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Aversion therapy uses different negative stimuli to discourage the individual from engaging in undesirable behavior. Electrical shocks are one possible negative stimulus, but other approaches will use vomiting or even unpleasant mental images. This type of treatment is related to the learning theory of classical conditioning. It assumes that negative behaviors arise because the individual has learned to associate them with pleasant consequences. The hope is that by associating the same behavior with negative consequences the individual will find them less desirable.
The therapist who uses aversion therapy for behavior modification will have different negative stimuli to choose from. Research suggests that electrical shocks have advantages over other types of aversion therapy. It is easier to control and there is less potential for things to go wrong.
The worry with using drugs in behavior modification is that it can be hard to predict how the individual will react to these pharmacological agents. There have been instances where people have become seriously ill after taking drugs such as antabuse. There is less risk of a negative reaction with electrical shocks because the therapist is in complete control.
Electrical aversion therapy uses a safe but uncomfortable electrical shock. The therapist may decide to administer these shocks to the forearm, leg, or fingers. The electric shock is then paired with the unwanted behavior. If the therapist wishes to eliminate an addiction like smoking, then the therapy will involve electric shocks as the individual smokes cigarettes. The hope is that this will mean that the smoker will begin to associate their habit with discomfort rather than pleasure.
So far the research into electrical aversion therapy has produced mixed results. Many of those who undergo this type of program will return to the previous undesirable behavior once the treatment has stopped. It works better when combined with a follow up relapse prevention program. Research indicates that it is less effective than other types of aversion therapy. On the plus side, electrical shocks are cost effective and easy to administer. This treatment also involves fewer potential negative side effects when compared with aversion therapy using pharmacological agents.
The use of electric shocks to change behavior is controversial as it is something that a lot of people will associate with torture and punishment. There are ethical concerns about the advisability of using this to treat addiction or other undesirable behavior. There have been disturbing incidents where individuals were subjected to electrical aversion therapy against their will. In China, it has been used to treat young children with internet addictions. Electrical shocks are given without the consent of these youngsters and so it could be considered a form of punishment.
A criticism that can apply to all types of aversion therapy is that it focuses on just the behavior. There are said to be many components to a problem like addiction and the actual behavior is just one of these components. If treatment ignores the motivations behind the negative behavior then the seeds of the problem will remain. The individual may manage to defeat their addiction but as the original cause has been ignored they may develop new undesirable behaviors. In some cases the individual will have used their addiction as a means to cope with problems or as a form of self medication.
The most controversial use of electrical aversion therapy is to treat homosexuality. Anecdotal reports paint a disturbing picture of this treatment used as a cure for homosexuality. Not only is there the argument that homosexuality is not a disease that requires curing, but that attempting to do this can be traumatic for the individual.
The ethical concern regarding electric shocks has led to increased interest in other forms of aversion therapy. Covert sensitization involves imagining negative consequences when engaging in undesirable behavior. There is no actual unpleasant consequence and the individual is in complete control all the time. Further research will be required to determine how covert sensitization compares with other forms of aversion therapy, but so far the results are encouraging.
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