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Avoidance learning

Definition:
A form of operant conditioning in which an organism learns to engages in a behaviour that permits it to avoid some form of aversive stimulation.
 
Example:
Although Bert had never considered himself to be influenced by behavioral contingencies he was amused when it was pointed out to him how much of his behaviour was influenced by avoidance learning. For example, every morning he endorsed his subway ticket even if it meant that he missed his train. By doing so he avoided the trauma of having to pay a $150.00 fine.
 
Background:
Avoidance conditioning typically requires that a response be made to prevent aversive stimulation occurring. For example, this paradigm was first studied by placing an animal in a shuttle box and providing a signal that a shock was forthcoming. At first the animal will indulge in escape learning when shocked but eventually will learn to avoid the shock as soon as the light comes on. As such avoidance learning typically involves both classical conditioning (to the light) and an operant component. In every day life avoidance learning which is slow to extinguish has been linked to phobic behaviour as well as 'sick role' behaviours. In the latter case it is believed that some patients develop behaviours that allow them to avoid confronting the problems of everyday life.
 
Further Reading:

Grant, L., & Evans, A. (1994). Principles of Behavior Analysis. New York: Harper Collins.

Skinner, B. F. (1983). A matter of consequences. New York: Knopf.

 
Related Terms:
Escape learning

Extinction

Learning

Operant conditioning

Punishment

Resistance to extinction

Self-Instructional Resources:
Take a 2-item self-test over this concept.

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