Remembering the Pre-Aversive Stimulus


There are some terms and concepts from behavioral psychology’s past that have found themselves buried in time. Tucked away in a journal here or there but largely forgotten. The older research that tracked rates of behavior following “noxious stimuli”, for example- A phrase we don’t use anymore.  Time has also changed the fascination with respondent conditioning and effects that just two (or more) paired stimuli somewhere along the line could change responding for a lifetime. Powerful principles, which with progress now seem so mundane. Somewhere in there, we have the pre-aversive stimulus.

The pre-aversive stimulus had a great role in early behavioral science animal research to describe responding patterns, but the concept easily applies to humans as well. A pre-aversive stimulus, simply put, is the stimulus that reliably precedes an aversive stimulus. Have you ever heard the term avoidance responding? Some people may call that “escape-maintained behavior” in the field but it is effectively just that- engaging in behavior (responding) to avoid a stimulus that was aversive in the past. Running away. Getting away. Dodging it. What signals that, then? The pre-aversive stimulus. It goes even further. Just through respondent conditioning, the pre-aversive stimulus can take on features of the aversive stimulus and become a conditioned aversive stimulus itself. Then there’s another pre-aversive stimulus that could reliably precede that, and with enough second-order conditioning, you could get messy (over)generalization and find all sorts of related stimuli as aversive. Generalized Anxiety Disorder theoretically works on this same principle. It’s not hard to see how this kind of thing can tangle up a person’s life- whether they are able to realize it and vocalize it or not.



Wait! Isn’t a pre-aversive stimulus just a kind of SD?

Let’s not jump to any conclusions and mistake a pre-aversive stimulus for an SD just yet. They have some things in common. They’re both stimuli (but so is almost everything else). They can both be considered antecedent stimuli when we look at the framework of the avoidance responding that sometimes follows them. They signal something. All good comparisons- but here’s a big distinction if you don’t remember: A discriminative stimulus (SD) signals reinforcer availability for a specific type of response.

The per-aversive stimulus does not necessarily have to.

In some situations, you could conceptualize a case for negatively reinforced behavior, but that might muddy the definitions of both terms being used concurrently. They speak to different phenomena even though they could describe one particular stimulus. The big difference is that the cue for available reinforcement is not necessary for a pre-aversive stimulus. It is simply a stimulus that has commonly preceded something aversive, or bad.

Example: An individual has been stung by a wasp before. Maybe several times if they were unlucky. Prior to the stinging, they heard the buzzing around a wasp nest.

That buzzing could likely become a pre-aversive stimulus, and through respondent conditioning, a conditioned aversive stimulus itself in the future.

In the research, pre-aversive stimuli tended to evoke “anxiety” in respondents- which was quasi-operationalized to the term conditioned emotional response (CER), also called conditioned suppression. That’s an important distinction to keep in mind. Here, a pre-aversive stimulus appears to suppress or decrease responding- not signal reinforcement for a response like an SD would.

Like freezing near a wasp nest when buzzing is heard. The usual comfortable walking pace (response) is suppressed in the presence of the buzzing sound (pre-aversive antecedent stimulus).



Anxiety! Conditioned Emotional Responses! Conditioned Suppression!

Respondent conditioning research has some fascinating lessons that are just as relevant today as they were decades ago. Sometimes in the day to day practice of behavior analysis- things get oversimplified for the sake of ease of practice.

Behavior goes up? Reinforcement is at work.

Behavior goes down? Punishment is at work.

To a degree, those definitions work. Even with our wasp nest example earlier, those initial stings could absolutely punish some future walking behavior. But we can’t forget about the little things- the little preceding stimuli that have so much to do with the actual phenomenon. The buzzing didn’t punish the walking. Don’t forget the antecedents. Don’t forget the respondent conditioning. Taking the time to examine just one more step explains the process so much more clearly.

What conditioned pre-aversive stimuli appear to evoke conditioned emotional responses in your day to day life? Do you see conditioned suppression of behavior, as a result, that would have otherwise been there? What pre-aversive stimuli could be “tagging on” to the effects of an aversive stimulus you’re aware of? Does it evoke any avoidance behavior?

Too simple? Laurence Miller ‘s (1969) work on compounding pre-aversive stimuli might whet your broader research appetite. Citation below.

Thoughts? Comment! Question! Like!



