Avoidance Learning: Meaning And Significance

As soon as an unpleasant sensation is experienced, the individual may engage in an "escape reaction," such as trying to cover their ears. However, an aversion response is a trained, deliberate activity that is carried out to prevent or avoid unpleasant stimuli before its presentation. This may include, for instance, using earplugs before entering a room where loud sounds could be present. An avoidant response may only occur once the individual has learned to link the unpleasant neutral stimuli with the reinforcer, a process known as aversion learning.

What is Avoidance Learning?

Behaviorists use the phrase "avoidance learning" to explain how certain organisms have developed responses to help them escape potentially harmful stimuli. Avoiding the punishment has a reinforcing effect. A laboratory mouse, for instance, may be subjected to a tone followed by a harmless but painful shock. The disagreeable stimulation is this shock. A tiny door provides the mice an avenue of escape from the electric current. The mouse will soon learn to utilize the door when it detects the tone, eliminating the need for electric shocks. The mouse has acquired the skill of avoidance training and now knows to steer clear of noxious stimuli. The human equivalent would be someone who develops an allergy after repeatedly ingesting a certain meal. After some time, individuals stop eating that kind of food altogether. This is an example of training to avoid a circumstance.

There are subtypes of aversion learning. To avoid an unpleasant experience, a person may engage in passively avoidance behaviors such as refraining from engaging in specific activities. A person might or might not respond in reaction to a danger sign while engaging in proactive avoidance, which involves taking proactive measures to avoid danger. The word "avoidance" is often used to describe both an anxious person's coping style and the behavioral conditioning methods employed in the lab to induce evasion behavior in individuals. The ability to recognize potentially harmful situations and take steps to avoid them is a vital aspect of developing a secure and resilient nervous system. However, it is generally agreed that a defining feature of anxiety disorders is the tendency to avoid situations when they are not required. As a result, studies on aversion learning are rather prevalent in behavioral neuroscience and are often conducted using rodent analogs.

Avoidance Learning History

To better understand the causes of panic and anxiety, scientists in the 1920s started studying avoidance learning. At first, researchers thought active avoidance learning was a two-step process that began with fear learning and progressed to reinforcement theory. As with other forms of Pavlovian conditioning, fear conditioning aims to teach a subject to respond negatively to unconditioned stimuli. The next step of instrumental conditioning includes strengthening a link between the unconditioned and neutral conditioned responses, such as a lamp and sound. Critics of this approach to understanding avoidance learning eventually emerged; for example, psychologists could not agree on how reducing anxiety would also lessen avoidance or whether avoidance reactions could even be instrumental. By the late 1970s, this had led to a decline in the popularity of empirical avoidance learning methods to explore the nature of fear and anxiety. However, recent discoveries about the brain underpinnings of Pavlovian training sparked a fresh surge of interest in behavioral aversion research. Understanding reward in terms of cellular and molecular processes in particular brain circuits, this study sheds fresh light on aversion training as an outcome of Pavlovian training, procedural learning, or the habit of having to learn.

Types of Avoidance Learning

Major types are

Signal − In signaled avoidance, the unpleasant stimulus is transformed by classical conditioning into a neutral response linked with a reinforcer, often an auditory or visual cue. To get the rats to react fearfully to the CS upon presentation, they were first trained to link it with the unavoidable US. After being exposed to the CS for a brief period, rats are put in avoidance rooms, where they may shuttle through the aperture and avoid the US from happening, so they display an aversion reaction.

Unsignaled − Avoidance reactions are not conditioned by Pavlovian training in this style. Dissonance stimuli are provided at periodic intervals within the same transit box, with no neutral words.

Transition − Researchers have combined Pavlovian training with unsignaled fear training to determine whether or not rats can generalize their learned behavior reaction to a similar unavoidable response. Initially, the rats experience the standard Pavlovian terror learning, where they cannot prevent the US jolt that follows the CS sound. Unsignalled aversion individuals learn in rats for many days just after the training program.

Neural Correlates of Avoidance Learning

The brain circuitry mediates the expression of indicated avoidance behavior is similar to the extinguishment of fear reactions. In reaction to exposure to the threatening signal, neurons in the central amygdala become active and send projections to the nucleus accumbens grey area, where they stimulate the motor cortex to perform an action driven by fear. To suppress the automatic reaction, cells in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex's infralimbic area communicate with the amygdala's central nucleus through inhibitory signals. Since frozen is the afraid reaction in rats, inhibiting the amygdala through the medial prefrontal cortex during fear extinction through avoidance training increases activity and decreases freezes. Although the centralized amygdala is essential for Pavlovian instrumental transmission, the basolateral amygdala has been linked to both fear remission and the manifestation of avoidance behaviors.


Since the 1960s, study on aversion learning has tapered, keeping many pressing problems unsolved. We have presented an overview of the most significant contemporary and historical aversion teaching methods and pertinent experiment findings in the context of the recent revival of interest in aversion in behavioral and neuroscience research and therapeutic science.

Updated on: 09-Dec-2022


Kickstart Your Career

Get certified by completing the course

Get Started