What Is Aversion Therapy?

Aversion therapy
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Aversion therapy is a type of behavioral therapy that involves repeating pairing an unwanted behavior with discomfort. For example, a person undergoing aversion therapy to stop smoking might receive an electrical shock every time they view an image of a cigarette. The goal of the conditioning process is to make the individual associate the stimulus with unpleasant or uncomfortable sensations.

During aversion therapy, the client may be asked to think of or engage in the behavior they enjoy while at the same time being exposed to something unpleasant such as a bad taste, a foul smell, or even mild electric shocks.

Once the unpleasant feelings become associated with the behavior, the hope is that the unwanted behaviors or actions will begin to decrease in frequency or stop entirely.

Uses of Aversion Therapy

Aversion therapy can be effectively used to treat a number of problematic behaviors including the following:

  • Bad habits
  • Addictions
  • Alcoholism
  • Smoking
  • Gambling
  • Violence or anger issues

Aversion therapy is most commonly used to treat drug and alcohol addictions. A subtle form of this technique is often used as a self-help strategy for minor behavior issues. In such cases, people may wear an elastic band around the wrist. Whenever the unwanted behavior or urge to engage in the behavior presents itself, the individual will snap the elastic to create a slightly painful deterrent.

The Effectiveness of Aversion Therapy

The overall effectiveness of aversion therapy depends upon a number of factors including:

  • The treatment methods and aversive conditions that are used.
  • Whether or not the client continues to practice relapse prevention after treatment is concluded.
  • In some instances, the client may return to previous patterns of behavior once they are out of treatment and no longer exposed to the deterrent.

Generally, aversion therapy tends to be successful while it is still under the direction of a therapist, but relapse rates are high.

Once the individual is out in the real-world and exposed to the stimulus without the presence of the aversive sensation, it is highly likely that they will return to the previous behavior patterns.

Problems With Aversion Therapy

One of the major criticisms of aversion therapy is that it lacks rigorous scientific evidence demonstrating its effectiveness. Ethical issues over the use of punishments in therapy are also a major point of concern.

Practitioners have found that in some cases, aversion therapy can increase anxiety that actually interferes with the treatment process. In other instances, some patients have also experienced anger and hostility during therapy.

In some instances, serious injuries and even fatalities have occurred during the course of aversion therapy. Historically, when homosexuality was considered a mental illness, gay individuals were subjected to forms of aversion therapy to try to alter their sexual preferences and behaviors. Depression, anxiety, and suicide have been linked to some cases of aversion therapy.

The use of aversion therapy to "treat" homosexuality was declared dangerous by the American Psychological Association (APA) in 1994. In 2006, ethical codes were established by both the APA and the American Psychiatric Association. Today, using aversion therapy in an attempt alter homosexual behavior is considered a violation of professional conduct.

More Psychology Definitions: The Psychology Dictionary

Learn more about:


American Psychological Association. (2010). Ethical principles of psychologists and code of conduct. Retrieved from http://www.apa.org/ethics/code/index.aspx

American Psychiatric Association. (2000). Practice Guidelines for the Treatment of Psychiatric Disorders. Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Association.

Garrison, J. (2003). Aversion therapy. Healthline. Found online at http://www.healthline.com/galecontent/aversion-therapy

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