Avoidance Conditioning: What It Is, And Characteristics

Avoidance conditioning

Conditioning is one of the most basic forms of learning that exists, 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 is generated in the face of various stimuli.

What is avoidance conditioning?

Avoidance conditioning is a form of response that can be generated in operant conditioning processes, when the individual is able to give a specific response to avoid a specific aversive stimulus since he has learned that through this behavior he achieves the non-appearance of said unpleasant stimulus.

To correctly understand the concept, we must first know the logic of instrumental or operant conditioning. In this form of learning by association, the aim is for a subject to increase or decrease a certain behavior through reinforcements (stimuli that make the behavior more likely) or punishments (stimuli that make the behavior less likely), either by applying them (positive) or eliminating them (negative) when it exercises the behavior we are looking for.

Focusing now on negative reinforcement, we would obtain a type of stimulus that, when withdrawn (that is what being negative refers to) would increase the probability that the individual would show the desired behavior (hence it is reinforcement and not punishment). . Once we are clear about these basic concepts, it is easier to understand what avoidance conditioning consists of.

Common mistakes: reinforcements 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 stimulus Many people mistakenly believe that all reinforcements must be stimuli that are pleasant to 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 keep in mind that whenever we talk about aversive stimuli (or rewards, in the opposite case), they acquire that condition due to the perception that the specific individual has of them, it is not an intrinsic characteristic of the stimuli, although at times it may seem that way.

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And it is that, What is pleasant for one person or animal may well be unpleasant for another, 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 flavor, does not have allergies, etc.

It is very important to take these issues into account because otherwise we may have difficulties understanding the foundations of both avoidance conditioning and the processes of operant conditioning in general.

Avoidance vs. escape

With negative reinforcement we can obtain two clearly differentiated behaviors, which are escape and avoidance What is the difference between them? Both have to do with the elimination of a stimulus that is aversive for the subject, but the key here would be in the moment of application of said stimulus.

If the aversive stimulus is applied first and the individual emits the behavior we are looking for in order to eliminate said stimulus, we would be talking about escape conditioning. However, if the subject has learned that by emitting the behavior he/she avoids applying the unpleasant stimulus (which would come later), it would be avoidance conditioning.

Faced with the dilemma of escape and avoidance, the key to differentiating both types of response would be to visualize the timeline of events and discover If, thanks to the response, the person manages to end the unpleasant event or, on the contrary, ensures that it never happens (this second case being the avoidance conditioning that we are studying).

Discriminative stimulus

One may wonder how it is possible for the subject to anticipate that the unpleasant event that is 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, therefore, the conditioning occurs. of avoidance.

This is achieved through what is known as discriminative stimulus, a stimulus that in itself is neutral but that precedes the one that is aversive so the individual becomes aware of what is going to happen and therefore can make the decision to give the response to avoid it.

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In this case, the subject’s behavior will increase given that he achieves the objective that the person seeks, which is none other than ensuring that the unpleasant stimulus does not occur for him, and that he already knows that it always occurs after the discriminative stimulus, unless being that carries out that conduct in question.

Compared to discriminated avoidance, which would be the one that uses the discriminative stimulus to “warn” the subject that the aversive stimulus is going to appear 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 apply this stimulus following a temporal pattern, so that it always appears from time to time, unless the individual emits 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 achieved with discriminated 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, Avoidance behavior through the Sidman method is very easily extinguished, forgetting after a short time to stop presenting the aversive stimulus. 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 it.

Practical example

Let’s look at a practical example to better understand the implications of avoidance conditioning and also be able to compare the methodologies of discriminated avoidance and indiscriminate avoidance. One of the typical studies is the one that has been carried out with laboratory mice and rats who are placed in the so-called avoidance box.

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This box consists of two different rooms, separated by a folding 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 of the studies, the one that uses discriminated avoidance, each of these discharges will be preceded by a discriminative stimulus, which in this case will be an auditory signal, which seeks to alert the mouse of the imminent discharge that will receive, unless he immediately leaves the unsafe compartment and goes into the safe one.

In the second study, this type of auditory signal is not applied so the only clue that the mouse receives about the electric shocks that are applied to the first compartment is the periodicity of the shock itself, offering 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 flee to the safe compartment of the box as soon as the auditory signal sounds, soon achieving that it is not affected by any of the shocks.

On the other hand, mice that are not warned by said beep have it much more complicated and, even after many repetitions, they continue to suffer numerous shocks because they are not able to find the relationship between the time pattern between current and current, therefore that good avoidance conditioning is not achieved, not like in the first case.

As we anticipated in the characteristics of these methodologies, It is found that the response with the first method turns out to be immensely more stable, it is learned much sooner and is longer lasting, complicating extinction. In the opposite case, that of the Sidman method, the opposite occurs. Learning is slow and chaotic, there is no stability in the responses and this 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 this anticipation of the aversive stimulus is renounced through a signal.