Avoidance Learning

Avoidance Learning

Avoidance Learning

Learning is “a process that leads to change, which occurs as a result of experience and increases the potential for improved performance and future learning”[1]. The change in the learner may happen at the level of knowledge, attitude or behavior.

            There are four types of learning as follows:

  • Classical Conditioning;
  • Instrumental Learning/Operant Conditioning;
  • Avoidance Learning;
  • Cognitive Learning
    • Latent Learning;
    • Space Learning/Place Learning;
    • Response Learning;
    • Perceptual Learning;
    • Insightful Learning.

I discuss here on Avoidance Learning which is combination of classical conditioning and instrumental learning of operant conditioning.

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[2].

Avoidance learning is a behaviorist term that describes when an organism learns a response in order to avoid experiencing an unpleasant stimulus. The reinforcement (desired, pleasant result) results from not experiencing the negative stimulus (or punishment).

For example, in a lab a mouse hears a tone which is followed by a non-harmful but unpleasant shock. This shock is the unpleasant stimulus. The mouse can escape the shock by running through a little door. Eventually the mouse will learn to use the door once it hears the tone avoiding the electric shock altogether. This is avoidance learning- the mouse has learned how to avoid the unpleasant stimulus. A human example would be a person who gets an allergic reaction from eating a certain food a few times. Eventually they learn to avoid that food and not eat it at all. This is avoidance learning.

Avoidance of genuinely threatening stimuli or situations is a key characteristic of adaptive fear. People will typically not enter a building after a major earthquake nor approach a stray lion. At the same time, excessive avoidance in the absence of real threat can severely impair individuals’ quality of life and may stop them from encountering anxiety-correcting information (Barlow, 2002). In such cases, avoidance loses its adaptive value and may transform into a maladaptive response. Maladaptive avoidance is in fact a central characteristic of a wide spectrum of mental disorders (World Health Organization, 2004; American Psychiatric Association, 2013). Individuals with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), for instance, tend to avoid situations in which the potential for contact with contaminants is high (Rachman, 2004), Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) patients will try to avoid intrusive memories (Brewin and Holmes, 2003; Williams and Moulds, 2007), and social phobics will refuse to attend group gatherings (Bögels et al., 2010; Schneier et al., 2011).

Early Theories of Avoidance/Escape Learning and the Two-factor Theory

In the early days of psychology, learned avoidance was considered an example of a Pavlovian conditioned reflex (Bekhterev, 1907, 1913; Watson, 1916). Just like Pavlov’s dogs would salivate upon the sound of a metronome previously associated with food administration (Pavlov, 1927), in the studies of Bekhterev (1913), a dog would flex its leg after the presentation of an antecedent stimulus, previously associated with shock administration (Herrnstein, 1969; Bolles, 1972). Since leg flexion would occur in the presence of the antecedent stimulus and prior to shock delivery, the acquired response was considered to reflect Pavlovian learning.

Nonetheless, two procedural characteristics differentiated the acquired responses from learned Pavlovian reflexes. First, what constituted the avoidance response (e.g., leg flexion) was usually an experimenter-defined voluntary response, whereas in Pavlov’s experiment the learned response toward an initially neutral stimulus (i.e., salivation upon sound of the metronome) would typically consist of the automatic response toward an evolutionary relevant stimulus (i.e., salivation during food presentation; Unconditioned Stimulus or US). Second, the emitted response would lead to the cancelation of the impending event, making the (non-)presentation of the aversive stimulus dependent on the organism’s response (Herrnstein, 1969). This procedural aspect is at odds with the standard Pavlovian procedure in which the presentation of food, or of any other US, would not depend on the animal’s response (i.e., food would be presented independently of whether dogs salivated or not). Those procedural differences pointed to the potential operation of instrumental processes during avoidance learning, since in instrumental learning procedures an experimenter-defined action of the organism is necessary for outcome presentation or omission (Rescorla and Solomon, 1967). The potential involvement of instrumental processes, however, raised the question as to how avoidance responses are reinforced. Although one might intuitively argue that the source of reinforcement is the omission of the impending aversive event (i.e., the dogs flex their legs because this cancels the shock), assigning the cause of behavior to an event that has not yet occurred (i.e., shock administration) violated the dominant scientific principles of psychology at the time (i.e., the behaviorist paradigm; Watson, 1913).

