Tuesday, May 14, 2013

What's an Aversive?

For those of you who have read blogs addressing animal training you may have run across the word "aversive." When I first came across this word my eyes became glazed over with extra water produced by my tear glands in an attempt to continue reading the article without actually knowing what I was reading about.

But I was wasting my tears! An aversive isn't a very complicated thing and by the end of this post you will have no trouble explaining what an aversive is and how to spot one.

An Aversive is a term extracted from a field of science called Behavior Modification (also known as Applied Behavior Analysis). Like a specialized hummingbird flitting from flower to flower in Martha Stuart's Vineyard, you are getting just a taste of nectar from a single petunia within the field of behavior modification.

Aversives are things or situations that a learner finds uncomfortable or undesirable and will try to avoid. For me personally I have a long list of things I find aversive:

Stinky workout clothes in the laundry bin

Stepping in dog poop

Getting stuck in the rain

Wet shoes

Split ends


Missing an appointment

Failing an exam

Angry arguments

Dirty dishes

Being late

People talking into my face so closely I can feel the flying spit hitting the over sized pores on my face like angry kamikaze pilots diving to their doom, wedging themselves firmly into said pores only to reveal themselves as bulbous pimples in the morning, redder and possibly angrier then the kamikaze pilots.

While I find the last analogy funny it may just be showing my off-canter sense of humor from the herd...Even so it's still something I find unpleasant, so it is an aversive. But just because I find "getting stuck in the rain" unpleasant doesn't mean you do. In which case getting stuck in the rain would not be an aversive to you.

Something that should be emphasized is that training which requires the use of aversives is called "Harassment Training" and is directly connected with Negative Reinforcement and Positive Punishment procedures. Aversives don't come without risks. The use of aversives has been linked to depression, suppressed immune function, aggression, apathy, and fear related responses.

Because of these risks ethics holds a strong ground in behavior modification as well. If a teacher was having difficulty in getting students to attend class is it right for them to use an aversive right away? Or should they avoid using aversives and try R+ first? (removing points from a student's grade (an aversive) versus adding points to a student's grade (a non-aversive) for example).

The applied ethics in behavior modification states that a good teacher, trainer, or researcher must use aversives only as a last resort and only with the consent of the learner. However if the "learner" happens to be an animal who cannot express their consent, what do we do? Should we ever use an aversive on an animal in a training program? That question is difficult to answer because ethics has few answers laid out in black and white. But what we can say is that we must try using non-aversive methods before ever insisting aversives, R- or P+ must be used. I have yet to see any well rounded animal trainer insist that aversives be used regularly to teach an animal behaviors. Positive reinforcement is effective with 99.999999999% accuracy. ;-)

Copyright 2013 Caitlin Bird
The Sequential Psittacine Blog

Miltenberger, Raymond. Behavior Modification: Principles and Procedures. 5th. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing, 2011. 1-16. Print.
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