Mention behaviour, behaviour change, behaviourism, B.F. Skinner, reinforcement, punishment and this is me!
Mention behaviour, behaviour change, behaviourism, B.F. Skinner, reinforcement, punishment and this is me!
Under the overpass? Waiting for people to whiz by doing more than 120 km/hour? I did. And what did that signal? That punishment is ready and available if I don’t slow down. So I decreased my speed.
Cop cars hiding out in obscure places: being an effective S^DP since before you read about behaviourism.
Often times the simplest explanation for behavior is the best. #behavioranalysis #parsimony
More on this in a later post.
Ever since I have been in this field and learned more about Skinner’s (1957) Verbal Behavior I find myself analyzing written language and communication: catching any word or sentence that might function differently (i.e., have a different meaning or outcome) for someone else. I am watching what I say and don’t say.
There’s not much time (or space) to get into all the specifics of verbal behaviour in this post, but the key points to know from a behaviour analytic viewpoint are:
I want my verbal behaviour to function as effectively and efficiently as possible. To accomplish that, I have adopted parsimony in what I say and write. I often plan and rehearse what I’m going to say before I go to say it. It takes me several read-overs of an email - both before I press send and ones that I receive - so that I can take both the listener and speaker perspective. I want to make sure I pause on having that knee-jerk reaction to what other may write or say to me. I obsessively read and re-read emails, tweets, blog posts etc. looking for the function.
The curse of being a behaviour analyst (in training) is that you.never.stop.thinking.about.this.stuff. I may be efficient in what I say. I just don’t know how efficient I am with my time.
Skinner, B.F. (1957). Verbal Behavior. Copley Publishing Group.
Because I want to know more about human behaviour.
Because I want to understand why people do what they do and how they learned to do it in the first place.
When curious, I am behaviourist at play.
B.F. Skinner may have been an original hipster. People thought his ideas were too radical. They feared behaviour technology in the hands of the “wrong people” not recognizing that the technology was in our possession all along.
We all influence behaviour in others, never mind our intent. Don’t you want to know more about how? How you could impart change?
Thank you for your question. It prompted me to check my notes on RFT as I have only minimal understanding of contextual behaviourism and where the science is going with it. To be honest, I am having a hard time wrapping my brain around contextual behaviourism as described in the literature; however, I think I subscribe to its basic premise philosophically - i.e., I don’t think Skinnerian behaviourism/behaviour analysis is the be all and end all of explanations and that human behaviour is far more complex than just a simple cause and effect relationship. That being said, I believe the principles of behaviour analysis are always in effect and that our understanding starts with a basic Antecedent-Behaviour-Consequence (A-B-C) analysis of what we can see or hear. I recognize that it does not end there and that the baton now gets passed onto contextual behaviourism to explain the other layers that may be present - thought, language, emotion, etc. that are also influential.
Extending upon the science of behaviour analysis to describe the complexities of language, cognition, culture and the “human condition” (Hayes, Barnes-Holmes & Wilson, 2012, p. 1) seems like the next level of analysis to dive into. However, I don’t think we necessarily throw out what B.F. Skinner had to say about human behaviour. Skinner’s radical behaviourism reminds us to be parsimonious when explaining human behaviour and the functional relationships that exist within our environment. It may seem very rigid but there still exists acknowledgement of learning history and the vast number of contingencies and their contexts that add to the complexity of their behaviours. Skinner (1953) said it himself:
Behavior is a difficult subject matter, not because it is inaccessible but because it is extremely complex. Since it is a process, rather than a thing, it cannot be held still for observation. It is changing, fluid, and evanescent… (p. 15).
There are details surrounding one’s behaviours that an applied behaviourist such as myself may fail to note or that which I can never go back far enough to trace. However the details we do see or hear - a functional analysis of sorts - is still, at best, a guess (though an educated and data informed one we hope!) We may never achieve the absolute true answer as to why we behave the way we do, but we can use the data we have to make predictions and guide effective interventions, changes to our environment. Contextual behaviourism (as I understand it) aims to add more details to deepen our understanding beyond a linear A-B-C analysis. For example, I could aim to “see” or understand all the different relations that exist with any stimulus and response I have noted in my practice (cf. Blackledge, 2003). This additional scope and depth can aid in our decision making. Since no ABA-based intervention is a guaranteed solution, knowledge gained from contextual behaviourism may improve our selecting the most effective intervention.
I think it is fascinating to apply a behaviourist lens to concepts inherent in the human condition. Concepts such as forgiveness, responsibility, respect, care etc., are all demonstrated by our actions - i.e., behaviours which have been conditioned. Part of why I blog about ABA in the context of everyday events is to put this lens on the concepts we take for granted as just being within ourselves. Like Skinner, I see everything as a behaviour and I try to offer this view point when I can - even if just philosophizing. I may evolve to be a contextual behaviourist after all!
Blackledge, J.T. (2003). An introduction to the relational frame theory: Basic and applications. The Behavior Analyst Today, 3(4), 421-433.
Hayes, S.C., Barnes-Holmes, D. & Wilson, K.W. (2012). Contextual Behavior Science: Creating a science more adequate to the challenge of the human condition. Journal of Contextual Behavioral Science, 1(1), 1-16.
Skinner, B.F. (1953). Science and human behavior. New York, NY: The Free Press.
“He knows better.” ”She knows what she is doing.”
I come across this phrase or its variations a fair bit in my work. I hear it when people describe their confusion or frustration with another person’s behaviour or lack thereof. When I ask, “How do you know s/he knows?”, the answers are along the lines of, “Well, we talked about this before.”, “He can tell me what the rules are.” or they cite the person’s abilities in other skill areas.
