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What Is Avoidance Learning

The human mind works in amazing ways. It operates with remarkable complexity, quietly absorbing and processing a wealth of information from our surroundings. 

Sometimes without even realizing it, we adapt and learn to avoid uncomfortable situations or survive harmful conditions in a process called avoidance learning.

While this function generally serves us well, it can sometimes result in challenges, such as developing mental health disorders.

woman fearing and biting fingers

What is avoidance learning

Avoidance learning is a process where an individual learns to perform or avoid specific actions to prevent an aversive event from occurring. This strategy of reducing exposure to unpleasant events is integral to human survival and adaptation.​1​

Active vs. passive avoidance

Avoidance learning can take the form of active avoidance or passive avoidance. 

In active avoidance learning, a person learns to act to prevent an unpleasant outcome. An example would be an individual learning to take a different route to work to avoid a traffic-filled road, thereby preventing the stress associated with traffic jams.

Passive avoidance learning is when a person learns to withhold a behavior to prevent an undesired consequence. For instance, a person who once experienced food poisoning after eating at a particular restaurant might learn to avoid that restaurant entirely in the future.​2​

Escape learning vs. avoidance learning

The difference between escape learning and avoidance learning is that escape learning involves actions that terminate an ongoing aversive stimulus, while avoidance learning involves actions that prevent a potential aversive stimulus from happening.

For example, consider the scenario of a person who dislikes loud noises and is in a room where an alarm is sounding off.

In the context of escape learning, a person would learn to turn off the alarm to end the loud noise. Turning off the alarm terminates the ongoing unpleasant stimuli (the loud noises) and is an escape response.

On the other hand, the person might learn always to check whether the alarm is set before entering the room. This avoidance response prevents the alarm from sounding off in the first place, thus avoiding the loud noise.​3​

Theories of avoidance learning

Psychologists have proposed multiple theories to explain this learning mechanism. Here are a few representative ones.

Pavlovian conditioned reflex theory by Bekhterev and Watson 

This is one of the earliest theories. It suggests that avoidance learning is similar to a Pavlovian fear response, where an individual learns to respond to a stimulus associated with an aversive stimulus.

Mowrer’s two-factor theory

Avoidance learning was traditionally believed to be based on instrumental conditioning (operant conditioning). However, the two-factor theory suggests that avoidance learning involves two processes: Pavlovian fear conditioning and instrumental learning.

In the first stage, classical conditioning teaches an individual to fear a situation or aversive stimulus.

For example, a child is playing in a park when suddenly, a big dog charges at them, growling and barking. The child is terrified and runs away, but the memory of the noxious event is deeply ingrained in their mind creating fear conditioning.

In the second stage, the individual learns to avoid the feared situation or stimulus through instrumental learning. This is where the individual learns that certain behavior, such as running away or avoiding the situation, can prevent the feared outcome. This avoidance behavior is reinforced over time because it successfully prevents the feared outcome.

For example, the aggressive dog is the unconditioned stimulus (US) that naturally and automatically triggers a fear response, which is the unconditioned response (UR). The park, which was previously a neutral stimulus (NS), becomes associated with the aggressive dog and the fear it induced. Over time, the park becomes a conditioned stimulus (CS), capable of triggering a conditioned response (CR) of fear, even in the absence of a dog. Avoiding the park is reinforced by the lack of fear.

Over time, this avoidance behavior becomes a learned behavioral response through negative reinforcement.​4​

Bolles’ species-specific defense reactions (SSDR) theory

This theory suggests that animals have innate defense reactions specific to their species. These reactions are automatically triggered in response to threatening situations.

For instance, a person walks alone at night in a secluded area. Suddenly, he hears footsteps rapidly approaching from behind. His heart rate increases, adrenaline surges, and he instinctively starts to run. The species-specific defense reaction here is the “flight” response, which is innate and automatically triggered in response to threatening situations.

Bolles argued that avoidance learning is not a result of fear conditioning and instrumental learning, as proposed by Mowrer. Instead, he suggested that avoidance behavior results from the animal learning to use its species-specific defense reactions more effectively in threatening situations.​5​

Other theories

  • The expectancy model focuses on the role of cognitive processes, proposing that individuals learn to avoid situations based on their expectations of the outcomes of their actions.
  • The cognitive model of Seligman and Johnson believes that avoidance learning is driven by the individual’s expectations and predictions about the outcomes of their actions, emphasizing the role of cognitive processes over fear or instinctual reactions.
  • Neal Miller’s theory proposes that all instrumental reinforcement during avoidance learning originates from fear reduction.
  • Unsignaled avoidance procedures proposed by Sidman suggest that individuals can learn to avoid aversive stimuli presented at fixed time intervals, even in the absence of discrete antecedent stimuli.
  • Symbolic generalization theory by Augustson and Dougher suggests that symbolic generalization can indirectly achieve avoidance learning.
  • Evolutionary memory theory suggests that avoidance can be evoked by identifying predator-related stimuli (e.g., smells) even in the absence of a previous encounter with the predator due to “evolutionary memory.

