What is Aversion Therapy?

Similar to other types of behavior therapy, aversion therapy is based on the principles of learning (conditioning) and is done to eliminate the presence of some maladaptive behavior. This is done by pairing the maladaptive behavior (which is in some way rewarding to the person who engages in it — like smoking) with a stimulus that is unpleasant. What happens then is that the pleasant behavior becomes less pleasant and decreases over time until it is gone completely.

Aversion therapy is used when there are stimulus situations and associated behavior patterns that are attractive to the client, but which the therapist and the client both regard as undesirable.

For example, alcoholics enjoy going to pubs and consuming large amounts of alcohol

Aversion therapy involves associating such stimuli and behavior with a very unpleasant unconditioned stimulus, such as an electric shock.

The client thus learns to associate the undesirable behavior with the electric shock, and a link is formed between the undesirable behavior and the reflex response to an electric shock.

In the case of alcoholism, what is often done is to require the client to take a sip of alcohol while under the effect of a nausea-inducing drug.  Sipping the drink is followed almost at once by vomiting. In future the smell of alcohol produces a memory of vomiting and should stop the patient wanting a drink.

More controversially, aversion therapy has been used to “cure” homosexuals by electrocuting them if they become aroused to specific stimuli.

Evaluation of Therapy

Apart from ethical considerations, there are two other issues relating to the use of aversion therapy.

First, it is not very clear how the shocks or drugs have their effects.  It may be that they make the previously attractive stimulus (e.g. sight/smell/taste of alcohol) aversive, or it may be that they inhibit (i.e. reduce) the behavior of drinking.

Second, there are doubts about the long-term effectiveness of aversion therapy.  It can have dramatic effects in the therapist’s office.  However, it is often much less effective in the outside world, where no nausea-inducing drug has been taken and it is obvious that no shocks will be given.

Also, relapse rates are very high – the success of the therapy depends of whether the patient can avoid the stimulus they have been conditioned against.  Aversion therapy also has many ethical problems.

Above: an example from the tv series King of the Hill



McLeod, S. A. (2010). Aversion Therapy. Retrieved from http://www.simplypsychology.org/aversion-therapy.html