With a statement made about “knowing better”, comes an assumption that simply ‘knowing’ what to do translates into actually doing. It also implies that the person is willfully choosing to act or not do something a certain way; going against the rule or what they supposedly already know in their mind. It places the responsibility in the person’s mind, neglecting to consider the environmental and social influences that may be at work, including our own behaviours.
B.F. Skinner (1974) suggested that to ‘know’ something is itself a behaviour; separate from the behaviour of actually doing. I know that 250 ml is equal to a cup. I can tell you that 250 ml is equal to a cup and I can measure 250 ml of water when a recipe calls for a cup. All of those scenarios are themselves different behaviours - each with their own contingencies. In my example what I can say, I can also do. This is not always the case.
An alcoholic “knows better” than to drink an entire bottle of vodka but he or she continues to do so day in and day out. As a driver, I can tell you what the speed limit on the highway is and yet I still find myself driving over the limit. We’ve been told many times to avoid high fat, high calorie food and drink and yet we indulge. Why? Because the environment we find ourselves in (physically, socially, emotionally) is at times set up to permit or induce these behaviours - i..e, undesirable or “bad for you” behaviours are reinforced. At the same time, the environment may lack the necessary contingencies that make the more desirable behaviour possible. If we don’t seek to find out what these competing contingencies are and plan something different, we may always have this discrepancy between ‘knowing’ and doing.
People can think the thought. They may be able to talk the talk, but are they set up to walk the walk?
Skinner, B.F. (1974). About behaviorism. New York, NY: Random House.
People have a tendency to hold onto assumptions about others; not forgetting how someone has behaved in the past. While we behaviourists often say “the best predictor of future behaviour is past behaviour” that only holds true assuming we do nothing about it. By removing or adding to the physical and/or social environment, or by teaching alternate skills, we can effectively change behaviours for the better.
Over the weekend, Toronto’s Mayor, Rob Ford tweeted a message to say Happy Thanksgiving and a reminder to “drive safe”. There’s a bit of irony in his post given our Mayor’s past driving behaviours which have caught the public eye. He’s been caught reading while driving and has ignored the open streetcar doors that require drivers to stop behind them as passengers get off. Following that post came the flood of cynicism as people recalled his past mistakes; many doubtful that he can drive safe himself. He is labelled a bad-driver and perhaps in a joking way, we harp on his past mistakes. If we are so cynical of him driving safe, will we ever give him credit when he does? Do we interact with and approach Mayor Ford as someone capable of having their behaviour be changed? If not, then what else do we expect?
I ask these questions because in my professional life, I support individuals with challenging behaviours. What follows them around constantly are behaviour-based labels.
He’s a runner. She’s a head-banger. He’s a hair-puller. She’s difficult to work with. He’s so challenging.
Sometimes people interact with the individual with these labels in mind and therefore, nothing changes. They express doubt that the individual can learn not to display the challenging behaviour when someone like me comes along and wants to re-arrange a few things in an effort to decrease that behaviour or increase a more desirable one. Labels are hard to shake. And just like the assumptions get repeated and reinforced, so do the challenging behaviours. People become entrenched in these self-fulling patterns and nothing changes.
If you expect nothing else, you change nothing, and nothing else will come. If you expect that something else is possible, you behave in ways that change the circumstances, and behaviour change can come.
Which side of behaviour change do you want to be on?
If you’re a behaviour analyst (or studying behaviour analysis), the following scene might be familiar:
What do you do?
I am a behaviour analyst.
Oh. [pause] What is that exactly?
Well, I look at behaviours that people want to decrease, or the skills they want to increase. I analyze the situations in which they occur, or not occur, and then I help develop plans to either increase or decrease that behaviour.
I don’t know if my explanation describes fully what I do, but when you have 5-10 seconds to describe your profession before people become bored, that’s the most succinct schpeel I have. Sometimes that’s enough small talk for one person and we move on to something else.
So, how about those Blue Jays?
Still, others are intrigued and we may go into it a little more.
When I think about what I do, I have lots to say. I try to make use of anecdotes and analogies to explain what I do while refrain from using too much jargon (though, I still try to use correct terms where fitting). A teacher colleague, in her attempt to explain my role to a student we were supporting, provided a most-fitting analogy: “She’s like a road sign-maker”.
To quote Tom Cochrane, “Life is a highway” (a little Canadian reference) and on that highway are many exits, routes and detours a person can take; each representing a possible behaviour. It is my job to plan or consult on which route may be easiest, effective and most efficient for our ‘driver’.
Along the way, I may put up road signs that help guide our learner in a direction that works for them, sets the pace or that warns them of inconvenience or danger ahead. We might consider these antecedent strategies.
In some cases, I come along with a bulldozer and clear a whole new path for our driver. This sets them up on a different route; yet, still arriving at their intended destination. We may call these replacement behaviours or alternate skills to teach. He or she will still need a map and road signs to help them navigate, but at least this route is safer for acceptable for all.
And finally, I often wave our ‘driver’ in with indications that he or she is on track and almost there. Sometimes my flag may signal them to slow down or it redirects them to pull-over and check their map. When they have arrived, we wave the checkered flag and celebrate their accomplishment. Even driving has its consequences, teaching the learner which route(s) ends up working the best.
If you think of behaviour analysis as a road map, you can see that any number of routes are possible. There is no one way to get us where we want/need to be. The road conditions are always changing and behaviour analysts are there to assess the situation and plan accordingly.
Today, I was sign-maker, road-paver and a flag-waver.
I like this road analogy.