Everyday, I help break down a confusing ABA term and put it in plain English! Whether you are studying for your BCBA exam, explaining ABA to parents or are a student, there is no reason to be so confused over ABA terms. While “behavioral language” is very confusing, these concepts don’t have to be. Today we will discuss avoidance. 

Avoidance is just what it says it is, avoiding something unpleasant. This seems obvious but it is important to point this out because on the BCBA exam it can easily be confused with escape. The difference is with escape you are already in an unpleasant situation or experience an unpleasant stimulus.

For example, if you sit in your car in front of the wine store until the rain stops before getting out, that is avoidance. You are avoiding going out into the rain. If it starts downpouring while you are in the wine store and you run to your car to get out of the rain, that is escape.

There are two types of avoidance, discriminated avoidance and free operant avoidance.

Discriminated Avoidance

According to Cooper, Heron and Heward, discriminated avoidance is “A contingency in which responding in the presence of a signal prevents the onset of a stimulus from which escape is a reinforcer.”

Simply put, with discriminate avoidance, you know for sure that the thing you are avoiding is present. Know on your BCBA exam this means that discriminate avoidance is associated with an SD.

Sitting in your car while it is raining to avoid getting wet is a perfect example. You know it is raining!

Another example would be that my dog Lucky is friendly with small dogs but not big dogs. Sometimes I take him to the dog park. But when I walk to the park, if I see a big dog in it, I do not bring him in to avoid a fight. This is discriminated avoidance because I know that the thing I don’t want to encounter, the big dog is present. 

Free- Operant Avoidance 

According to Cooper, Heron and Heward, “free operant avoidance isA contingency in which responses at any time during an interval prior to the scheduled onset of an aversive stimulus delays the presentation of the aversive stimulus.”

Free operant avoidance is the exact opposite. You are avoiding something “just in case.”

For example, if you avoid going to the beach because there is a 50 percent chance of rain. 

Or, I avoid walking to the dog park in case there is a big dog there. 

I don’t know if it will rain or if a big dog is present but I will avoid the situation in case.  Know for your exam that this means that free operant avoidance is NOT associated with an SD.


Cooper, J. O., Heron, T. E., & Heward, W. L. (2019). Applied Behavior Analysis (3rd Edition). Hoboken, NJ: Pearson Education.

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