avoidance versus escape
With negative reinforcement we can obtain two clearly differentiated behaviors, which are escape and avoidance.How do they differ? Both have to do with the elimination of a stimulus that is aversive to the subject, but the key here is the timing of the application of the stimulus.
If the aversive stimulus is applied first and the individual emits the behavior we are looking for in order to eliminate this stimulus, we would be talking about escape conditioning. However, if the subject has learned that by emitting the behavior, the aversive stimulus (which would come later) will not be applied, we would be talking about avoidance conditioning.
Faced with the dilemma of escape and avoidance, the key to differentiate between the two types of response would be to visualize the timeline of events and to find out whether, thanks to the response, the person manages to bring the unpleasant event to an end or, on the contrary, he/she manages to ensure that it never takes place (the latter case being conditioning). (this second case being the avoidance conditioning we are studying).
One may wonder how it is possible that the subject anticipates that the aversive stimulus is going to take place and therefore is able to emit the appropriate response to avoid it before it takes place and thus avoidance conditioning occurs.
This is achieved through what is known as discriminative stimulus, a stimulus which in itself is neutral but which precedes the aversive stimulus, so that the individual becomes aversive.The individual becomes forewarned of what is going to happen and can therefore make the decision to respond in order to avoid it.
In this case, the subject's behavior will increase because he achieves the objective that the person seeks, which is none other than to avoid presenting the stimulus that is unpleasant for him, and which he already knows always occurs after the discriminative stimulus, unless he performs the behavior in question.
As opposed to discriminative avoidance, which would use the discriminative stimulus to "warn" the subject that the aversive stimulus is about to make its appearance imminently, there is another methodology to try to achieve avoidance conditioning. It is known as indiscriminate avoidance or Sidman's free operant avoidance procedure..
This other way of working with avoidance, instead of using a signal that prevents the individual from the aversive stimulus, what it does is to apply this stimulus following a temporal pattern, so that it always appears every certain time, unless the individual emits a certain behavior, the consequence of which would be to postpone the next application of the aversive stimulus.
However, the results clearly indicate that Sidman's methodology obtains much worse results than those obtained with discriminative avoidance conditioning.. To begin with, learning takes much longer in the first case than in the second. On the other hand, the avoidance responses that are achieved lack stability, an element that, however, is manifested in the second method.
Finally, the avoidance behavior through Sidman's method is very easily extinguishedIt is forgotten soon after the aversive stimulus is no longer presented. On the contrary, when the discriminative stimulus is used, the avoidance conditioning is strong and therefore difficult to extinguish, taking a long time to achieve.
Let us look at a practical example to better understand the implications of avoidance conditioning and also to be able to compare the methodologies of discriminative avoidance and indiscriminate avoidance. One of the typical studies has been carried out with mice and laboratory rats.The patients are introduced into the so-called avoidance box.
This box consists of two distinct compartments, separated by a hinged door. One of the compartments has elements to transmit electricity, a stimulus that is applied from time to time. However, this electrical discharge only affects one compartment, but not the other.
In the first study, which uses discriminative avoidance, each of these shocks will be preceded by a discriminative stimulus, which in this case will be an auditory signal, which is intended to alert the mouse to the imminent shock it will receive, unless it immediately leaves the unsafe compartment and moves to the safe one.
In the second study, this type of auditory signal is not applied.The only clue the mouse receives about the electric shocks applied to the first compartment is the periodicity of the shock itself, giving it a stable temporal pattern.
The results are conclusive. In the first case, the mouse needs only a few trials to find the pattern and quickly flees to the safe compartment of the box as soon as the auditory signal sounds, and is soon unaffected by any of the shocks.
On the other hand, mice that are not warned by this beep, have a much more difficult time and, even after many repetitions, continue to suffer numerous shocks because they are not able to find the relationship between the time pattern between current and current, so a good conditioning of avoidance is not achieved, unlike in the first case.
As we anticipated in the characteristics of these methodologies, it is proved that the response with the first method turns out to be immensely more stable, it is learned much earlier and it is more durable.and the extinction is more complicated. In the opposite case, the Sidman method, the opposite happens. Learning is slow and chaotic, there is no stability in the responses and the pattern is easily lost.
It is clear, therefore, that the use of a discriminative stimulus is vital to achieve quality avoidance conditioning, since the results obtained are much more satisfactory than those of the study in which the anticipation of the aversive stimulus is renounced by means of a signal.
- Domjam, M. (2007). Principles of learning and behavior. Madrid. Paraninfo.
- Domjan, M., Santos, J.M.R. (2002). Bases of learning and conditioning. Del Lunar.
- Pérez-Acosta, A.M., González, A.P. (1998). Avoidance behavior: acquisition and extinction. Psychological Sum.
(Updated at Mar 28 / 2023)