Coleman, D. A., Hemmes, N. S., & Brown, B. L. (1986). Relative durations of conditioned stimulus and intertrial interval in conditioned suppression. Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior,46(1), 51-66. doi:10.1901/jeab.1986.46-51
Miller, L. (1969). Compounding of pre-aversive stimuli1. Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior,12(2), 293-299. doi:10.1901/jeab.1969.12-293
Ormrod, J. E. (2016). Human learning. Harlow, Essex, England: Pearson.
Image Credits:, photographer Hubert Mousseign

Overcoming the Fear of Failure


This is a topic I see very often in clinical practice. Not only that, but it affects everyone at one point in their lives. When I am working on skills with my clients who are able to vocalize and express these fears, I see a pattern inherent to everyone who has ever encountered something new. In Applied Behavior Analytic research, sometimes we like to operationalize this phenomenon as “aversion”, or “presentation of an aversive novel stimulus”. Whatever we call it, it is the same thing. Engaging in something new and uncomfortable in a goal directed way is a challenge that we have to confront. Clinically, I prefer to have the individual guide their own process and become aware of their own specific aversions and behaviors. It makes the practice of confronting these stimuli as self-initiated, and self-guided as possible.

I prefer the word confront because it has a better ring to it than “desensitization”. When it comes to coming face to face with a stimulus or situation where we have to either perform or adapt, confront just seems to carry the operant theme more than the passive “desensitizing”. Failure is a scary and aversive thing.  We can define it as a condition where our operant behaviors are unsuccessful. Efforts which are not reinforced. It’s perfectly natural to want to avoid a contingency with no reinforcement. When we face something we are afraid of, or a new situation where we might not be sure we can succeed; we are facing that fear of failure. Maybe it is a fear of not being able to complete a required activity of success, or putting yourself out there socially and being received amiably. There is something universally human to that kind of hesitation. In ABA we call that an “escape-maintained” behavior, and when the behavior serves no real purpose to protect us, it tends to hold us back. When failure is that fear, then we tend not to even try.

In clinical practice, be it Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) or any other Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT) the advice is all the same; it takes presentation (and sometimes repeated presentation) of that stimulus in a controlled situation until that aversive situation becomes neutral. This is called controlled exposure. That is where the real progress happens. When someone meets that situation, faces it, and can come through the other side fearing it less (or finding it less aversive), it is a step in the right direction. You may also hear the term “graduated exposure”, which denotes the concept of fading in stimuli or related stimuli in from least to most in order to acclimate in steps. A common example is if someone is scared of spiders or animals, they would be shown a picture first across the room, and gradually get closer to the picture before moving on to any examples of the real deal. Habituation is the term commonly used for becoming used to something, to the point where the stimulus becomes tolerable, if not neutral.

These same principles can be used when actively trying to overcome a fear of failure too. Generally, we come across things that are new to us. These can be either unconditioned stimuli (things we are “naturally” fearful of) and conditioned stimuli (things we have learned to be fearful of). Public speaking in front of large groups is an example of an unconditioned stimulus (for some, but it can be conditioned for others) while taking tests is a common example of a conditioned stimulus. Both present a challenge that we have to act on (engage in operant behavior) in order to be reinforced. Be it someone you are helping in clinical practice, or yourself, you can use these same foundational principles of graduated exposure. If the situation is not reinforcing in itself, keep in mind that you can always improvise your own reinforcement (reward) in order to make adapting easier. Using reinforcement alongside challenging situations can make them less aversive through a process called conditioning. The act of practicing this process on yourself is called self-management.


Consider these steps when trying to formulate your own graduated exposure:

  1. Find the situation which you feel is important to engage in or achieve (Target).
  2. Break it down into it’s smallest components (Task Analysis). 
  3. Pinpoint which part, exactly, is causing the most aversion or fear (Aversive Stimulus). 
  4. Document, to the best of your ability, the behaviors you engage in along the way (Data Recording/Self-Monitoring). Do these behaviors help, or do they hinder? 
  5. Practice engaging with a facsimile or similar situation where the stimulus or stakes are not so high (ie. If public speaking is the target try practicing a speech in front of 1 person first). 
  6. Reinforce (reward) any toleration or approximation of success! This is the most important step. 
  7. Gradually shape these practice simulations to simulate the “real” objective as closely as possible. 
  8. Do not rush it. Challenge yourself, but be mindful that this is a process, not a race.

Take it slow. Document everything you can. Learn. Improve. The process is where the fear of failure is overcome. Often it takes more than one contact with the situation to get accustomed. I’ve used this process on myself more times than I can count. As a person who has found large exams, public speaking to crowds, public competition, and even engagement in new and unfamiliar situations; the end-goal is all the same. It is something that is worth facing because the outcome is a socially important, or beneficial to us. The aversion, or fear, is not helpful or adaptive. Facing these situations and designing the process oneself is empowering.

