Escape-avoidance Theory

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The Escape-Avoidance Paradigm is a form of retaliatory aggression. Retaliatory aggression is when an aggressive act is used to instrumentally change or stop the behaviors of another person (Dengerink & Covey 1983). An example of retaliatory aggression would be to strike back if someone hits you. A person would return a punch as defense mechanism; to dissuade the attacker from continuing (Baron & Richardson 1994). Escape or avoidance of a dangerous or aggressive situation is also a way of changing or stopping the event. Although the behaviors or retaliations are usually aggressive in nature they do not always have to be. The reaction of escaping a situation can also apply to any uncomfortable situation or encounter, such as public speaking. People retaliate aggressively in response to an aggressor as a means of a defensive strategy to defend themselves against further attack. The escape-avoidance theory is just a non-violent form of retaliatory aggression in that it also is a means of defending oneself against future attacks (Baron & Richardson, 1994).

Humans and most other beings are naturally designed to protect themselves from harm. The three main options in a dangerous or confrontational situation are to retaliate aggressively escape the situation or avoid the situation. All three options are ways of protecting oneself form future harm (Baron & Richardson, 1994). Avoidance is a behavior that prevents oneself from being in a particular situation. When not wanting to be confrontational, escape is the last result when one is already in the situation and avoidance is impossible. Both the escape and the avoidance behaviors are reinforcement by the elimination of the aversive stimuli. That is, escape or avoidance of the situation is reinforced when one gets the feeling of being relieved from evading the situation. One begins to learn that the uncomfortable or dangerous situation can be alleviated by doing the behavior. Avoidance is also a learned behavior that is self-reinforcing. In a study by Dennecker and George (2009), they used an ischemic task on two groups. The test consisted of the participants tying a string or rubber-band around their finger to stop the circulation. After a certain amount of time, with the lack of blood flow, the finger becomes painful as a sign that something is wrong. One group of participants could stop the task and remove the band when they couldn’t endure the pain. The other group of participants was assigned to endure the task until it was over. According to this study, if a participant in the first group stopped the task it is supposed to show an escape-avoidance reaction to the pain (Dennecker, et al., 2009).

The Escape-Avoidance Paradigm does influence aggression. However, the question is whether Escape-Avoidance is a positive reinforcement or a negative reinforcement. That is, does Escape-Avoidance decrease an aggressor’s actions or increase an aggressor’s actions? If the behaviors of escape or avoidance are a positive reinforcement then aggression will decrease. If by steering clear of a bully, the occurrences of bullying decrease, the behavior is positively reinforced to the bully. If Escape-Avoidance is a negative reinforcement, aggression will increase. If by staying out of the bully’s path or running away from the bully, the bully intentionally seeks out and aggresses, the behavior is negatively reinforced to the bully. Aggressive behavior is always caused and reinforced by other’s behaviors (Cherek, Spiga, Steinberg, & Kelly, 1990). This is important because it shows that the Escape-Avoidance Paradigm can increase aggression in some cases and decrease aggression in other cases.

Example / Application - Real-life

Mojave Desert Memorial

The Mojave Desert War Memorial was put in commemorated in 1934 to honor the soldiers that were slain during WWI. According to the news article entitled Caretakers of Stolen Mojave Desert Cross Vow to Replace It, On Sunday night May 9, 2010, the memorial was taken down and stolen from the grounds. The history of this memorial is that it was only standing because it won against a case that wanted it removed from federal land. The case was brought to the Supreme Court because some say that because the memorial is a cross, it is a violation of the separation of church and state.

