Contingency of the Day: Call Display

  • Antecedent: Phone rings; a certain phone number on display
  • Behaviour: Ignore that phone call; walk away from the phone
  • Consequence: Avoid awkward or unpleasant conversation (negative reinforcement)
  • We all do it. The invention of call display provides us with a behaviour technology to screen our phone calls. The phone number on display acts as a discriminative stimulus that signals either (1) reinforcement is available if I pick up; or (2) punishment or an otherwise unpleasant event is available if I pick up. If it's the latter, then behaviours that avoid the onset of the unpleasant call are reinforced (e.g., turning the phone off, walking away from it). Our prior experience (i.e., learning history) with said callers is how the phone numbers acquire their discriminating properties.
  • Thankfully there is little effort required in screening a phone call. Until of course, your mother thinks you're ignoring her and she calls again and again.
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Discussing Behaviourism with People who Signal Reinforcement

This is great! I would totally appreciate you pointing out any misunderstanding I may be conveying if you spot something, though! Just saying…

I have approached discussions about behaviourism with caution; unsure if the conversation can remain objective and civil.  Will my efforts be punished or reinforced?  I survey people’s posts and watch for conversation skills that will signal either way.  Respectful and informed (or at least open to being informed) debate is key.

You @cognitivedefusion are definitely a signal of reinforcement (SD) for discussing behaviourism that I have no hesitation clarifying or debating the relevance of a behaviour analytic technology with you!  If anything I should be asking you more questions about 3rd wave behaviourism. 

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Behaviourism 202

With a new theme and layout to my blog I can now highlight custom tags. I am highlighting a new tag - Behaviourism 202 -  to the mix of my regular posts and tags.  I often see incorrect or misapplied information regarding the principles and theories related to behaviourism here on Tumblr and elsewhere on social media. I could respond to them all and point out the inaccuracies but a) I’d be repeating myself A LOT; and b) my voice on the matter is not necessarily what they want when discussing behaviourism.  Not everyone likes us.  I am okay with that.

Since so much of this (mis)information gets labelled as or learned from Psychology 101, an irritation I have is that behaviourism and related concepts is not so simplistic (despite how your psych professor may have glanced over those concepts while chirping some “Behaviourism is no longer relevant” nonsense). An understanding of behaviourism requires far more greater examples than candy as a reward and “no more TV” as punishment.  I am hoping this new tag will be a way to collate posts for people up for a more in-depth understanding of behaviourism, including discussions on radical behaviourism and behaviour analysis.  It is where I will counter the misinformation and extend the concepts beyond experiences with “stickers” and “timeouts”.

Now I need to go through some old posts and re-tag them.  Here’s a common theme among my discussions with others to hold you until then:  It’s Not About Rewards

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Extinction Burst Alert: Rob Ford gets into shouting match with mayoral debate organizers | Toronto Star ]

What the Ford brothers want, the Ford brothers have learned to get.  No one says no to them.  When someone tries (i.e., put the behaviour on extinction), they tantrum like children in the checkout line being told they cannot have a chocolate bar.  

The unfortunate thing is, like these debate organizers, many people who come in contact with the Ford brothers eventually “give in” and deliver the desired consequence; thus, reinforcing the elevated “gimme gimme” behaviours, emotional responses, the threats and aggression.  

There is a reason why these behaviours are in the Ford brothers’ repertoires. That being said, at some point someone may just want to escape the aversiveness that is Rob or Doug Ford’s behaviour.  This is the vicious cycle of negative reinforcement (i.e., responses that increase because they remove/end aversive events - think taking an Advil for a headache) and attempts at extinction.

Is there an pill I can take for the Fordache I have?

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The bit of your brain that signals how bad things could be ]



An evolutionarily ancient and tiny part of the brain tracks expectations about nasty events, finds new UCL research.

The study, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, demonstrates for the first time that the human habenula, half the size of a pea, tracks predictions…

Could also be relevant for disgust and scrupulosity obsessions in OCD.

Always interesting to read about brain processes - in this case as they possibly relate to escape/avoidance behaviours.  

As a radical behaviourist I do not deny the existence/importance of the various neurological functions, biological effects and their role in behaviour.  But since I cannot access the brain and change it physically, I choose instead to look at ways to alter the environment (after analysis); therefore changing the behaviour - assuming of course that there is a behaviour someone wants to change.

This does leave the question: brain changes behaviour or behaviour changes brain?  

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Why is it said that tacts "make contact with the world" any more than other verbal operants?

- Asked by Anonymous

This is the first question in a series of Q & As to come.  Thanks for the question about tacts - I love to discuss verbal behaviour!

B.F. Skinner categorized our verbal behaviour into separate operants based on how they function for the speaker.  Just like our physical behaviour, verbal behaviour is also under the control of social and environmental events.  Depending on the arrangement of those events, one of several verbal operants may be at play.  I wrote a brief primer on verbal behaviour here.

A tact occurs when, in the presence of a non-verbal stimulus, a person names or states what is happening and a listener responds with a general social reinforcer - usually acknowledgement, praise or further conversation about said thing/event/experience.   Some examples:

Upon hearing a siren, a child says “Firetruck!” and a parents agrees and says “Yes, that’s a firetruck”

When tasting a doughnut, I say “Hmmm…this is so good!” and my husband smiles.

Upon seeing a celebrity on the street, someone states, “That’s [name!]” and their friends start talking about how great an actor they are.  

When I walk into a high school and I can smell cafeteria cookies, I say “The cookies smell so good” and my colleague says we should get some later.

