The “One Weird Trick” Your Grandmother Used To Break Bad Habits

There is a very old and telling practice in certain communities — when a child tells a lie or speaks something foul, the parent or guardian will force-wash the child’s mouth with soap. The practice is meant to show the child that such filthy words should be cleansed from one’s mouth.

However, the unpleasant taste of the soap (which in olden days was particularly disgusting), serves as an added repulsive element.

Interestingly, for the past 80+ years, science has been using different variations of this method to break habits, and the results have been formidable.

The method is called “Aversion Therapy”.

Disclaimer: Pavlok does not recommend you wash your mouth or anyone else’s mouth with soap.

An approach that can effectively break a wide range of habits and addictions

Various forms of aversion therapy have been used to break all sorts of habits, addictions and compulsive behavior.

A study from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee (Vargas, Adesso, 1976) compared the effectiveness of three alternative types of aversion therapy on chronic nail biters: electric jolt, negative practice, and bitter substance. All groups experienced an increase in nail growth.

Another study (Hallam, Rachman, Falkowski, 1972) focused on curing chronic alcoholism by using small electric jolts. As a result, a staggering 60% of the participants had quit drinking by the end of the treatment, and reported repugnance towards the sight and smell of alcohol even after 4-8 weeks.

Clinical studies have also found this approach effective against chronic marijuana addiction (Smith, Schmeling, Knowles, 1988) and heroin use (Lubetkin, Fishman, 1974).

Breaking your own habits — Which method to use?

There is research (Lazarus, 1968) that indicates certain habits might be easier to break when using a specific type of aversion. So, a bitter taste might be more effective in breaking habits that deal with taste, such as overeating or alcoholism. On the other hand, electric jolts might work better on “tactile” activities such as compulsive hand washing.

However, certain methods are more practical than others.

Let’s say you wanted to stop biting your nails. There are quite a few products out there that you could apply to your nails to give them a foul taste.

Unfortunately, these come with quite a few mixed reviews and a fair share of horror stories — people breaking into rashes, suffering from bouts of vomiting, or getting blisters in their mouths.

Additionally, some of these products contain allergens such as Benzophenone, which was named Contact Allergen of the Year by the American Contact Dermatitis Society’s 2014.



Retrieved May 24, 2015, from

Hallam, R., Rachman, S., & Falkowski, W. (1972). Subjective, attitudinal and physiological effects of electrical aversion therapy. Behaviour Research And Therapy, 10(1), 1–13.

Lazarus, A. A. (1968). Aversion Therapy And Sensory Modalities-Clinical Impressions. Perceptual And Motor Skills, 27(1), 178–178.

Lubetkin, B. S., & Fishman, S. T. (1974). Electrical aversion therapy with a chronic heroin user. Journal Of Behavior Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry, 5(2), 193–195.

Mcguire, R. J., & Vallance, M. (1964). Aversion Therapy by Electric Shock: a Simple Technique. Bmj, 1(5376), 151–153.

Smith, J. W., Schmeling, G., & Knowles, P. L. (1988). A marijuana smoking cessation clinical trial utilizing THC-free marijuana, aversion therapy, and self-management counselling. Journal Of Substance Abuse Treatment, 5(2), 89–98.

Vargas, J. M., & Adesso, V. J. (1976). A comparison of aversion therapies for nailbiting behavior. Behavior Therapy, 7(3), 322–329.

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