Upon hearing that the memorial was stolen, veteran groups became completely outraged and claim that the memorial has been desecrated. Although authorities have no solid leads about who may have done this, many do believe that it may be the work of a group with an interest in the case to have the cross permanently removed. Since 2002 the Supreme Court ordered the memorial to be covered in order to adhere to the laws of separation of church and state laws. In the past people have come onto the property and vandalized the memorial; however the park has refused to remove it. The VFW National Commander assures that the person(s) responsible will be apprehended and brought to justice for their act. Since the Escape-Avoidance Paradigm is the changing or modification of another person’s behavior, in the case of this particular memorial, voluntarily taking down the memorial can be escape and/or avoidance of the criticism from opposing groups. If the memorial is taken down, the park can avoid or decrease any future defamation of the memorial by those who are against it. However, even if the memorial is removed in an attempt to avoid further harm, it will not influence any future attacks on other memorials that are not supported by everyone. There will always be some group that disagrees with a memorial or its placement. It is possible that if this memorial were removed, it could send a message to groups that defacing a memorial or artifact is an effective way of getting it removed.

Example / Application - Columbine

The events that lead to the Columbine shooting is seen by many to be that of relentless bullying by other students and perhaps teachers on the two boys. As in most cases of bullying, the victim usually accepts the aggressive acts of the bully or attempt to escape of avoid the attacks. In relation to the two boys being bullied, the application of the Escape-Avoidance Paradigm did not decrease future attacks. Instead this behavior may have kept the level of attacks the same or increased the levels. According to Diaz-Berciano, de Vicente & Fontecha (2008), people also learn to be helpless. In a situation that a person cannot escape from they learn to be submissive and just endure the bullying instead of retaliating (Diaz-Berciano et al., 2008). If other students saw that the two boys did nothing to defend themselves, it is very likely that they continued to administer the verbal and physical attacks. However, some actions taken by the school staff and the parents of the boys may have prevented the events of April 20, 1999 (

In the instance of the Columbine massacre, escape and avoidance behaviors by the other students could not decrease aggression in the shooters. Because the two boys had guns and other arms, their class mates who did not have arms, could not possibly take some retaliatory actions to decrease the aggression of the two boys. While all of the students did try to escape and avoid the shooter, this did not decrease the boys’ desire to seek out and shoot the students. Just like a bank robber has power over all of the people held hostage in the bank, the two shooters at Columbine had the ultimate power over the other students. Since the Escape-Avoidance Paradigm is an instrumental way of modifying or changing a person’s behavior, the only way to decrease the aggression of the two boys is to take that power away, thereby bring them down to a level of equal or to become as powerful as them. The former would mean ridding the boys of any weapon. Doing this can be seen as avoiding any possible danger.

Many may think that perhaps talking to the two boys prior or during the act and trying to convince them to stop would prevent the massacre from happening. However, according to Langman (2009), this type of escape behavior would not work because it is also found that the two had psychological problems. Constant teasing by peers or a feeling of being left out coupled with psychological issues can trigger violence in the victims. Teenagers that commit such violent acts like Columbine, have problems that are much deeper than just a feeling of being an outsider and use violence to increase their status or recognition among their peers (Langman, 2009).


Baron, B. A., & Richardson, D. R. (1994). Human Aggression. (2nd edition). NY: Plenum.

Caretakers of Stolen Mojave Desert Cross Vow to Replace It (2010). Retrieved May 12, 2010, from

Columbine high school massacre. (n.d.). Retrieved (May 8, 2010) from Wiki:

Cherek, R. D., & Sapiga, R., & Steinberg, L. J., & Kelly, H. T. (1990). Human aggression responses maintained by avoidance or escape from point loss. Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior, Vol. 53, 293-303.

Dengerick, H. A., & Covey, M. K. (1983). Implications of an escape-avoidance theory of aggressive responses to attack. Aggression: Theoretical and empirical reviews, 1, 163-188.

Dennecker, E., & George, S. (2009). A comparison of loboratory measures of escape and avoidance behavior. The Journal of Pain, Vol. 10, 53-59.

Diaz-Berciano, C., & de Vicente, F. & Fontecha, E. (2008). Modulating effects in learned helplessness of dyadic dominance-submission relations. Aggressive Behavior, Vol. 37, 273-281.

Langman, P. (2009). Why kids kill: Inside the minds of school shooters. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan.

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