Aversion therapy is an older behavioral modification technique based on classical conditioning. Learn about how it is used and its effectiveness.

There are many forms of behavioral therapy that a person can participate in to change unwanted and unhealthy behaviors. Aversion therapy can be used as one type of behavioral therapy, although it is not as widely used as it once was. An aversion therapy example is, in the case of a person who wants to quit smoking, to pair mild electric shocks with images of cigarettes. This negative association between pain and cigarettes will eventually affect a person’s behavior. Aversion therapy does not see widespread use by modern psychologists.

What Is Aversion Therapy?

Aversion therapy is based on the psychological principle of classical (or Pavlovian) conditioning.

Classical conditioning is when you pair two different stimuli together to create an associative memory. For example, you can pair an auditory tone with an electric shock to create an association. Then, when you play the tone later by itself, the tone alone will elicit a stress or fear response because it has been associated with the shock. Aversion therapy takes advantage of the same basic principles to change behavior.

Uses of Aversion Therapy

Aversion therapy has been used to treat conditions in which a person engages in unhealthy behaviors. While modern psychologists will likely use other treatment methods, aversion therapy can be used for the following challenges:

  • Bad habits: Some people may seek to address bad habits, such as nail biting, with aversion therapy. For example, a greater proportion of people who went through aversion therapy had either ceased biting their nails or were biting less frequently three months later compared to people who experienced no aversion therapy.
  • Smoking: Aversion therapy has been used for smoking cessation purposes.
  • Gambling: Research has shown the use of aversion therapy in attempts to stop people from gambling.
  • Alcoholism: In the past, alcoholism has been treated using aversion therapy procedures that either involved electrical, chemical or verbal imagery as the negative stimulus, which served to reduce drinking behavior amongst people struggling with alcohol use.
  • Violence: Aversion therapy was also used to reduce violent behavior. Historically, this method has most often been utilized in correctional facilities.


Aversion therapy effectiveness has been a matter of contention. Many factors come into play when it comes to the effectiveness of aversion therapy, such as the treatment methods, aversive conditions that are used and whether the client continues to practice setback-prevention techniques after treatment finishes.

Usually, aversion therapy may be effective while a person is still undergoing treatment and in a clinical setting. The biggest problem is the high rate of setbacks that occur once the patient is back in real-world settings without the aversive stimulus (usually an electric shock) present.

Criticisms of Aversion Therapy

There has been much criticism of aversion therapy. The primary criticism is the lack of scientific rigor in the studies conducted. The studies that do exist on aversion therapy are mainly from the 1960s and 1970s and often their conclusions were drawn from very small samples. Sometimes these published studies included only one person.

Another major criticism of aversion therapy involves its use in the “treatment” of homosexuality. This issue wasn’t officially addressed by the American Psychological Association until 1994.

Today, there are more widely used, evidence-based therapies and treatment options available for addiction and other conditions. If you or a loved one struggle with a substance use disorder, contact The Recovery Village to speak with a representative about how evidence-based treatment helps people live healthier lives.

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Editor – Thomas Christiansen
With over a decade of content experience, Tom produces and edits research articles, news and blog posts produced for Advanced Recovery Systems. Read more
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Medically Reviewed By – Dr. Brooke Dulka, PHD
Brooke Nichole Dulka is a Postdoctoral Research Associate in the Department of Psychology at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. She received her PhD in Biological Psychology at the University of Tennessee in August 2018. Read more

McGuire, Ralph J; Maelor, Vallance. “Aversion therapy by electric shock: A simple technique.” British Medical Journal, 1964. Accessed September 22, 2019.

Vargas, John; Vincent J. Adesso. “A comparison of aversion therapies for nailbiting behavior.” Behavior Therapy, 1976. Accessed September 22, 2019.

Hajek, Peter; Lindsay F. Stead. “Aversive smoking for smoking cessation.” Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, 2001. Accessed September 22, 2019.

Barker, J. C.; Mabel Miller. “Aversion therapy for compulsive gambling.” British Medical Journal, 1966. Accessed September 22, 2019.

Elkins, Ralph L. “Aversion therapy for alcoholism: Chemica[…]or verbal imaginary?” International Journal of the Addictions, 1975. Accessed September 22, 2019.

Gaylin, Willard; Helen Blatte. “Behavior modification in prisons.” Am. Crim. L. Rev., 1975. Accessed September 22, 2019.

Witkiewitz, Katie; Marlatt, Alan. “Behavioral Therapy Across the Spectrum.” Alcohol Research and Health. Accessed November 4, 2019.

Medical Disclaimer

The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare providers.