Dear 100 Hour Board,
I just got off the phone with a distressed friend at a very liberal school on the east coast. She told me that while doing some research with one of her professors (in the psychology field) they came across some information about how BYU formerly used "shock aversion therapy" in an effort to correct homosexuality. She went on to relate numerous horror story testimonials of individuals who went through the therapy, but had less than positive experiences with it. She also said she could find no instances of the therapy working with even a single individual. I searched online for the past three hours and I haven't found anything either. I told her this is most likely because A) We live in a world that loves to focus on the negative (evidenced by the sensationalistic media currently airing what they like to call "news") and B) Someone who successfully conquered that problem would probably like to pretend they never had it in the first place and want to move on with life, and therefore wouldn't ever publicize any sort of "Hooked on Phonics worked for me"-esque testimonial. So, oh wise research gurus, please find me an instance of this therapy working, so that my troubled friend will cease her formulation of a plan to blow up the school...
I was just talking to Dr. Lars Nielsen in the counseling center (where I work, of course) about this topic the other day. He said
...some aversive conditioning treatment may have taken place while I was an undergraduate. It was never forced on anyone that I know of. Because of strong disagreements between behaviorally oriented psychologists and psychodynamically oriented therapists (in the majority at BYU), aversive conditioning would have been a rare thing.In addition, he gave me some wonderful information, which I shall recount for you:
"Aversive Conditioning" is a form of behavior therapy with the goal of changing an automatic behavior or desire. It may be administered through a small shock given through the finger that is painful but not harmful. It may also be administered by snapping oneself with a rubber band or by calling up an unpleasant image. Aversive conditioning may have been used or studied at BYU with a variety of problem behaviors (including same-sex attraction) in the late 60's and early 70's. During this time (the late 60's and early 70's), aversive conditioning was studied at some of the most prominent research facilities in the nation, especially those emphasizing behavior modification and behavior therapy. This research looked at how aversive conditioning affects many things, including homosexuality, paraphilia, and alcoholism. This was mainstream research and practice in behavior therapy at the time, so BYU researchers or practitioners would not have been outside accepted practice for the time, but BYU was a minor player in the study and use of aversive conditioning.
Aversive conditioning appeared to be useful for extinguishing homosexual urges in some, but not others. Currently, very little research is being done anywhere on changing same-sex attraction because it is fraught with political/moral controversy.
One such study where aversive conditioning was effective in extinguishing homosexual thoughts is called "A comparison of automated aversive conditioning and a waiting list control in the modification of homosexual behavior in males" by Barry A. Tanner, Learning Foundations, Atlanta, Ga. It can be found in Behavior Therapy, Vol. 5(1), Jan 1974. pp. 29-32. Below is the abstract verbatim:
Abstract: Assigned 8 men identifying themselves as homosexuals to an automated aversive conditioning group (shock) and 8 others to a waiting list control group, following a pretraining assessment. At the end of 8 wks, all Ss participated in a 2nd assessment. The aversive conditioning group showed significant decreases in erectile responses to slides of male nudes, in self-rated arousal to male slides, and on the Mf scale of the MMPI, while showing significant increases in reports of frequency of sex with females, frequency of socializing with females, and the frequency of sexual thoughts about females vs males. (PsycINFO Database Record (c) 2005 APA, all rights reserved)
ADDENDUM 9/15/07: After perking my ears to any mention of shock aversion therapy with homosexuals at BYU, I eventually dug up a 1976 dissertation entitled "Effect of Visual Stimuli in Electric Aversion Therapy" by Max Ford McBride. The call number is BF 18.022.M33 1976 (it's explicit in how they measure sexual arousal, so, uh, be prepared). Participants felt that the treatment helped to improve them. The treatment consisted of psychotherapy and assertiveness training combined with, in the experimental group, mild shocks accompanying photos of nude males.