Did Cognitivism Beat Behaviorism?

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Some hold firm to the idea that the division between behaviorism and cognitivism is a vast divide; where there is a winning theory and a losing theory. You’ll hear them- “Behaviorism died decades ago!” and “Thoughts about thoughts? That’s just unprovable mentalism!” shouted from entrenched believers until they are blue in the face. There may be some salient historical details that explain why they feel that way; behaviorism (arguably) replaced many of the mentalism and introspective psychological methods well into the 20th century. Then, some would say that the behaviorist movement was halted by Chomsky’s rebuttal of B.F Skinner’s “Verbal Behavior” and the rise of the 1960’s “Cognitive Revolution”. The deep division could be argued as unbridgeable. As someone who was not practicing at the time of these contrasting theories coming to a head; I always wondered what it would have been like. Did everyone see it as a giant butting of heads? Did all the researchers and scientists find themselves marked on either side? Are the loud entrenched voices of today just echoes of the past that haven’t been resolved? If so, how did cognitive behavioral therapies do so well blending the two perspectives? There had to be more than just a line in the sand. Enter Terry L. Smith, and his book “Behavior and it’s Causes”- relating the exact sentiment which I was so curious about.

“I had (just like everyone else) read Kuhn (1970), and so almost reflexively interpreted cognitive psychology and behavioral psychology as competing paradigms (see Leahey, 1992, for a discussion of how common, and mistaken, this interpretation is). Cognitive psychology was clearly on the rise, so I inferred that the Skinnerian program must be on the decline. Indeed, I thought it must have disappeared by now… What I discovered was that during the 1960’s, the Skinnerian program had actually grown at an accelerating rate. This baffled me. How could operant psychology have survived and even prospered in the midst of “the cognitive revolution”?”

-Smith (2011).

How could that be? Terry L. Smith’s book explores this topic, speculates on some great points, and comes to several strong conclusions. I won’t spoil it for you aside from one- “Operant psychology” as Smith calls it, separated itself from being tied down to every philosophical tenet of Radical Behaviorism. It was Radical Behaviorism, in Smith’s view, that had taken the beating because it was too rigid on what it would allow to be studied, and cut too much out of what could be considered the study of behavior. This was a fascinating point, to me, since I had already studied what B.F Skinner had done with Radical Behaviorism to broaden it from Methodological Behaviorism (ie. private events). We’ve heard this one before, right?

“Radical Behaviorism does not insist upon truth by agreement and can therefore consider events taking place in the private world within the skin. It does not call these events unobservable”- Skinner, 1974

This was one of the larger distinction B.F Skinner made from Watson’s methodological approach which was strictly focused on observable stimuli and responses. If we take Smith’s interpretation on what “operant psychology” is today; it goes even further from radical behaviorism by cutting the divide and seeing itself within the broader breadth of psychology as a whole. This rings true for me when I speak to the behaviorists and practitioners I see in the field- there is still that aversion to “mentalism”, but the focus on the observational thrust that comes from Watson’s strict view is mainly practical- data collection is best done when people can see and define what they track. The behaviorist tradition still lives on in the practice of Applied Behavior Analysis, for example, but Skinner’s written word is not taken as a biblical truth; the components of the philosophy and science that propelled behavioral psychology to continue to progress are still empirically validated. They are scientific findings. The ones that work and do the most good remain.

This is Smith’s main point on “operant psychology” during the “cognitive revolution”; it continued on stronger than before on its own steam because the findings were strong and reproducible. While Chomsky, and other cognitivists, had made some compelling points on the limitations of Radical Behaviorism as an idea and philosophy; it did not undercut the behavioral science as a whole. The practices, techniques, and ideas of both Methodological and Radical behaviorism that came through in the empirical work remained. The broader reaching philosophy that might limits on the science with no empirical backing? Not so much.

Keep in mind that during the “cognitive revolution” beginning in the 1960’s- research in brain mapping and neurobiology had come a long way from the days when Watson, Pavlov, Thorndike, and Skinner began their work. Behavioral theory had been running strong for the beginning of the 20th century, and was now met with convergent findings. Both had their uses, and the ideas that did not refute one another but did overlap when it came to the theories. Internal processes were becoming more understandable through the biological discoveries; which some strict behaviorists may have misinterpreted as just another form of mentalism. That’s a hang up that did not help them. On the other hand, some cognitivists still thought all of behaviorism was comparing humanity to basic stimulus-response (S-R) machines. Another misunderstanding, another hang up. My interpretation is that people fought over those illusory extremes. Those were the voices that screamed the loudest but at the same time were the most misguided on what was actually happening. I equate this to the kind of thing we see on the internet- the “strawman arguments”, where someone constructs an exaggerated facsimile of their opponents’ ideas and tears those down rather than confronting what is actually said. It creates an easy target, but does not actually represent the reality. Strict behaviorists get some things right. Strict cognitivists get some things right. Sometimes…just sometimes… both groups get things wrong too! Surprising, right? That is how anything based in theory and following the scientific method actually works.

