FAIR Examination 8: Aversion Therapy at BYU–Dr. Eugene Thorne

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Dr. Eugene Thorne was a member of the psychology department at BYU during the 1970s, and was involved with studies into what is called “aversion therapy.” In this interview, Dr. Thorne explains the studies that were done, and helps clear up some of the misperceptions, false innuendo, and outright lies that have been told regarding aversion therapy.

One of his patients, who is happily married and active in the Church, though wishes to remain anonymous, has made this statement about his experience with aversion therapy at BYU:

“I have absolutely no negative feelings or memories of the experience. It truly didn’t ‘cure’ anything (SSA or lust addiction), but it certainly did not leave any physical or mental ‘scars’ and was carefully and lovingly conducted.”

For further information on aversion therapy, see the FAIR Wiki article posted here.

The opinions expressed in this interview do not necessarily represent the opinions of FAIR or the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

8 thoughts on “FAIR Examination 8: Aversion Therapy at BYU–Dr. Eugene Thorne

  1. Joshua Johanson

    One thing that strikes me from listening to the interview and working on its production is how much Dr. Thorne just wanted to help people. He was using a very common, cutting-edge technique that were applied to a variety of people seeking help. To apply the technique to heterosexuals, but deny homosexuals, would have been homophobic.

    Dr. Thorne is really a compassionate individual who loves all of God’s children, and did his best to help given the technology of the time.

  2. Allen Wyatt

    Dr. Thorne gave a personal anecdote related to aversion therapy, as applied to food consumption. Same thing happened to me, at a “diet center” in approximately 1977-1978; I was not living in Utah at the time. Only with me, it was related to french fries. The practitioner used aversive techniques to get me to dislike (have an aversion to) this particular food.

    Great interview!

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  4. Derrick Clements

    Thank you for addressing this sensitive issue. However, I am almost without words to describe my negative response to the content. The interviewer does not ask the type of questions that get at the whole story, instead wanting to de-bunk criticisms and make this horribly misguided practice. The part when the guest says a cross-dressing patient realized how silly/stupid he looked in women’s clothing made me about lose it. What ignorance of the issue. I do not want to be read as out to get anybody or speak unnecessarily negatively, but instead speak an honest criticism. This is little more than a display of ignorance and justification thereof. Please consider taking this interview down, or adding more balanced, scientific components to it. I fear that hearing this interview could have the opposite effect as intended, hurting many people.

  5. ryk

    This was pretty interesting. Here are some things I liked about the podcast:
    - I like that there’s finally discussion happening on this issue. I liked getting background information from the researcher’s point of view. Up to this point the only thing I’ve heard has been from the perspective of research participants.
    - I like that they talked about differences between electroconvulsive therapy and aversive shock therapy.
    - I also liked that they discussed why shock was used rather than other methods — I think it helps soften the blow a little.

    Here are some things I still have questions about:
    - First-hand accounts from research participants are different from the methods of doctoral dissertations from BYU and from Dr. Thorne’s discussion. Why? I believe Dr. Thorne is telling the truth and I believe research participants are telling the truth so it makes me wonder if “research” could have been happening without Dr. Thorne’s knowledge. Can anyone comment on that?
    - Similar to the questions above, why do research participants give different accounts about consenting to participate in the research than Dr. Thorne? For example, some accounts I’ve read suggest their options were to participate in the research or get kicked out of BYU for violating the Honor Code (regardless of whether there was an actual violation).

    Here are the problems I had with this discussion:
    - Everything was geared toward justifying what happened rather than asking if it was ethical and okay. Thus, the conversation was more about finding evidence to make it seem okay rather than discussing all evidence (okay and not okay) and drawing conclusions from the whole body of evidence.
    - Along these lines, I have a few concerns that make me think what happened was not okay:
    * Why was shock/punishment used when research from that same period of time (and referenced in a doctoral dissertation I read) used less aversive means to accomplish the same thing if not better results? For example, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1310847/
    * Why were these procedures used after much of the psychological community stopped using these procedures for ethical reasons? For example, it wasn’t totally uncommon for research participants to die from the drugs used to induce vomiting.
    * Why was the above fact left out of this discussion?
    * What balances were in place to prevent researchers from straying from the established methods?

