Conditioning is one of the ways of learning

08.08.2020

Within this methodology there are important concepts to take into account, and one of them is the conditioning of avoidance . Below we will see in depth what it is based on and how this type of response is generated to various stimuli.

What is avoidance conditioning

Avoidance conditioning is a form of response that can be generated in operant conditioning processes, when it is achieved that the individual gives a specific response to avoid a certain aversive stimulus , since he has learned that through this behavior he achieves the non-appearance of said unpleasant stimulus.

To properly understand the concept, we must first know the logic of instrumental or operant conditioning. In this form of learning by association, it is sought that a subject increases or decreases certain behavior through reinforcements (stimuli that make the behavior more likely) or punishments (stimuli that make the behavior less likely), either by applying them (positive) or eliminating them (negatives) when he exercises the behavior we seek.

Focusing now on negative reinforcement, we would obtain a type of stimulus that, when withdrawn (that is what negative means refers to), would increase the probability that the individual would show the desired behavior (hence it is reinforcement and not punishment) . Once we are clear about these basic concepts, it is easier to understand what avoidance conditioning consists of.

Common mistakes: reinforcements and incentives

Here it is convenient to highlight an issue that is often misleading, and that is that we are talking about negative reinforcement and aversive stimulus . Many people mistakenly believe that all reinforcements must be stimuli that are pleasant for the subject, but we have already seen that reinforcement only refers to the increase in the probability of the response we seek, neither more nor less.

On the other hand, it is also important to bear in mind that whenever we talk about aversive stimuli (or rewards, in the opposite case), they acquire that condition due to the perception that the individual has of them, it is not an intrinsic characteristic of stimuli, although sometimes it may seem so.

And it is that, what is pleasant for a person or an animal, can perfectly be unpleasant for another , or it can even vary depending on the circumstances. For example, a food will be a pleasant stimulus for an individual as long as he is no longer satiated, likes the taste, does not have allergies, etc.

It is very important to keep these questions in mind as if we cannot, we may have difficulty understanding the fundamentals of both avoidance conditioning and operant conditioning processes in general.

Avoidance versus escape

With negative reinforcement we can obtain two clearly differentiated behaviors, which are escape and avoidance . What is the difference between them? Both have to do with the elimination of a stimulus that is aversive for the subject, but the key here would be at the time of application of said stimulus.

If the aversive stimulus is applied first and the individual emits the behavior that we seek in order to eliminate said stimulus, we would be talking about escape conditioning. However, if the subject has learned that by emitting the behavior she manages not to apply the unpleasant stimulus (which would come later), it would be avoidance conditioning.

Faced with the dilemma of escape and avoidance, the key to differentiating both types of response would be to visualize the timeline of events and discover if, thanks to the response, the person achieves the end of the unpleasant event or, on the contrary, manages to never have it. place (this second case being the avoidance conditioning that we are studying).

Discriminatory stimulus

One may wonder how it is possible that the subject anticipates that the unpleasant event that is the aversive stimulus is going to take place and is therefore able to emit the appropriate response to avoid it before it occurs and, therefore, the conditioning. of avoidance.

This is achieved through what is known as a discriminative stimulus, a stimulus that is neutral in itself but that precedes the one that is aversive , so the individual becomes aware of what is going to happen and therefore both can make the decision to give the answer to avoid it.

In this case, the subject's behavior will increase since he achieves the objective that the person seeks, which is none other than ensuring that the unpleasant stimulus does not appear for him, and that he already knows that it always occurs after the discriminative stimulus, unless be that performs that conduct in question.

Faced with discriminated avoidance, which would be the one that uses the discriminative stimulus to "warn" the subject that the aversive stimulus is going to make its appearance imminently, there is another methodology to try to achieve avoidance conditioning. It is known as the indiscriminate avoidance or Sidman's free operant avoidance procedure .

This other way of working with avoidance, instead of using a signal that warns the individual of the aversive stimulus, what it does is apply this stimulus following a temporal pattern, so that it always appears every so often, unless the individual emit a certain behavior, the consequence of which would be to postpone the next application of the aversive stimulus.

However, the results clearly indicate that Sidman's methodology achieves much worse results than those achieved with discriminated avoidance conditioning . To begin with, learning takes much longer in the first case than in the second. On the other hand, the avoidance responses that are achieved lack stability, an element that, however, is manifested in the second method.

Finally, the avoidance behavior through the Sidman method is very easily extinguished , forgetting in a short time to stop presenting the aversive stimulus. On the contrary, when the discriminative stimulus is used, the avoidance conditioning is strong and therefore difficult to extinguish, taking a long time to achieve it.

Practical example

Let's look at a practical example to better understand the implications of avoidance conditioning and also be able to compare the methodologies of discriminated avoidance and indiscriminate avoidance. One of the typical studies is the one that has been carried out with laboratory mice and rats , which are introduced into the so-called avoidance box.

This box consists of two different rooms, separated by a hinged door. One of the compartments has elements to transmit electricity, a stimulus that is applied from time to time. However, this electrical discharge affects only one compartment, but not the other.

In the first of the studies, the one that uses discriminated avoidance, each of these discharges will be preceded by a discriminative stimulus, which in this case will be an auditory signal, with which it is intended to alert the mouse of the imminent discharge that you will receive, unless you immediately exit the unsafe compartment and go to the safe.

In the second study, this type of auditory signal is not applied , so the only clue that the mouse receives about the electrical shocks that are applied to the first compartment is the periodicity of the shock itself, offering it a stable temporal pattern.

The results are conclusive. In the first case, the mouse needs only a few trials to find the pattern and quickly flee to the safe compartment of the box as soon as the auditory signal sounds, soon afterwards that it is not affected by any of the shocks.

On the other hand, mice that are not warned by said beep have it much more complicated and, even after many repetitions, they continue to suffer numerous shocks because they are not able to find the relationship between the time pattern between current and current, so that good avoidance conditioning is not achieved, not as in the first case.

As we anticipated in the characteristics of these methodologies, it is found that the response with the first method turns out to be immensely more stable, it is learned much earlier and is more durable , complicating extinction. In the opposite case, that of the Sidman method, the opposite happens. Learning is slow and chaotic, there is no stability in the responses and this pattern is easily lost.

It is clear, therefore, that the use of a discriminative stimulus is vital to achieve quality avoidance conditioning, since the results obtained are much more satisfactory than those of the study in which anticipation of the aversive stimulus is renounced by means of a signal.

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