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Emotional Effects Of Aversive Stimuli

Aversive Control

The behavioral processes discussed so far, both positive and negative, have dealt with specific responses the frequency of which is altered by the direct effect on the environment. Reinforcing stimuli, both aversive and positive, may, however, have broad effects on many response repertoires in addition to their specific reinforcing effects. This is the field of emotion. A loud, sudden noise, for example, will interrupt almost anything which a young child is doing. The sudden loss of a job or money will often produce a decline in frequencies of many responses completely unrelated to behaviors which are specifically affected by the loss. There is an extensive lay vocabulary relating to emotional behavior, such as sorrow, anger, joy, fear, anxiety, frustration, arousal, rage, happiness, sadness, melancholia, tenderness, fright, terror, and dejection. For purposes of behavioral analysis these terms can serve little more .than to indicate broad areas for which more functional analysis is required. In fear, presumably, there is some possibility of an aversive stimulus being delivered without any assurance that the avoidance behavior can be emitted. The term, fear, is used when there is a clearly identifiable aversive event, usually present in the immediate environment. Sorrow implies a general depression of the behavioral repertoire resulting from the loss of a powerful generalized reinforcer, such as a parent or other relative. In anger, there is a weakening of all behaviors in the repertoire, except those responses which will inflict injury or loss on someone else. Dread refers to an aversive event which will be some time in coming, while anxiety refers to a situation in which the aversive event is not specified or where the essential part of the description is the state of the organism rather than the causal factor in the environment. The tremendously large vocabulary of words used to describe emotions represents the particular situations in which the behavior is observed rather than the basic causes. In many cases different descriptive terms describe identical states of the organism. The differences lie in the range of emotional operations which have common effects. For example, it is difficult to distinguish among terms such as fear, fright, anxiety, terror, dread, or apprehension by the state of the individual. The distinctions implied by these terms refer to the precipitating condition in the environment that is responsible for the state. The terms are used variously, depending upon whether an outside situation is causing a state of the organism or simply that the state of the organism is being described. The facial expression and outward manifestation is, in general, a function of the particular cultural history of the organism, and little predictive value can be gained by examining the outward appearance, except where there is a great deal of supplementary information.

Attempts to estimate emotional patterns from photographs have been, in the main, unsuccessful (Feleky, 1914). The common denominator involved in all of these states of the organism is that there is one event affecting a broad class of behaviors. The operations are very similar to those in food deprivation where there is a change in the frequency of all the behaviors in the animal's repertoire which are maintained because of reinforcement by food. Another kind of emotional operation occurs when we interrupt an ongoing chain of behavior of considerable strength (frustration). The nonreinforcement of the behavior may result in a change in the over-all state of the organism which affects many other repertoires. We say that the individual "feels frustrated," but it is perhaps even more important to note the effect of the operation of nonreinforcement on the relative frequency of other items in his repertoire. Positive reinforcers may also have emotional effects, as in the case of the child who reacts to the arrival of a kind relative by singing and jumping and a general increase in many activities, many of which bear no direct relation to performances directly reinforced by the relative; similarly, with the effect of stimuli, such as Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, when the over-all form of a child's repertoire often changes very radically. In the terms of a functional analysis of behavior, then, such emotions are not things or causes of behavior, but rather a general term used to describe the effects of certain circumstances which change the frequency of occurrence of a broad class of behaviors.

Aversive stimuli, in particular, have broad effects, hence, emotional effects, on performances completely unrelated to those occurring at the time the aversive stimulus is delivered. To produce a cessation in almost any ongoing activity of a young child, we have only to present a very loud noise. The effects of the noise in suppressing behavior will occur regardless of which behavior is occurring and is unrelated to whether the noise is actually contingent upon some aspect of the child's activities. It is probably true that aversive stimuli generally have broader emotional effects on positive reinforcers. The reason for the greater emotional effects of aversive stimuli, however, may be more related to the magnitude and intensity of an aversive stimulus that is required to maintain behavior by escape and avoidance than it is to any innate property of aversive stimuli. In experiments with animals, for example, the magnitude of an electric shock which will disrupt a baseline food-maintained performance by its emotional effects is far less than what is required to maintain a response by avoidance. An intensity of electric shock which is sufficient to cause a rat to jump vigorously, squeal, urinate, defecate and show pilo-erection will usually not be sufficiently intense to maintain avoidance behavior. In the natural, ecologic use of punishment, therefore, the stimuli which are usually identified as aversive are those which have sufficient magnitude to be effective in controlling behavior by avoidance or escape.

Novel stimuli often have large emotional effects. However, when little or none of the individual's behavior has ever been reinforced in the presence of the novel stimulus, it is often difficult to separate the emotional effects of a stimulus from the simple loss of discriminative control. In cases such as the death of a close relative, it may be difficult to decide whether the removal of the discriminative stimulus changes behavior because of an emotional effect or because stimuli have been withdrawn which were occasions on which significant segments of the individual's repertoire had been reinforced. The decision as to whether the grief is emotion or a broad loss of discriminative control depends upon whether repertoires of responses are weakened which are unrelated to and had never been reinforced by the person who died.

Emotion And Autonomic Nervous System

In general, there is some correlation of autonomic activity, as well as outward manifestations such as posture and facial expressions, with emotional effects. It is important to distinguish these effects, however, as correlates of emotional effects rather than causes of the emotion itself. The major alteration caused by an emotional stimulus is a change in the probability of action in a number of related repertoires. The various synonyms of "afraid" illustrate how the descriptions of emotions refer as much to the eliciting conditions as to the state of the organism.