Numerous principles of avoidance learning can be attributed to the phenomenon’s complexity and the different contexts in which it can occur.​6​

Each theory attempts to explain a specific aspect or mechanism of avoidance learning, often based on particular experimental findings or clinical observations.

Avoidance learning is a multifaceted process that a single theory can’t fully explain. It appears to involve both Pavlovian learning and instrumental learning processes and can be influenced by various factors such as fear, expectancy, and the presence or absence of explicit warning signals.

Human fear conditioning

Fear is a normal part of children’s development. 

Many children have fears related to animals like spiders and dogs, medical situations like injections and dentist visits, and environmental factors like heights and darkness. 

On average, a child may have two to five such fears, and some may have up to fourteen fears.

While these fears may seem insignificant, they can lead to more severe phobias and anxiety disorders in about 22.8% of children. 

Early fears need to be taken seriously because they can develop into phobias in adulthood, affecting their social and educational functioning.​7​

Human fear conditioning is a form of Pavlovian classical conditioning.

In fear conditioning, a neutral stimulus (like a dog) becomes associated with an adverse stimulus (like being bitten), leading to the development of fear. This learned fear can then drive the acquisition of avoidance behavior. The child learns to avoid situations where a negative stimulus might be present.

Additionally, modeling or vicarious learning can also contribute to avoidance learning. If a child observes a parent reacting fearfully to a specific type of stimulus, the child may also learn to fear and avoid that target stimulus. 

This highlights the interconnectedness of fear conditioning, observational learning, and avoidance learning in shaping a child’s behavior and responses to their environment.

Social anxiety disorder

Anxiety disorders are some of the most common mental disorders. They can often be chronic and severely impact a person’s life.

Avoidance is a main characteristic of anxiety disorders.

Fear, anxiety, and avoidance are normal responses that have evolved over time. While they are common in daily life, people with high anxiety levels tend to experience extreme fear, anxiety, or avoidance in response to what they perceive as threats in their surroundings or within themselves.

Their reactions to these triggers are much stronger than the actual threat or danger they pose and often extend to many related triggers.

People with anxiety disorders usually show a high level of avoidance behaviors, which can vary from outright refusal to enter situations they fear to subtle reliance on objects, behaviors, or people to deal with their fear of expected threats.

A combination of exposure therapy and avoidance response prevention may help the reduction of avoidance.​8​


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    Kim H, Shimojo S, O’Doherty JP. Is Avoiding an Aversive Outcome Rewarding? Neural Substrates of Avoidance Learning in the Human Brain. Gallagher M, ed. PLoS Biol. Published online July 4, 2006:e233. doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.0040233
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    Stelly CE, Haug GC, Fonzi KM, et al. Pattern of dopamine signaling during aversive events predicts active avoidance learning. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA. Published online June 17, 2019:13641-13650. doi:10.1073/pnas.1904249116
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    Kameyama T, Nabeshima T, Kozawa T. Step-down-type passive avoidance- and escape-learning method. Journal of Pharmacological Methods. Published online August 1986:39-52. doi:10.1016/0160-5402(86)90027-6
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    Maia TV. Two-factor theory, the actor–critic model, and conditioned avoidance. Learning & Behavior. Published online January 11, 2010:50-67. doi:10.3758/lb.38.1.50
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    Cain CK. Avoidance problems reconsidered. Current Opinion in Behavioral Sciences. Published online April 2019:9-17. doi:10.1016/j.cobeha.2018.09.002
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    Krypotos AM. Avoidance learning: a review of theoretical models and recent developments. Front Behav Neurosci. Published online 2015. doi:10.3389/fnbeh.2015.00189
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    Muris P, Field AP. The Role of Verbal Threat Information in the Development of Childhood Fear. “Beware the Jabberwock!” Clin Child Fam Psychol Rev. Published online March 3, 2010:129-150. doi:10.1007/s10567-010-0064-1
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    Krypotos AM, Effting M, Arnaudova I, Kindt M, Beckers T. Avoided by Association. Clinical Psychological Science. Published online October 7, 2013:336-343. doi:10.1177/2167702613503139

Updated on September 28th, 2023 by Pamela Li

Pamela Li is an author, Founder, and Editor-in-Chief of Parenting For Brain. Her educational background is in Electrical Engineering (MS, Stanford University) and Business Management (MBA, Harvard University). Learn more


    * All information on is for educational purposes only. Parenting For Brain does not provide medical advice. If you suspect medical problems or need professional advice, please consult a physician. *

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