    - Also, I think people will be led to false conclusions about this research based on how Dr. Thorne defined “success” or rather didn’t define succes. All the research I’ve read on this subject defines “success” as arousal to stimuli presented and not necessarily long-term sexual function in a heterosexual relationship. I think it’s possible for arousal to happen in the presence of the trained stimuli (e.g., picture used in the research) and for arousal not to happen in the presence of untrained stimuli (e.g., while engaging in intercourse with someone of the opposite sex). Can anyone comment on the outcome measures Dr. Thorne used to define success?

  6. Joshua Johanson

    ryk and Derrick,

    You bring up some very good points. I am working on some of them, but I wanted to bring up a few points.

    This interview was not intended to be an exhaustive analysis of aversion therapy. FAIR does not support aversion therapy. Its concern is talking about some of the accusations levied against the Church in regards to aversion therapy. It is not trying to promote a success rate. Hence most of the questions were about clarifying what happened.

    Furthermore, this particular interview focuses on what Dr. Thorne was involved with, rather than all sides of the issue. The wiki article that was linked in the original description gives a broader analysis of aversion therapy, including studies done at other universities, the standing of aversion therapy in the scientific community during different times, the most recent analysis done by the APA on aversion therapy, and so forth. If there is anything in that article that you think is lacking, please use the link at the top of our wiki article entitled “Ask the Apologist”. We would appreciate your help in ensuring the most accurate and up to date scientific position.

  7. Joshua Johanson

    ryk,

    I would like to address some of your specific questions:

    > Why was shock/punishment used when research from that same period of time (and referenced in a doctoral dissertation I read) used less aversive means to accomplish the same thing if not better results?

    Hind-sight is 20-20. There were multiple methods being used at the time, the technique you described being one, and aversion therapy being another, more common technique. BYU was hardly unique in its use of aversion therapy. BYU’s participation was minor compared to other universities. It was not cutting edge nor exhaustive in its research. The areas of research were dictated by the people researching them. It seems that Dr. Thorne had success with aversion in his personal life, so it seemed to make sense to him.

    >> Why were these procedures used after much of the psychological community stopped using these procedures for ethical reasons? For example, it wasn’t totally uncommon for research participants to die from the drugs used to induce vomiting.

    BYU did not use drugs used to induce vomiting. You can read McBride’s thesis for a more detailed run-down of the types of aversion used. BYU has issued a statement saying:

    The BYU Counseling Center never practiced therapy that would involve chemical or induced vomiting.

    >>First-hand accounts from research participants are different from the methods of doctoral dissertations from BYU and from Dr. Thorne’s discussion. Why?

    First-hand accounts differ drastically from each other. It would be hard to even fabricate a thesis that was consistent with all of the stories. McBride’s write-up was very thorough. I would imagine he would have a hard time getting it approved if it differed that drastically from his actual experiments. BYU has quite a rigorous academic environment.

    >>I believe Dr. Thorne is telling the truth and I believe research participants are telling the truth so it makes me wonder if “research” could have been happening without Dr. Thorne’s knowledge. Can anyone comment on that?

    Dr. Thorne was highly involved in the research, so I doubt if there were any other research that it would be drastically different. There are some stories that are very sensational, which I would have a hard time believing. I also have a hard time with accounts that talk about sophisticated tools that allowed them to adjust the shock level in real time according to the degree of arousal, whereas McBride had to spend time adjusting it for each level, and had to spend time analyzing the level of arousal after the fact? If all that could have been done in real time, why didn’t someone tell McBride? It could have saved him a lot of work.

    Stories of showing gay sex to kids without parental consent, swearing up a storm, forcing people to strip naked, showing gay sex videos, giving people above-recommended levels of vomit-inducing drugs, all seem sensational to me. I would have a hard time believing it.

    FAIR has done an analysis of one of the sources of criticism. This can be found here:

    http://fairmormon.org/Criticism_of_Mormonism/Video/8:_The_Mormon_Proposition

    Read the flaws in the documentary and then decide whether it is a trustworthy report.

    > Also, I think people will be led to false conclusions about this research based on how Dr. Thorne defined “success” or rather didn’t define succes.

    Like I said, FAIR does not support aversion therapy. Even the introduction to the article has a quote from one of Dr. Thorne’s patients stating that it didn’t cure anything. That wasn’t put there to show how successful aversion therapy was.

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