A solution to that conundrum was offered in the two-factor theory formulated by Orval (Mowrer, 1951), who proposed that the performed response was reinforced by fear reduction (Hull, 1943). Specifically, Mowrer argued that as a result of Pavlovian fear conditioning (first factor), i.e., an antecedent stimulus (e.g., a tone) being associated with the administration of an aversive event (e.g., a shock), presentation of the antecedent stimulus will come to evoke fear. Subsequently, during the instrumental phase (second factor), escape responses that are emitted in the presence of the antecedent stimulus will be negatively reinforced by fear reduction, due to increased distance to or cessation of the antecedent stimulus. This idea was heavily inspired by the avoidance learning procedures used at the time, where avoidance responses led to the termination of the antecedent stimulus by locomotion (e.g., moving away from a shock area of a box) or by the antecedent stimulus being turned off. Of note, according to Mowrer, the omission of the aversive outcome event was to be regarded as a mere by-product of the performed CS escape behavior (Schöenfeld, 1950; Mowrer, 1960).


There are two types of avoidance learning, as follows;

  • Active Avoidance Learning;
  • Passive Avoidance Learning.

Active Avoidance Learning 

Active avoidance is what is typically thought of as avoidance learning. Due to the different associations that can be formed by the mouse during avoidance learning, it has been thought to involve both classical and operant conditioning processes (most famously characterized by Hobart Mowrer’s Two-Factor Learning Theory).

Active avoidance paradigms require the mouse to learn to avoid an aversive stimulus (a shock) by initiating a behavior (locomotion). The mouse is placed in one of the two shuttlebox compartments. They are exposed to a conditioned stimulus (light, tone, etc.) followed by the delivery of a footshock (unconditioned stimulus). Two types of responding can emerge directly after this exposure phase: a conditioned response (avoidance learning) and an unconditioned response (escape learning) often times, escape responses precede the emergence of avoidance responses.

Passive Avoidance Learning

Passive avoidance paradigms require the mouse to suppress a (innate) behavior to avoid an aversive stimulus (a shock). A shuttlebox is arranged so that one compartment is “dark” (through the use of opaque walls or an external cover) and one is “light.” Mice have an innate tendency to prefer dark areas over light ones, so their natural instinct will be to move, through a connecting door, from the light compartment they are placed in to the dark compartment.

Difference between Active & Passive Avoidance Learning

                        Active Avoidance Learning is particular response allows to avoid punishment where the animal is given the opportunity of fleeing. On the other hand, Passive Avoidance learning is particular response leads to punishment where inhibition of a previously exhibited response.

Avoidance can be passive or active. Active avoidance is any behavior shown to prevent the occurrence of harm (such as a shock in animals). This typically leads to escape behaviors or overt behaviors that prevent harm. In contrast, in a typical passive avoidance test, animals are placed on a platform and receive a brief footshock every time the animal steps down. Thus, the animal learns that not moving (i.e., passive avoidance) avoids the footshock.


  • Avoidance is a key characteristic of adaptive and maladaptive fear;
  • Avoidance of genuinely threatening stimuli or situations.


            There are some hazards in avoidance learning like as;

  • Excessive avoidance in the absence of real threat can severely impair individuals’ quality of life and may stop them from encountering anxiety-correcting information;
  • Avoidance loses its adaptive value and may transform into a maladaptive response.;
  • Maladaptive avoidance is in fact a central characteristic of a wide spectrum of mental disorders.

