Aversion Therapy

Psychological .

Aversion Therapy is a psychological treatment technique that aims to modify undesirable behaviours by associating them with unpleasant stimuli. Aversion Therapy is a form of behaviour therapy that utilises conditioning principles to discourage individuals from engaging in specific behaviours or habits. It involves pairing the targeted behaviour with an unpleasant stimulus (such as an electric shock or a foul smell), creating a negative association that can lead to a reduction or cessation of the behaviour.


Aversion Therapy was first introduced by Mary Cover Jones, an American Psychologist, in the early 1920s. Her ground-breaking work focused on the treatment of phobias in children using a technique known as counter-conditioning. Jones’ research laid the foundation for the development of aversion therapy as a broader therapeutic approach.

Aversion Therapy is typically applied by licensed mental health professionals, including psychologists, psychiatrists, and certified behaviour analysts.

Process and Techniques

Aversion Therapy typically involves several stages. Initially, a thorough assessment is conducted to identify the target behaviour and determine its underlying causes. Once identified, a suitable aversive stimulus is selected, which can vary depending on the specific behaviour being addressed.

The therapy process often includes the following steps:

  1. Establishing a therapeutic relationship: A strong rapport between the therapist and the client is crucial for the success of aversion therapy.
  2. Identifying the target behaviour: The specific behaviour to be modified is clearly defined and agreed upon by both the therapist and the client.
  3. Selecting the aversive stimulus: An unpleasant stimulus is chosen, which can range from a physical sensation to a visual or auditory cue. For example, an electric shock or a foul smell, or imagining negative consequences, or receiving verbal reprimands. The aversive stimulus is carefully chosen to be unpleasant and undesirable, creating a strong negative reaction.
  4. Pairing the behaviour with the aversive stimulus: The target behaviour is repeatedly presented alongside the aversive stimulus to create an association between them. For example, someone seeking to quit smoking may be given a mild electric shock every time they take a puff. The goal is to create a strong association between the behaviour (smoking) and the aversive stimulus (electric shock), leading to a conditioned response of discomfort or avoidance towards that behaviour.
  5. Generalisation and Maintenance: The client is encouraged to generalise the aversion to various contexts and maintain the behaviour change over time.

Success Rates and Statistics

The effectiveness of Aversion Therapy varies depending on the individual, the behaviour being targeted, and the specific circumstances. Success rates can be influenced by factors such as the client’s motivation, the severity of the behaviour, and the skill of the therapist.

While specific success rates is challenging to quantify, Aversion Therapy has shown promising results in various areas. For example, studies have reported positive outcomes in treating substance abuse, smoking cessation, and certain behavioural disorders.

Treatable Problems

Aversion Therapy has been applied to address a diverse range of behaviours and conditions. It has been used to treat substance abuse disorders, including alcoholism, drug addiction, and smoking. Additionally, Aversion Therapy has shown potential in managing compulsive behaviours, such as gambling, overeating, and self-harm.

However, it is essential to recognise that Aversion Therapy may not be suitable for all individuals or conditions. Ethical considerations, potential side effects, and the need for informed consent must be carefully evaluated before implementing this therapy with clients. For example, regarding ethical considerations, it is important that individuals undergoing Aversion Therapy are aware of the potential side effects of the aversive stimuli, such as discomfort, pain, or psychological distress. Aversion Therapy is best used as part of a comprehensive treatment plan, tailored to the individual’s needs and preferences. It is important to note that Aversion Therapy is typically considered as a last resort when other treatment options have been unsuccessful or when the behaviour poses significant risks to the individual’s health and well-being (Dirks, 1973; Grossberg, 1964). Critics of the theory argue that it may only provide temporary results and that the underlying causes of the behaviour should be addressed through other therapeutic approaches.

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Dirks, S.J., 1973. Aversion therapy: Its limited potential for use in the correctional setting. Stan. L. Rev.26, p.1327.


Grossberg, J.M., 1964. Behavior therapy: A review. Psychological Bulletin62(2), p.73.


Hester, R.K. and Delaney, H.D., 1997. Behavioral Self-Control Program for Windows: results of a controlled clinical trial. Journal of consulting and clinical psychology65(4), p.686.

Jones, M.C., 1924. The elimination of children’s fears. Journal of experimental psychology7(5), p.382.

Marlatt, G.A. and Donovan, D.M. eds., 2005. Relapse prevention: Maintenance strategies in the treatment of addictive behaviors. Guilford press.

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