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George W. Doherty, M.S.

There has been a growing concern in our society in recent years over the uses of aversive control and aversive control techniques. Some even voice concerns that our society may be maintained by aversive control.

Skinner (1953) maintained that the kind of stimuli which are usually called unpleasant, annoying or aversive are not distinguished by particular physical specifications. Behavior which is followed by the withdrawal of an aversive stimulus is called escape. The formula of stimulus substitution (Skinner, 1953) applies to the function of negative reinforcement. Neutral events which accompany or precede established negative reinforcements become negatively reinforcing. For example, one moves to escape from an annoying or offensive person even though he/she may not be annoying or offensive at the moment. The withdrawal of a positive reinforcer has, by definition, the same effect as the presentation of a negative reinforcer (Skinner, 1953). For example, the withdrawal of a privilege is not very different from the establishment of aversive conditions.

The effectiveness of the use of aversive techniques can be extended when a behavior is conditioned so that future aversive stimuli will have an effect. Such conditioning is an important stage in the exploitation of aversive control in ethics, religion and government (Skinner, 1953).

Control which is exercised by the group, religions and governmental agencies as well as parents, employers, etc. restricts the primarily reinforced behavior of the individual. That is why it is used. However, when control is excessive or inconsistent, there occur certain by-products which are harmful to the individual and to the group. Skinner (1953) lists a number of by-products and their effects which are discussed below.


The individual may simply run away from the controller. Anxiety is a common accompaniment of escape or avoidance. Emotional aspects of anxiety may be distinguished from the conditioned aversive effect which is responsible for avoidance behavior. However, it is possible that the emotion itself is also aversive. Emotional responses can be interpreted partly as an escape from the emotional components of anxiety (Skinner, 1953).


An individual may counterattack the controlling agent. Anger is the emotional pattern which usually accompanies revolt. It involves responses of glands and smooth muscles. There is a well-marked effect on operant behavior which includes a heightened disposition to act aggressively toward the controlling agent and a weakening of other behavior. A mild example is a bad temper. Sadism is a more extreme example.


The individual may simply not behave in conformity with controlling practices. This usually happens when the individual has been extinguished in his/her efforts to escape or revolt. The emotional responses which are associated with passive resistance can be of several kinds. These include a sulking child, an adult who is depressed, resentful, moody, listless, or bored. These emotional patterns may all be generated by aversive events which have nothing to do with social control. However, most tend to be due to control of the individual by the group or by governmental or religious agencies (Skinner, 1953).

Those by-products of control which incapacitate individuals are dangerous either to the individual or to others. Foe example, the controlling practice which leads an individual to escape also gives rise to an emotional pattern of fear (Skinner, 1953). In an extreme case, he/she may become "paralyzed by fear". Stimuli having this effect supplied by the punisher can cause the individual to suffer from an excessive fear of his/her father, police, god, etc.

The effects of each of the above can be very severe. The productive patterns of behavior in the individual are distorted by strong emotional predispositions. The operant behavior which is strengthened in emotion may have disastrous consequences. Increased frequency or chronic emotional responses of glands and smooth muscles can be injurious to the individual's health (Skinner, 1953). Psychosomatic disorders can be very often traced to chronic responses of fear, anxiety, anger or depression.

There is a large amount of literature which postulates and examines links between stress and illness. Franklin and Brown (1977) outlined two distinguishable foci in this area. One focus is on the relationship between psycho-emotional states and physiological activity. Results of inquiries in this area are far from precise or consistent and there are basic differences in theoretical perspectives (Alexander, 1950; Hinkle, 1961). However, more recently, it has been established that relationships between emotions and physiological reactivity do exist (Franklin and Brown, 1977).

The second focus outlined by Franklin and Brown is on illness as a social adaptation to strain and/or stress. The adaptation is accomplished by entry into a role (the "sick role") which exempts the person from normal obligations. The nature and extent of the exemption varies with the illness prognosis. Once the "sick role" is generally legitimized by the individual, it may be used to "account" for a variety of problems or failures (Shuval, Antonavsky and Davis, 1973; Spilken and Jacobs, 1971).

In today's society, there are many situations in which powerful influence techniques are utilized in attempts to control, maintain or alter the behavior of individuals or groups. The growth of technology, population explosion, oil crises, food cisese, inflation, international disputes, terrorism, and numerous other problems are constantly impinging on the individual from many directions. Industry bombards the individual with advertising and other influence techniques designed to sell its products. More subtly, perhaps, but nonetheless quite powerful, are the influence techniques sometimes utilized by groups and organizations in attempts to educate their members. However, the impact of these techniques on individuals may vary considerably.

One of the most dreaded diseases in the twentieth century has been cancer. The mere mention of the word strikes fear and terror in the hearts of many. The popular media and other sources have so instilled this fear that individuals will go to unusually great lengths to avoid it. In one sense, it has become a very powerful aversive control agent. For example, the production and sale of certain food products, materials, tobacco or numerous other items can be controlled by simply linking it in some manner to the production of cancer - whether or not it is indeed a causative agent. In themselves, these manipulations may not be too bad. However, the side effects of such actions may warrant a look.

One obvious and continuing campaign has been aimed at cigarette smoking. Here it is not necessarily the actual facts that cause the problems. In an effort to capitalize on this situation, many techniques have been devised by private and public groups to change the smoking habits of society in general. In our society, freedom of choice is a basic tenet, one that also carries with it the responsibility of not harming others by the exercise of that choice. In that sense, one who seeks treatment to change a smoking habit should be accommodated. However, the techniques used with him/her and with large groups of people who are unwilling to change should be carefully evaluated. Unfortunately, some techniques, either purposely or inadvertently, substitute fear for tobacco. That is, very subtle cues in the environment are used in such a manner that they become associated with fear, causing anxiety and stress in certain individuals. The approach to changing smoking behavior is aversive and carries with it all that goes with aversive control.

Submission of the individual to such control in one small area can soon result in submission in other areas. It is important that the individual be aware of the controlling contingencies in his/her environment. If these are aversive to him/her, then it is incumbent upon him/her to alter his/her environment in order to remove those aversive controls which are harmful. This does not mean substituting the possible cancer-causing effects of tobacco smoking with the possible cancer-causing or ulcer-causing concomitants of fear or environmental stress.

Aversive control produces a population which is fearful, angry and eventually revolts against its controllers. A population based on positive reinforcement, shaping and other positive control techniques is one which is easier controlled, people are actively involved and happier, have an input and have a sense of direction which is one of building toward a better future, not one of avoidance of action.



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