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Avoidance Learning

An individual's response to avoid an unpleasant or stressful situation; also known as escape learning.

Avoidance learning is the process by which an individual learns a behavior or response to avoid a stressful or unpleasant situation. The behavior is to avoid, or to remove oneself from, the situation. Researchers have found avoidance behavior challenging to explain, since the reinforcement for the behavior is to not experience the negative reinforcer, or punishment. In other words, the reinforcement is the absence of punishment. To explain this, psychologists have proposed two stages of learning: in stage one, the learner experiences classical conditioning; a warning, or stimulus, paired with a punishment. The learner develops a fear response when he experiences the stimulus. In stage two, the learner experiences operant conditioning; whereby he realizes that an action response to the stimulus eliminates the stressful outcome.

In a common laboratory experiment conducted to demonstrate avoidance learning, a rat is placed in a confined space with an electrified floor. A warning signal is given, followed by an electric current passing through the floor. To avoid being shocked, the rat must find an escape, such as a pole to climb or a barrier to jump over onto a nonelectric floor. At first, the rat responds only when the shock begins, but as the pattern is repeated, the rat learns to avoid the shock by responding to the warning signal. An example of avoidance learning in humans is the situation when a person avoids a yard where there is a barking dog. This learning is particularly strong in individuals who have been attacked by a dog.

Further Reading

Archer, Trevor, and Lars-Gvran Nilsson. Aversion, Avoidance, and Anxiety: Perspective on Aversively Motivated Behavior. Hillsdale, NJ: L. Erlbaum Associates, 1989.

Ruben, Douglas H. Avoidance Syndrome: Doing Things Out of Fear. St. Louis, MO: W.H. Green, 1993.

Additional topics

Psychology EncyclopediaLearning & Memory