According to Psych Web, escape learning and avoidance learning refer to two types of aversive control tactics, which are ways to motivate behavior by the threat of an unpleasant consequence. The main difference between escape and avoidance learning lies in the timing of the behavior change; both are methods for negative behavior reinforcement.
Escape learning occurs to terminate an unpleasant stimulus such as annoyance or pain, thereby negatively reinforcing the behavior. For example, to persuade a rat to jump from a platform into a pool of water, you might electrify the platform to mildly shock the rat. The rat jumps due to escape learning, since it jumps into the water to escape the electric shock.
You can transform escape learning into avoidance learning if you give a signal, such as a tone, before the unwanted stimulus. If the rat receives a cue before the shock, after a few trials, it will jump before it gets shocked. The rat will continue to jump when it gets the signal, even if the platform is no longer electrified.
Both escape learning and avoidance learning are significant because humans often experience the same thing as the rat in the aforementioned experiment. Psych Web offers the following example: a student who had difficulty in a high school math courses may feel relief each time she escaped math. She may then decide to avoid math in college, even if she would actually perform well.
The theory of operant conditioning--the idea that behavior is controlled by its consequences--was developed by B.F. Skinner, an influential American psychologist and a radical behaviorist. Skinner believed that consequences could be either positive or negative; his methods are still used to treat phobias and addictive behaviors, and to enhance classroom management and performance.
- black and white rats image by Oleg Sviridov from Fotolia.com