Maybe Terry L. Smith is on to something. Maybe we consider ourselves all a part of Psychology with a capital P, and put our findings and theories out there. The right ones that can empirically and reliably help people will be the legacy.

To be fair though, I am not completely in the objective virtuous middle; I’ve read Noam Chomsky’s review of Verbal Behavior and believe he missed the point.

Thoughts? Likes? Comments? Questions? Leave them below.

References:

Chomsky, N. (n.d.). 4. A Review of B. F. Skinner’s Verbal Behavior. The Language and Thought Series. doi:10.4159/harvard.9780674594623.c6

Skinner, B. F., & Skinner, B. F. (1957). Science And Human Behavior. Riverside: Free Press.

Smith, T. L. (2011). Behavior and its causes: Philosophical foundations of operant psychology. Dordrecht: Springer.
Photo Credits: http://www.pexels.com

Happy Halloween! ABA Print-outs to Spook Your Office

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Halloween is coming up soon, and as a treat, I’ve created some silly and fun ABA style printouts for the office. Links below!

 

  1. Spooky IOA Data!

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Link to the full printout here: https://behavioralinquirydotcom.files.wordpress.com/2018/10/abahalloween12.pdf

2. The Horror of Subjective ABC Data!

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Link to the full printout here: ABAHalloween2

3. The Terror of Incomplete Data!

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Link to the full printout here: https://behavioralinquirydotcom.files.wordpress.com/2018/10/abahalloween31.pdf

4.  The Dread of Corrupted and Lost Graphed Data!

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Link to the full printout here: https://behavioralinquirydotcom.files.wordpress.com/2018/10/abahalloween41.pdf

5.  The Sheer Fright of Finding Ineffective and Non-Student-Centered Goals!!

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Link to the full printout here: https://behavioralinquirydotcom.files.wordpress.com/2018/10/abahalloween5.pdf

6. The Shrieking Terror of Unnecessary Most to Least Prompting!!

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Link to the full printout here: ABAHalloween6

7. The Dread of Pseudoscience for “Behaviors”!

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Link to the full printout here: ABAHalloween7

OH NO! I hope I didn’t scare you too badly.

Have some candy and remember how safe and relevant all your data and interventions are… Whew.

Like them? Take them! No fee, but please be kind with artistic credit.

Why we don’t always prompt: Behavior Analysis meets Vygotsky.

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In the early 20th century, there was a developmental psychologist named Lev Vygotsky working on theories of learning and development in parallel to many of the behaviorist traditions. If you were to ask a graduate student taking behavior analytic courses who Vygotsky was, they would most likely shrug their shoulders and wonder why that was important. He isn’t Watson. He isn’t Pavlov. He isn’t Thorndike. He isn’t Skinner. He isn’t Lindsley. So, why would a behaviorist ever want to care? Well, it’s because his work ties in so closely to the behaviorist tradition, that you could in some cases use his terminology and frameworks interchangeably and still see the same results. His work can help clarify why we, as behavior analysts, trainers, educators, and even parents, should not prompt every single time we see a child begin to struggle with an endeavor or task.

To an educator or professional following the behaviorist tradition, it’s not all that hard to describe. Prompts help the learner reach a reinforcement threshold that that their response likely could not have reached on its own. Shaping- describes a process by which an emergent behavior which is similar in some way to a target behavior, is reinforced by successive approximations to become the terminal target behavior. Basically, it’s taking an “okay” behavior attempt, and rewarding the behaviors that look closer to improvement until it’s “perfected” enough to reach more naturalistic reinforcement in the broader environment. To a behaviorist, that means looking at what the learner has in their repertroire, what they can do right now, and plan to reward the responses that improve that towards some end goal response. But wait, how exactly do we know when to intervene? And why don’t we intervene every time we see the learner encounter difficulty?

The trouble with that is that sometimes a learner does not actually learn from being prompted too much. Sometimes that reinforcement only contacts the amount of effort the learner expends to receive prompting. Sometimes they become dependent on those prompts, and then it is the educator doing the behavior, and the learner receiving reinforcement. They don’t improve because they have no need to improve. They get the prize every time their educator does it for them. That behavior that the educator prompts, might never transfer through modeling. Why should it, if the reinforcer comes anyway? This is where Vygotsky comes in. Vygotsky believed that there is a Zone of Proximal Development.

