Behaviourist At Play

Seeing behaviour analysis everywhere

Verbal behaviour doesn’t just have to be spoken word.  It can be signs, gestures, written words or symbols.  The variants and discriminations made between them by the speaker are mediated by the community (i.e., the listener). In other words, the community shapes the vocabulary, dialect, grammar and gestures included as part of a language or culture.  We learn these from the generation before us.  At times we may slightly alter or vary our responses (think slang or other colloquialisms) which are also reinforced by our respective communities.  

Thanks to this entertaining tutorial - shared with me by a follower on Twitter - we learn how various head shakes and nods function for both speaker and listener in Indian culture.  Enjoy!

Hi! What are some good programs for a Master's in Behavior Analysis? Just based off of your own personal experience and what you've heard. Thanks! :)

Hi there Anonymous.  Thanks for the question.  

As a behaviourist I am going to remain objective and not use personal experience or “what I’ve heard” as measures of whether or not a program is good or better over others.  One objective measure is the pass rate of each program’s students taking the BCBA exam; results of which can be found here.

There are a number of different variables to consider and balance when choosing a Masters program that is right for you, including:

  1. Research areas of the faculty - are they aligned with your interests?
  2. Type of learning environment - can you pace your studying with the on-line programs or do you learn better inter-facing and discussing behaviour analysis with others?
  3. Emphasis on behaviour analysis in other areas - which field or area of study are you interested in?  Some programs have a heavy autism or special education focus.  Others provide more of a focus on experimental behaviour analysis; while others offer courses in organizational behaviour management, behavioural medicine, mental health etc. 
  4. Location and distance from home - are you willing to relocate? How far will you travel to get to class? 
  5. Potential for further graduate studies in ABA - some programs are considered professional degrees and therefore would not be recognized if applying for PhD programs in ABA.  Ask yourself what do you want to do with your Masters degree?

In some cases environmental circumstances beyond our control exclude some programs as options (despite their reputation of being “good” or “the best”).  An informed decision includes factoring these circumstances with what we ultimately want or need from an education in behaviour analysis.

Best of luck in your decision and applications!


Behaviour Change Needed: Texting while driving

I was approached the other day to give my behavioural insights into why texting while driving behaviour continues to exist despite government imposed bans and/or fines.   Here’s what I had to say:

I think there are two related factors occurring that maintain texting while driving behaviour: intermittent reinforcement and the lack of a consistent signal for the punishment being imposed.

In most provinces or states, the primary change tactic being used to decrease this behaviour is the hefty fine if you get caught.  The important part there is the caveat, if you get caught.  Just like with reinforcement, there needs to be a discriminative stimulus that signals the availability of punishment (the SdP). The SdP is the presence of a police officer (sitting in their police car) because they are what delivers the punisher; in this case the ticket and the fine.  Watch how people put the phone down when a police officer comes up behind or is seen up ahead.  Meanwhile, if there is no police officer in sight; punishment is not likely to occur; therefore, people will take a chance and text while driving.  This is where intermittent reinforcement comes into play.  Now, because there are so many chances to text and drive that are “successful” (i.e., didn’t get caught and didn’t end up rear-ending the guy in front while doing it) the texter’s behaviour is reinforced. The message gets sent and so does the next one etc.  No harm was done, right?  

This bring me to the awareness campaigns and warnings about getting into accidents. Awareness campaigns rely on the use of rule-governed behaviour (changing your behaviour by way of a verbal rule or warning not to do behaviour X because consequence Y).  But reality for most people engaging in texting while driving is far from it.  They send off message after message while maintaining control of their vehicle and this scary consequence of being in an accident never happens.  If anything, a near miss may decrease someone’s texting while driving behaviour but I suspect the effects would be temporary. As soon as another low-risk chance to text and drive exists, the behaviour is likely to re-emerge and if “successful” will likely occur more often in the future again.  

Simply put, campaigns and the occasional (if never) punishment cannot compete with the rate of reinforcement for texting while driving. Interventions aimed at changing an individual’s behaviour in context (e.g., behavioural skills training via simulation driving, embedded cues or signals in the car to not engage in the behaviour, self-monitoring with feedback, even skill-building for peers when in the car with a potentially distracted driver etc.) may be more effective.  

Attention behaviour analysts and governments: this would make a great research project for someone in our field!        