Role Play of Clinical Social Worker about Avoidance Learning

The Clinical Social Worker can play role as follows;

  • A social worker spent time with him to observe and talk about his phobia;
  • A social worker can make a conscious effort to change the way he/she reacts to things;
  • Consider alternate, more productive behaviors to replace maladaptive ones;
  • Any conditions, such as addiction or anxiety need to be addressed with the appropriate professionalism. Depending on circumstances, treatment may include:

            – Counseling;

            – Meditation;

            – Relaxation and stress reducing techniques;

            – Talk therapy, etc.


            There are both negative and positive aspects of avoidance for therapeutic interventions. Some avoidance can be adaptive and serve as effective emotion-focused coping. Positive aspects of avoidance should be highlighted when treating anxiety disorders. Avoidance strategies that enhance sense of control should be judiciously encouraged.


American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders: DSM 5. Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Publishing.

Bögels, S. M., Alden, L., Beidel, D. C., Clark, L. A., Pine, D. S., Stein, M. B., et al. (2010). Social anxiety disorder: questions and answers for the DSM-V. Depress. Anxiety 27, 168–189. doi: 10.1002/da.20670

Bolles, R. C. (1972). The avoidance learning problem. Psychol. Learn. Motiv. 6, 97–145.

Barlow, D. H. (2002). Anxiety and Its Disorders: The Nature and Treatment of Anxiety and Panic. New York, NY: Guilford press.

Bekhterev, V. (1907). Objective Psychology. St. Petersburg, FL: Soikin.

Bekhterev, V. (1913). La Psychologie Objective. Paris: Alcan.

Brewin, C. R., and Holmes, E. A. (2003). Psychological theories of posttraumatic stress disorder. Clin. Psychol. Rev. 23, 339–376. doi: 10.1016/S0272-7358(03)00033-3

Hull, C. L. (1943). Principles of Behavior. New York, NY: Appleton-Century-Crofts.

Herrnstein, R. J. (1969). Method and theory in the study of avoidance. Psychol. Rev. 76, 49–69.

Mowrer, O. H. (1951). Two-factor learning theory: summary and comment. Psychol. Rev. 58, 350–354.

Mowrer, O. H. (1960). Learning Theory and Behavior. New York, NY: John Wiley.

Pavlov, I. P. (1927). Conditioned Reflexes. London, Courier Dover Publications.

Rachman, S. (2004). Fear of contamination. Behav. Res. Ther. 42, 1227–1255. doi: 10.1016/j.brat.2003.10.009

Rescorla, R. A., and Solomon, R. L. (1967). Two-process learning theory: relationships between Pavlovian conditioning and instrumental learning. Psychol. Rev. 74, 151–182.

Schöenfeld, W. N. (1950). “An experimental approach to anxiety, escape and avoidance behavior,” in Anxiety, eds P. H. Hoch and J. Zubin (New York, NY: Grune and Stratton), 70–99.

Schneier, F. R., Rodebaugh, T. L., Blanco, C., Lewin, H., and Liebowitz, M. R. (2011). Fear and avoidance of eye contact in social anxiety disorder. Compr. Psychiatry 52, 81–87. doi: 10.1016/j.comppsych.2010.04.006

Watson, J. B. (1913). Psychology as the behaviorist views it. Psychol. Rev. 20, 158–177.

Watson, J. B. (1916). The place of the conditioned-reflex in psychology. Psychol. Rev. 23, 89–116.

Williams, A. D., and Moulds, M. L. (2007). Cognitive avoidance of intrusive memories: recall vantage perspective and associations with depression. Behav. Res. Ther. 45, 1141–1153. doi: 10.1016/j.brat.2006.09.005

World Health Organization. (2004). ICD-10: International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems. Geneva: World Health Organization.

[1]https://webcache.googleusercontent.com/search?q=cache:BN_I55yeNvgJ:https://www.queensu.ca/teachingandlearning/modules/students/04_what_is_learning.html+&cd=3&hl=en&ct=clnk&gl=bd, Accessed on 29.11.2020 at 5.43 PM

[2] https://www.encyclopedia.com/medicine/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/avoidance-learning, accessed on 29.11.2020 at 5.52 PM.