Lev Vygotsky was not a behaviorist. In many ways, he was against the methodological behaviorism that was popular at the time which focused on purely observable stimulus-response relationships. Vygotsky also believed that learning was not just a process that drew from a present environment of contingencies, but a broader wealth of cultural and societal forces that accumulate through generations and have impacts that were not directly related to the behaviors at hand. However, when it comes to the Zone of Proximal Development, his theories coincide with what behaviorists would conceptualize as both repertoires and the necessary thresholds for prompting. Vygotsky believed that there was a level at which a learner could successfully accomplish tasks without assistance, and a level at the other end of their developmental range that they could not accomplish without considerable help in the form of prompting. Between that, however, was a zone where a learner could accomplish them with some collaboration and prompting and eventually surpass it to a level of independence. It’s a zone that is in many ways different from individual to individual, but within that zone of proximal development; prompting (or collaboration as he called it) was at its most effective.

Think of it like this:

Zone of the learners “actual” development Zone of Proximal Development The limit of their current developmental ability
These are responses that the learner can perform, and tasks that the learner can complete without any assistance from others. These are tasks and responses that the learner can accomplish with the assistance and prompting of others.

These are tasks and responses that are beyond the learner’s ability to accomplish and can only be produced with considerable support and assistance.

*Behaviorist Footnote:
Think of this as the responses already in the learner’s repertoire. These are “easy”.
*Behaviorist Footnote:

Think of this as the area of “shapable” responses that are likely to lead to independent future responses. Vygotsky called this “scaffolding” but the process of “shaping” is synonymous.

*Behaviorist Footnote:

The client can be prompted through these tasks, but are unlikely to be able to reproduce them even with shaping procedures at this time.

This framework delineates an interesting range where a learner needs and could use the help of an educator or teacher to help prompt them, and when not. In the initial range, prompting is unnecessary and might actually hinder the learner from engaging in those responses in their most independent forms. The learners who can engage in the “easy” responses and find that reinforcement in the broader environment would be more likely to occur in the future. Prompting too much here could stifle that. In the next range, the Zone of Proximal Development, as Vygotsky calls it; prompting could actually be of the most use! These are responses that are viable for occurring and reaching natural reinforcement, but they just need a little help at first to get there. Here, prompting in the form of modeling or shaping could help the learner take their initial responses and bring them to their terminal and most effective independent forms. This is the exciting part. This zone is where the work put in by the educator and teacher could meet maximum return on what the learner can benefit from. Now, we have to be careful not to reach for the moon here. The final zone is where, even with prompting, the learner is unlikely to be able to shape their responses successfully. This, for example, is trying to teach a learner to run before they can walk. They need those foundational responses before they can even be prompted to a more advanced terminal response. An educator who comes across this scenario might be wise to dial the expectations back.

Between those two ranges of “easy” and “unlikely”, we find the responses that can be prompted for the most good. We would not prompt too much, and stifle the learner’s ability to contact reinforcement on their own, but nor would we fail to prompt at all, and miss those responses or behaviors that just need a little push. This is where a behaviorist, teacher, educator, or even parent, can take a thing or two from Vygotsky’s work. And if you’re a tried and true behaviorist who can’t believe that a cognitivist would be mentioned here, I’d suggest an open mind. You might even be surprised about the similarities between Vygotsky and Skinner on private events and “inner speech”. We can touch on that later, but for now, think about the zone of proximal development in your life and practice; what could use a little help?

Likes? Comments? Questions? Leave them all below!

References:

Burkholder, E. O., & Peláez, M. (2000). A behavioral interpretation of Vygotsky’s theory of thought, language, and culture. Behavioral Development Bulletin,9(1), 7-9.
COOPER, JOHN O.. HERON, TIMOTHY E.. HEWARD, WILLIAM L. (2018). APPLIED BEHAVIOR ANALYSIS. S.l.: PEARSON.
ORMROD, J. E. (2019). HUMAN LEARNING. S.l.: PEARSON.
Image Credits:

A Behaviorist’s Take on Far Cry 5

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Forewarning to the regular readers; I’m talking about video games today. In particular, a fantastic action-adventure game I was turned on to by friends called Far Cry 5. That’s not an entire truth; I’ve played the predecessors too, but this one stands out to me narratively because it has a story based around social control. As a Board Certified Behavior Analyst, I’m drawn to these things. Imagine a world not so different from ours, where a doomsday religious cult takes control of a part of Montana and spreads a violent vision across the state corrupting the citizens to the new lifestyle of brutalization and indoctrination. That calls for a hero right? That’s the game. The thing that makes this interesting to a behaviorist is how it uses those social forces in-game to create fictional forms of coercion that in many ways matches the existing psychological science of conditioning. I like this game. It’s complex, it’s fun, and I’m going to be testing myself in its new Infamous difficulty mode over the next two weeks and during Extra Life to rack up some more donations for the local children’s miracle network hospital near me (link here and below). I’ll also try to keep spoilers beyond the psychological methodology to a minimum, Let’s get on to the psychology.