Contingency of the day: Lights they blind me

Motivating operation: bright lights

Discriminative stimulus: Arm, hand (or sunglasses and/or the car visor)

Behaviour: lift up your hand and hold in front of your eyes (or put on sunglasses or lower the visor in your car)

Consequence: bright light is blocked, not getting into your eyes (an example of negative reinforcement)

This is me on my daily commute. As soon as I drive over the Don Valley just before the Don Mills exit, the rising sun is there to greet me.  This is a great example of how motivating operations temporarily alter the value of the reinforcer (in this case escape from blinding light).  I don’t normally cover my eyes or bring down my visor except for a brief period in the day when I come around the bend and the rising sun is shining directly onto my path.  A few minutes later, with the sun now behind me, I can lower my hand and put the visor back up.  Escape from sunlight reinforcement is no longer needed.      

(via fabheaven)

Driving around my hood and go by this familiar place.  This is Rooster Coffee House.  I spent many a summer days in this place.  Sitting at this very table: 


There I sat, reading Skinner, Cooper Heron and Heward, practicing my modules, writing my mindmaps.  Ethics, differential reinforcement, research design, self-management etc. were consumed alongside lattes (and the occasional butter tart).

Driving by it again, I felt a sudden need to grab my Cooper book, find a table to spread out my mind maps and my laptop, load up modules and get crackin’! This place has become so conditioned with studying that I immediately went to those responses.  

The great thing is I don’t need to do any of that anymore.  I passed my BCBA exam!  No more modules, mind-maps, drilling concepts or mock exams.  I can enjoy this cafe and condition new behaviours here: blog writing, reading fiction novels, playing boardgames.      

Hi! First of all, I congratulate you for this blog, it is extremely useful for me, as I am preparing for my BCaBA exam. For now I am struggling with MOs, more precisely with MOs for punishment. Can you give some more examples of them? Thanks!

Thanks for the question @ancagrigo (and your compliments)!

Just a quick primer on motivating operations (MO) which I wrote about here.  MO is an event that alters the value of a consequence that has in the past reinforced or punished a behaviour.  

Most of the attention on MO relates to reinforcement; often referring to deprivation and satiation effects.  If you are in a state of deprivation, the reinforcer has more value.  If you are satiated, the reinforcer’s value goes down.  I love doughnuts but there are only so many I can eat!

Now, for punishment some of the MO effects to look out for are habituation (developed tolerance to an aversive stimuli that its use as a positive punisher seems to have no effect) and satiation (has had enough of a pleasant stimuli that it being taken away via negative punishment is no big deal).

For some people, the taste and smell of cigarettes is enough to punish their first few attempts at smoking. For others, repeated exposure to the taste and smell may result in habituation; therefore, no longer functioning as aversive (and therefore punishing). Go a little while without smoking and the taste/smell may once again become aversive enough to function as punishment.  This may also be the role in self-injury and the registration of pain.   

Your current financial state may alter the punishing effects of fines and levies.  Taking away what little money I have could change my driving behaviour.  Now imagine that same person finds out they won the lottery (and now presumably has lots of cash).  If fined for speeding, they may experience no real loss from it and therefore no decrease in behaviour occurs.  Other examples can include any time someone wants to take access to an activity away and the person appears not to care.  If they’ve had a lot of access just before, taking it away now may have little effect.

I hope these examples helped to represent the value-altering effects of MOs on learned punishers.  We definitely need more research and dialogue in this area as I suspect this is where most punishment-based interventions stop “working”, suggesting they probably shouldn’t have been implemented in the first place.

Best of luck on your BCaBA exam!  May all the Sd’s be lined up just right for you!


Pumpkin Spice Latte vs BCBA exam

I have yet to indulge in a pumpkin spice latte this season. I can’t decide if I should do a reinforcement sampling technique and have one BEFORE my exam or make it contingent on completing the exam and have one AFTER.

My husband suggested I could do both. 

Fun with Intraverbals

  • Eric (via text):Damn right skippy
  • Me (via text):Hippie
  • I do not even know the origin of this phrase. Every time someone says, "Skippy" I reply, "Hippie". It makes me smile.



This is why I preach taking single-subject, time series data; even better if you (or the student) take your/their own data (self-monitoring). Everyone’s baseline is going to be different. Rates of acquisition differ. The only comparison that needs to be made are to your earlier performances.