Self-Management is one of the greatest strategies in ABA. If someone can find a way to manage their own behavior successfully then it is the ideal situation. Self-monitoring and self-management also have the unique bonus of being able to handle what Behaviorists call “covert behaviors” (thoughts, etc). Covert behaviors are things that are not visible to outside observers but are still able to be tracked and recorded by the person experiencing them. Accuracy and specificity is important here, and can vastly improve a personal insight into their own patterns of behavior. This doesn’t have to be a single person job either! Even though someone can monitor their own behavior, they can also bring trusted friends/family/cooperators into the process of reinforcement and help to keep them on track.

Independence, and knowledge about yourself, while overcoming a challenge.

What could be better?


Comments? Questions? Leave them below!



  1. Cooper, J. O., Heron, T. E., & Heward, W. L. (1987). Applied behavior analysis. Columbus: Merrill Pub. Co.
  2. Wood, S. E., Wood, E. R., & Wood, E. R. (1996). The world of psychology. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

Photo Credits:

  1. Pexels Stock Photos


How the Media uses Motivating Operations on Viewers


Let’s talk about a topic in behavioral science that is often overlooked called Motivating Operations. They happen all the time, and create a need for a behavior to occur which accesses or avoids something. In televised and internet media, organizations use these stimuli to get people to view these programs (and generate ad revenue for the media organization), or become hooked to a continuous chain of watching/viewing/consuming behaviors.

Motivating Operations are useful to this topic because they are a special type of stimuli that momentarily alters the value of the consequences, leading to behaviors seeking those consequences (reinforcers) to increase drastically. In other words, Motivating Operations have a great deal of control over behaviors that seek something out. They are triggers that make seeking out the consequences (in this case, dangerous/fearful or consummatory-related information) much more desirable. Let’s take a moment to break it down and find out how, in this theoretical example.


Value Altering Effects and Behavior Altering Effects

Before we get in too deeply in to how certain media organizations use these Motivating Operations; let’s talk about some of the aspects in play simultaneously that change the viewers/listeners/readers behavior.

Antecedent Stimulus (the Motivating Operation) The  Respondent’s (reader/listener/viewer) Behavior The Consequence

“Are there flammable liquids falling from the sky nearby? Find out in 10 minutes.”



Observing the media for the next 10 minutes, and then some.


The story is eventually delivered to the respondent.


Take this Motivating Operation for example. Note that it serves as an antecedent stimulus, meaning it happens before the behavior we are looking at, and that behavior is likely the behavior they are targeting to take place. This type of antecedent stimulus does not provide the information itself that would satiate the respondent. In fact, it provides a situation where we very much want to see resolution to, and that resolution is promised to us if we continue to watch/listen/read their interim programming (generating them ad money in the process). So before we even get to this behavior, or the consequence of that behavior, we have two things going on with this Motivating Operation that we track in behavioral science and applied behavior analysis;

A Value-Altering Effect: Where that motivating operation establishes a situation where that reinforcer we are looking at becomes extremely valuable to us. In our example, flammable liquids in the sky are extremely dangerous, and we have a vested interest in knowing about that danger. The Consequence (ie, the news story) is incredibly valuable to us at this point. They hold information we want.

And a Behavior-Altering Effect: This Motivating Operation is evoking a behavior that the responding has in their repertoire. Assuming they have watched/listened/read this type of media before, they are prime to exhibit that behavior in this instance, cued by this Motivating Operation. Maybe it’s clicking to get to the right part of the story, or the right link. Maybe it’s watching/listening 4 commercials before the story comes on. We (the respondents) demonstrate the exact behavior they are targeting.


Creating the Need and Sating It


The reinforcement, the consequence stimulus, we are looking for may outright be terrifying. They could be telling us about a scenario that would be incredibly dangerous; but we are still very curious, because that information would be able to cue behaviors that would benefit our survival. If, however, this information does not contain pertinent information to us, and we (as the respondents) are not in danger, we then escape a potential aversive stimulus and are reinforced by this as well. In either preparation for survival, or news of our safety, we are for the most part seeking either types of these reinforcers once we are presented with that Motivating Operation stimulus. Uncertainty is a common stimulus that humans are wired to want to avoid.

