Aversion Therapy and Behavior Modification

In A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess, our ‘little droogie’ Alex is sent to an institution (instead of jail) for a new treatment that will cure his extremely violent tendencies. He is given medicine to make him physically sick and then taken to a theatre where he is shown graphic scenes of violence and pornography. The doctors tape his eyelids open and secure his head in place so he can’t look away. He begins to associate violence and sex with physical discomfort, and, after a few weeks of this, Alex is cured. * When he is released onto the streets, any violent thought of his or graphic action of another makes Alex sick and weak to the point of losing consciousness or vomiting. 

This is aversion therapy. People don’t like aversion therapy because of its negative image. In the dystopian futures and dark historical pasts of films and television, we see fanatical zealots of varying faiths, punishing themselves for their sins with whips and other instruments of torture. We see see excruciating shock therapy used to alter behavior, and sadists and fascists, using ‘aversion therapy’ to justify torturing innocents who have no behavioral problems, like how doctors ‘treated’ homosexuality with conversion therapy. It’s graphic and sadistic. It’s torture. It’s brainwashing. 

If aversion therapy is a personal choice, and it’s done right, it can be safe and moral and effective. 

Terms to know:

Reinforcement: Reinforcing a desired behavior by either giving a pleasant reward or taking away an unpleasant punishment

  • Your dog pees outside and you give him a treat
  • Your dog pees outside and you let him come inside (let’s say the weather’s bad and he doesn’t want to be outside)

Punishment: Punishing an undesirous behavior by either taking a pleasant reward away or giving an unpleasant punishment 

  • Your dog pees inside and you spray him with a squirt bottle
  • Your dog pees inside and you take all his treats away

Do it right. You know when, back in the day, parents who caught their kids smoking would give them an entire pack and make them smoke it all in one sitting? That’s aversion therapy, but done the wrong way. Every addict knows an overdose won’t stop them from using. So do not force feed yourself until you vomit or smoke a whole pack in one sitting. 

Consistency, not intensity: Punishment is not about beating yourself with a cat of nine tails like a fundamentalist priest or wearing a shock collar that’ll send you into a seizure. It’s a simple, easy-to-understand message to your unconscious, just loud enough to be heard and understood, that you consistently give each time you move to start your habit cycle. 

Punish the habit, not yourself: I’ve berated myself plenty of times, and I know that telling myself how stupid and useless I am for making a mistake does not help in any way. Beating yourself, either emotionally of physically, is hateful and hurtful, and ineffective. 

Your unconscious is like a dog: Remember learning about Pavlov’s dog and classical conditioning? Most of our habits aren’t logical or rational. We’re dealing with our unconsciousness, and that part of you is like a dog: she doesn’t speak the same language as you. So what do you do when a dog has the bad habit of peeing on your carpet. You don’t beat him mercilessly, and you don’t tell him what a worthless little shit he is, because he doesn’t understand what you’re saying or why you’re saying it. Instead, you might squirt him with a spray bottle or make a loud noise while he’s in the act, and it has to be during the act, not after, or the connection is not going to be made.

Obsessive Compulsive Disorders: Aversion therapy is a great thing to try if you have a habit that is linked with OCD, like my hair pulling (i.e trichotillomania). I get obsessive thoughts that the people I love are going to die in an accident or get terminally, or just that something really bad could happen at any time. I know I can’t do anything about it, but I feel like I need to take some sort of action, so my unconscious has decided that pulling out my hair will somehow prevent these terrible catastrophes from happening. Obviously there’s nothing rational or logical about it, so how can I deal with it? Of course I need to find and deal with the source of the obsessive thoughts, but that can take months or even years. In the meantime, to prevent myself from picking my way to an early bald spot, I can use aversion therapy.  

Medications: If you take a drug called disulfiram and then you take a drink of alcohol, you will immediately and severely feel all the effects of a hangover: headache, breathing difficulties, severe nausea and vomiting, vertigo, weakness, etc… If you take disulfiram and then you don’ttake a drink of alcohol, you will have a feeling of great well-being and euphoria. Naltrexone (for opiates) and acamprosate (for alcohol) work similarly, but instead of punishing you for drinking, you just don’t get the reward of being drunk. 

Over-the-counter products: To help you stop biting your nails, there’s nail polish that makes your nails taste and smell bad. 


There are products that use bad smells and tastes to help you associate your bad habit with discomfort or disgust. 


There are products that deliver a mild electric shock to help you break your habit. 

Change Your Habits and Life with Pavlok

Free aversion therapy! Imagine you go to pull out your hair, and you feel your fingers on your scalp, and you flip a little rubber band on your wrist. The girl behind the door says, ‘that hurt,’ and after a few times, she says, ‘that hurt because I tried to pull my hair out.’ And eventually she stops pulling your hair out. 

Or you’re bored at home, and the thought of food comes into your mind, so you do burpees until you’re sweaty and out-of-breath, and the girl behind the door says, ‘that sucked,’ and after a few more times she says, ‘I don’t want to think about food when I’m bored anymore, it kind of sucks.’ 

Not a permanent fix: I’ve used the rubber band technique on a few of my habits. It worked fast, but as soon as I wasn’t wearing the band on my wrist, the habit started right back up again. It’s a good technique to help you in the meantime while you are making your doctor’s appointment, or finding a group therapy that you like, or discovering some rewards for your good behavior that really motivate you. 

*Alex isn’t actually cured. He goes back to his violent ways after a few months. In the film, directed by Stanley Kubrick, the last chapter is left off (the 21stchapter, which is symbolic of a boy becoming a man at that age). In the 21stchapter, Alex sees one of his old comrades, or enemies (I forget which), in a coffee shop, enjoying a peaceful morning with his sweet new wife. Alex yearns for a life like that, tranquil, moral, upstanding, good, and makes the decision to be a good person from then on out. 

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