(via gradnessmadness)

Beware the Behaviour Contrast

It’s just a small change …they thought

We decided he/she no longer needs that much [reinforcer] anymore.

We’re taking away that [reinforcer]  and they do.

And now there are problems; problem behaviours have emerged or are increasing either at school or at home.  What has happened is a phenomena known as behavioural contrast.

Behavioural contrast is a change in the rate of a behaviour in one setting when changes are made in another setting; these changes are often restrictions or limits placed on the behaviour and/or access to the reinforcer.  This occurs because many of our behaviours are on a multiple schedule of reinforcement.  Each schedule (i.e., how often/when the reinforcer is accessed) is different depending on such variables as where we are and who is present.  For example, eating at home and access to food occurs occurs quite freely so rates of eating may be higher there.  At school or work, eating is only permitted at certain times of the day and there may be limits as to what someone can eat (e.g., you may not have access to a stove to cook fresh Kraft Dinner).  Restrictions or changes in one environment can increase food-accessing behaviours in the other.

A common reinforcer to try and plan for in classroom settings is access to technology (e.g, computer, iPad, video games).  These are typically items students also have access to at home.  When planning on their use as a reinforcer in the classroom it is important to have communication with home to get a sense of how often those items are accessed and under what conditions (and vice versa - i.e., it would be a good idea for the home to know how often a reinforcer is accessed at school).  Are they freely accessed?  Are they earned?  And if so, for how long?  Have they been recently taken away as “punishment”?  Has their use been scaled back because the thought was the person is spending too much time on these devices?  

Behavioural contrast tells us that changes to reinforcement in one environment will effect rates of behaviour in the other.  Ideally both home and school have a similar/consistent approach to the use of reinforcers to avoid a large contrast.  Concerns typically arise when one setting suddenly makes changes and does not notify the other setting.  Reinforcers may become ineffective in one setting because of increased/free access in the other OR because of limits and restrictions in one setting, the student is now engaging in more behaviours that access that reinforcer in the other setting.  

Reinforcement is a delicate thing.  Behaviour can be fickle as a result. The message here: treat even the smallest changes as though they will have a large impact on others.  Discuss changes as a team.  Involve all parties (including the student).  Plan and prepare to avoid large behavioural contrasts.     

Hi Tricia-Lee, I came upon your site while looking for information on implementing ABA strategies in general education classrooms for behavior management. Any articles that you can suggest would be greatly appreciated, as most everything I find is about inclusion of students with autism or special education classrooms.

Dear Anonymous,

Thanks for stopping by and looking into how you can integrate Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA) into your classroom.  I’ll list a few key resources where you can find more general information as well as search for articles specific to your classroom needs.

  • For an overview of ABA with classroom examples, I recommend the book, ‘Applied Behavior Analysis for Teachers' (Alberto & Troutman)
  • For hands-on tools and resources for problem solving and developing behaviour support plans I recommend the book ‘Prevent, Teach, Reinforce' (Dunlap et al.)
  • There are lots of articles related to Positive Behaviour Supports (or Positive Behaviour Interventions & Support - PBIS) in schools/classrooms on this website:  **PBS/PBIS is the education friendly little sister of ABA so if you are searching for resources you may find more by using PBS/PBIS as a term of reference. 
  • On that note, you will find some research on ABA in the classroom via the Journal of Positive Behavior Interventions

This should be a good place to start.  If you are looking for a specific technique or application of ABA for the classroom setting you are welcome to follow up with another ask.

Cheers & R+ 

~ Tricia-Lee

Contingency of the day: Not on this menu

  • Antecedent:My nephew is sitting beside me. I am looking at a menu with lots of pages in it. Nephew has a crayon in his hand and had been previously colouring on his kids menu.
  • Behaviour:Reaches over to my menu with his crayon and attempts to mark the page with it.
  • Consequence:I say "no" and take my menu away.
  • There are times when you just have to say "no". The restaurant probably wouldn't appreciate having their professionally done menus marked up with crayon. The paper kids menu is the discriminative stimulus (SD) for colouring; thus, as soon as my menu was out of reach I placed his menu closer to his hand with the crayon and said he could colour there (which he did). I resumed glancing through my menu in my nephew's presence and there were no further attempts to mark it up (i.e., behaviour decreased). Therefore, my "no" was punishment for colouring on the "adult" menu.