So now we have a situation following the presentation of their Motivating Operations, which we can see some more fictitious examples below:

  • Tune in at 9 to see why your home might not be safe!
  • 10 security weaknesses the new briefing revealed that will shock you!
  • Dangerous neighbors moving in? What could that mean to your family?
  • You will not believe what Unstable Government Official A said about… Find out more here.
  • 5 ways this Billionaire made more money than you, but first, chicken disease in our cities?

In all of these types of scenarios, they set up the respondents, their viewers/readers to interpret the value of that information in a few ways.

Condition A:  Positive Reinforcement Condition B: Negative Reinforcement Condition C: Punishment
They give you information you can use.

It may even be bad news, but it satisfies that curiosity and may also lead you to engage in additional behaviors to adapt, vent publicly, etc. It may even be a schadenfreude situation where the person is reinforced by another’s misfortune.


The information removes a potential aversive stimulus.

You find out you are safe, or even that the threat or problem is not what you may have thought it was.

You avoid the potential problem. The question they posed created a condition where you may have interpreted threat or danger, and this information has (both created and) removed it.

The information you receive is aversive enough to punish future watching/reading.


In this scenario, you are given something so averse that it does not sate your curiosity, and also decreases the likelihood you will follow through on it again in a similar position.


In Condition A: Both the respondent and the media mrganization get something out of it. Assuming reinforcement took place, the respondent got something they needed from it and the media organization got the revenue from the prolonged engagement in that media. That respondent might even return to watch again some time.

In Condition B: Both the respondent and the media organization get something too. Assuming that reinforcement took place, the respondent “feels safer”, they avoided something they did not want and the media organization got the revenue from the prolonged engagement in that media. This respondent might also return to watch/read again.

In Condition C: The media organization may have misjudged the audience, but they still came out on top. The presentation of the Motivating Operation did in fact create that value-altering and behavior-altering effect, they got their views or their clicks. The respondent, however, was not reinforced. They were put off. They are less likely to engage in viewing behavior. A returning consumer is not as likely.

Not Just Once, but a Chain of Motivating Operations

Let’s think about Condition A and Condition B right now. The situation above looks very linear, but you have to keep in mind that during that behavior period, there could have been many additional stimuli that served as  Motivating Operations or Discriminative Stimuli* for other behaviors that the media organization tacked on. The viewers did their initial clicks, reads, ad listening, what have you. But there is a chance to create more opportunities.

  • Are the flammable chemicals coming for you? Tune in at 10:00… Breaking News! Tsunami’s may be coming to places you never expected!
  • You won’t believe what Government Official A said, but first our commercial break. INCREDIBLE PIZZA FOR LESS!

Once the initial story is over, several other Motivating Operations could have been put in place while the respondent was viewing to create a need to resolve other unknowns, gain access to something new, avoid other potential dangers, and answer new questions which have undergone value-altering effects to that respondent (viewer). By creating scenarios of concurrent Motivating Operations, operating at the same time, it potentially creates an ongoing need to consume this programming on a regular basis and as continuously as the consumer can.


Questions? Comments? Leave them below!


To those that are very interested in the topics of antecedent stimuli, like Motivating Operations, you might have heard of another type called a Discriminative Stimulus (Sd). They share very many attributes, and are sometimes hard to tell apart. For the sake of this example, this particular antecedent stimulus, keep in mind that it’s presentation establishes its (the question it asks) removal as a reinforcer. It is not a cue that provides the viewer with the opportunity to engage in a behavior to get reinforcer; it creates that reinforcer by its own presentation. There may be an additional factor/antecedent event of the scenario that creates a discriminative stimulus for a specific type of responding, but that does not exhibit the whole over-arching phenomenon we are talking about here.


  1. Cooper, J. O., Heron, T. E., & Heward, W. L. (1987). Applied behavior analysis. Columbus: Merrill Pub. Co.
  2. Langthorne, P., & Mcgill, P. (2009). A Tutorial on the Concept of the Motivating Operation and its Importance to Application. Behavior Analysis in Practice, 2(2), 22-31.
  3. Laraway, S., Snycerski, S., Michael, J., & Poling, A. (2003). Motivating operations and terms to describe them: some further refinements. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis
  4. Kim, M. J., Shin, J., Taylor, J. M., Mattek, A. M., Chavez, S. J., & Whalen, P. J. (2017). Intolerance of Uncertainty Predicts Increased Striatal Volume. Emotion.

Photo Credits:

  1. Pexels Stock Photos (Kaboompics // Karolina)