Alarm: implies that feelings are aroused through realizations from imminent or unexpected danger to oneself or others.

Fright: shocked with sudden, but usually short-lived fear, especially that arriving from apprehension of physical harm.

Terrified: suggests the emotional reaction when one is struck with a violent, overwhelming fear.

In these examples, the major differences are more in the nature and magnitude of the responsible condition than in the nature of the effect on the organism. In a similar vein, there is no evidence that the autonomic accompaniments of emotional responses are a necessary condition for the occurrence of the emotion. While the changes in the internal autonomy involving mainly the autonomic system may have profound effects on the general repertoire of an individual, the main fact of emotion is a change in the frequency of a broad class of behavior, and there is no evidence that autonomic changes are any more essential requirements for this kind of behavioral control than for any other behavioral process. While responses such as sweating, blanching, blushing, eneuresis, and pilo-erection may occur in many so called emotional conditions, there are also many other situations where the frequency of occurrence of many repertoires is radically altered without any corresponding autonomic change.

The Emotional Effects Of A Preaversive Stimulus

In addition to its properties as a conditioned aversive stimulus which can maintain behavior by escape and avoidance, a preaversive stimulus may have emotional effects. Since the emotional effects of an aversive stimulus are measured by their effect on the ongoing repertoire of the organism, the laboratory method for investigating the effects of a preaversive stimulus involves maintaining the behavior of an organism on some schedule of positive reinforcement which serves as a baseline for measuring the disruptive effect of the aversive stimulus. This process has been extensively studied in animal experiments which have contributed to our understanding of the basic process. In a typical experiment, the pigeon is made to peck a key in a fairly continuous manner throughout the experimental period by intermittent reinforcement with food. Periodically a buzzer appears which, initially, has little or no effect on the bird. When the buzzer is followed by an electric shock, the bird stops working whenever the buzzer appears and returns to work only after the occurrence of the electric shock. Autonomic activity, depending upon the species, such as flapping of the wings, pilo-erection, defecation, urination, and vocalizations may appear. The most salient fact about this experimental paradigm, however, is that the preaversive stimulus, the buzzer, has a larger effect on the baseline behavior than the aversive stimulus itself. The buzzer suppresses the bird's performance virtually completely, but the bird resumes pecking almost immediately after the electric shock. The same fact is confirmed when the buzzer is no longer presented but an electric shock is delivered to the bird at the same intervals. In most cases, it is difficult to notice any change in the bird's performance other than the specific elicited responses, such as jumping from the grid during the period of the electric shock. The aversive event itself is not nearly so disrupting to the ongoing performance of the organism as the conditioned aversive stimulus preceding it.

The suppression of any ongoing behavior of the organism by a preaversive stimulus is a very close parallel to many of the behaviors referred to as "anxiety." The dentist's office, for example, constitutes a preaversive stimulus the effect of which is, in general, to disrupt most of the performances which might normally occur. Persons waiting for the dentist, in general, show great difficulty in reading, conversing, or carrying on other activities which normally occur easily; similarly, with the student prior to the examination, the soldier before battle, or the parachutist before the jump. In all of these cases, most of the available responses in the individual's repertoire are so severely depressed or distorted that there is little resemblance to the usual repertoire which might be observed. Stage fright or opening night jitters is essentially the effect of a preaversive stimulus: the situation immediately prior to the performance causes a suppression in behavior because of the possible criticism or disapproval from the audience.

A Performance as a Preaversive Stimulus. An aversive stimulus may be more closely correlated with an individual's own behavior than the external environment. This would be the case when an aversive stimulus occurred as a punishment, contingent upon some particular kind of behavior, which is independently maintained by positive reinforcement. Under these conditions, the behavior itself may come to function as a preaversive stimulus to the extent that the aversive stimulus occurs consistently with the response and independently of the external environment. Such a relation between the bird's performance and an aversive event occurs in the pigeon experiment described above, in which the bird whose pecking was positively reinforced with food was periodically shocked, e.g., every 10 minutes. The periodic delivery of the electric shock while the bird is pecking at a constant rate establishes a relation between the amount of pecking of the bird and electric shocks. After some exposure to this procedure, the bird's rate of pecking begins to decline as the time of the electric shock becomes imminent, because the bird's own behavior serves as the preaversive stimulus. Many such examples may be cited in human behavior where aversive stimuli are arranged regularly for certain kinds of behavior which are, at the same time, very strongly reinforced, as for example, in sexual behavior. The young boy who is severely punished for masturbating and handling his genitals will himself generate conditioned aversive stimuli any time he engages in sexual behavior. The actual performances which are punished, or related performances or verbal behavior about the performances, come to function as preaversive stimuli, having essentially the same general effect as any external stimulus preceding an aversive stimuli. If the aversive control is strong and pervasive enough, the incipient responses which occur under sexual deprivation may also serve as a conditioned aversive stimulus so that even private verbal behavior about the sexual behavior generates conditioned aversive stimuli. If the aversive effects are severe enough, the behavior may be completely suppressed.

GUILT, FEAR, ANXIETY IN TERMS OF THE ANALYSIS OF CONDITIONED AVERSIVE STIMULI As with other verbal descriptions of emotional states, the vocabulary relating to conditioned aversive stimuli resulting from a history of punishment is not very precise. It is difficult to distinguish accurately between words such as ashamed, mortified, humiliated, embarrassed, guilty, sense of guilt, or guilty conscience.

Additional topics

Human Behavior