Someone touches a hot pan and cries out “Ouch that was hot!” and another person then asks, “Are you okay?”

The reason why tacts are said to “make contact with the world” more than other verbal operants is because of their direct contingency with one of our senses. In the examples above I highlighted our five senses (there are actually seven senses but that’s a whole other post).  A tact is our way of sharing with others how or what we are sensing in the world around us.  These sensations are often private but through a tact we make them public. The non-verbal stimuli can also be a thought or feeling, e.g., “I’m sad” which we may share when others are around.  

A tact is also our way of putting us in contact with our social world. We make comments to the people around us, who will then acknowledge what we say and may engage with us further on it. 

Tacting is also the way in which children develop their vocabulary and concepts, teaching them a name for all the novel stimuli in their lives and then how to categorize them according to common variables.  In the first example, the siren may have been from an ambulance (where emergency vehicles each have their own distinct sound).  The parent then corrects their child saying, “No, that is an ambulance”.  Now the child is learning that a siren sound can be either “firetruck” or “ambulance” (or police too). With further experiences like the example above, the child will learn to discriminate between the two siren sounds and have two different tacts depending on which sound they hear.

All of this learning and social engagement from one little (but BIG) verbal operant.    

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Behaviour Analysis Q & A

I got an anonymous ask in my mailbox with a few different questions.  I am going to break them down into their own separate Q & A and answer them throughout the week.  Stay tuned.

In the meantime, continue to send those asks my way.  I can take a few days to answer as I go digging into some of my resources.  Responding to your asks help me study as well as to practice my verbal behaviour when it comes to disseminating behaviour analysis to potential consumers.

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Contingency of the day: Make a decision!

  • Antecedent: Husband is asking what we should have for dinner out of two options. We are discussing two equally pleasing options.
  • Behaviour: I decide on one (sushi) and announce said decision.
  • Consequence: Husband acknowledges. We order sushi. No more questioning about what to have for dinner.
  • Sometimes making a decision is actually "escape from indecision" (Skinner, 1953, p. 211). Not wanting the discussion to go on for much longer I just picked an option. I was hungry. Indecision prolonged our wait for dinner. The made decision, now announced to my husband resulted in no further delay. The back and forth was over.
  • A reminder that not all choices made are a true reflection of preference. The analysis behind choice behaviour has to also consider the response effort of either option provided, the current state of deprivation or satiation, whether the person can discriminate between the options, whether the person offering the choice is more or less likely to approve of and/or deliver an option (i.e., be a source of positive reinforcement) and any possible aversive antecedent events which makes choosing something terminate that aversive event (i.e., negative reinforcement).
  • All that to consider for one "easy" decision.
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B.F. Skinner (from Science and Human Behavior)

When we shame people into being “stronger” or to demonstrate some control we are making an assumption that to do so is within the person; like a switch we can turn on and off. So much of our “self-control” that we pride ourselves on is actually attributed to stimulus control in our environment. Therefore, when a person fails to demonstrate “self-control” it is their environment that is lacking that control and not the person. This means there is behavioral technology that can be used to change it.

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Hi, feel like dropping some book suggestions by chance? I'd love to expand my book collection from "I won't be able to finish all of these in the next five years!" to "Okay now it's just getting ridiculous."

- Asked by cognitivedefusion

You means besides the entire B.F. Skinner collection?

In all seriousness, if you have not yet consumed the following books, I highly recommend them for your library (as well as the library of any behaviour analyst in training…besides the ‘White Book’ of course).  This is not exclusive to just behaviour analysts however, but anyone looking to benefit from a behaviour analytic approach (which means there are other must-have ABA books not on this list but are specific to people practicing in the field).

Let’s just get the Skinner out of the way….

  • Science and Human Behavior (B.F. Skinner)
  • Verbal Behavior (B.F. Skinner)
  • About Behaviorism (B.F. Skinner) …for a good overview of the arguments made against behaviourism and the counter-arguments
  • Beyond Freedom & Dignity (B.F. Skinner) …this was the book that helped me to see the greater application (and oft misuse of) behaviour analytic principles in society and how we can solve many of our problems thinking like behaviour analysts

Behaviour Analysis Books:

  • Concepts and Principles of Behavior Analysis (Jack Michael)
  • Behavior Analysis for Effective Teaching (Julie Varga)
  • Functional Behavior Assessment, Diagnosis and Treatment (Ennio Ciapani & Keven Schock)
  • Prevent, Teach, Reinforce (Glen Dunlap et al.)
  • Science of Consequences (Susan Schneider)

Other related books (which I reference a fair bit)

  • Dual Diagnosis (edited by Dorothy Griffiths, C. Stravakaki, and J. Summer)
  • The Complete Guide Asperger’s Syndrome (Tony Attwood)
  • The Explosive Child (Ross Greene) 
  • Punished by Rewards (Alfie Kohn) …because you have to know where your critics stand on the topic
  • Emotional Intelligence (Daniel Goleman) 

And as a personal resource for myself:  Emotional Alchemy (Tara Bennet-Goleman) 

And now my wishlist which (to expand upon my understanding of behaviour analysis) and which you may also find interesting:

  • Radical Behaviorism for ABA Practitioners (James Johnston)
  • Rule Governed Behavior (Steven C. Hayes) … or really any other book by this man
  • Modern Perspectives on B.F. Skinner and Contemporary Behaviorism (edited by James Todd & Edward Morris)
  • Behavior Analysis of Child Development (Sidney Bijou)

Of course there are others to go on that wish list but I think I’ll stop there for now.  Any of them pique your interest?

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