In the game, there are several bosses who control section of the map. Each of them represents a different form of that control. Spoiler alert. But honestly, no large reveals here. Joseph Seed is the big boss. He’s a sort of preacher borrowing from several religious traditions to deliver his idea on a “collapse” of society and a vision for a simpler future. He relies on a group/mob mentality, social reinforcement (a semi-Bandura style of vicarious punishment) and a form of authority that borrows from his own charisma and the religious texts he cites. Not too out of the ordinary. His doomsday cult also employs sub-bosses. John, a former lawyer, who is obsessed with having his devotees say YES, and uses similar group and social coercion. Faith, who uses a toxic mix of drugs called Bliss to create hallucinogenic induced indoctrination. Believable to a degree. Then, there’s my favorite and the reason for this post; Jacob. Jacob is a little different. He’s said to have a soldier’s background, but he uses a method of conditioning, which he refers to as a basic classical conditioning, with a substance (drug) related assistance. This puts his subjects into murderous rages/trances when he plays the song “Only You” by The Platters. He tries to make his method sound simple. He tries to make you believe it’s just simple stimulus pairing through classical conditioning.

Jacob does abhorrent experiments with these methods on both animals and humans, causing devastation and treachery across the part of the story. It’s very tragic. The thing is…he’s not just using classical conditioning. Conditioned stimulus with a conditioned response? Not quite. There’s more to it. He tries to explain his method several times and even uses the standard definition of classical conditioning to describe how he creates these diabolical effects, but when we look at the practice there’s a sinister amount of complexity that he leaves out. This fictional boss Jacob might think that it’s simply food deprivation, a song, practice in his chairs/training chambers that do it; but he’s selling himself short. He’s actually using both classical conditioning and operant conditioning. That fiend.

Far Cry® 5 (2)

Jacob’s Classical Conditioning

It might surprise you, but Jacob didn’t invent this form of conditioning. It actually has its origins with a researcher named Ivan Pavlov (and also Edward Thorndike) involving the well-known experiment with bells and salivation. There we see the pairing of a conditioned stimulus with an unconditioned response. Basic stimulus-response psychology. Now, in this fictional world of Far Cry 5, the bad guy Jacob references these things, and even Pavlov (“Pavlovian”) once or twice. I think narratively, it makes sense. He’s training killers. He sees his conditioned stimulus (a song) and their response (murderous rages) to be synonymous with that process. Except… when we look at the training, it’s not that clean. There are parts that seem to follow this method; mainly that he is engaging in a stimulus pairing procedure that works on a learned behavior change for the individual. The environmental event (or stimulus) precedes the response he is looking for. That makes sense too. Even the cutscenes play out the process correctly! We assume the original neutral stimulus “Only You” by The Platters does not lead to murderous rages to an ordinary person. He needs to make that connection happen in his victims by pairing stimulus and response. Jacob pairs that neutral stimulus, with an unconditioned stimulus (threat, through some form of a hallucinogenic and visual process), to elicit an unconditioned response (attack). Then, following this, he presents the newly paired conditioned stimulus (“Only You” song) to elicit the newly conditioned response (attack). Makes sense, right? Somewhat. But look at the training methods a little deeper and we get some complexity. He has the stimuli he wants available. He has the song. He has the wolf pictures, and the predatory images of wolves killing deer, but he also adds something else in… Reinforcement and Punishment during his trials.

Far Cry® 5

Operant Conditioning through Discrete Trial Training (DTT)

The reason I like the Jacob missions so much is that they do use real-world conditioning methods. They just undersell them a little. Jacob, the big bad guy I hated through two playthroughs of this game, uses both classical conditioning and operant conditioning to make his process work. Also, some fictional drugs and hallucinogenics, but let’s focus on what we know. Operant Conditioning is different from Classical Conditioning (or “Pavlovian Conditioning”) in one major way; it focuses on the ability of the subject to respond in a specific way, followed by a reinforcer in order to increase the frequency of that behavior or shape it towards a targeted goal. When someone mentions B.F Skinner, or Skinner Boxes, this is the type of conditioning they are talking about. Again, MINOR SPOILERS. Jacob does that to our character the first time he catches us. It’s not just the classical conditioning process of the song to the natural response of attacking when threatened. He trains our character to make that stimulus and response relationship stronger, and introduce faster and more vicious shaped behaviors to the repertoire of the character. It’s tragic. It’s sad. But his method is theoretically sound. You see, he uses what we behaviorists call Discrete Trials. The situation for each trial is exact. The Discriminative Stimulus (SD) to set it off is the same each time. Here is where the operant part comes in. The character is tasked with eliminating all enemies using the provided weapons, in an interval time frame, to complete the task and receive reinforcement for the chained behaviors. This follows the three-term contingency known as A-B-C. Antecedent. Behavior. Consequence. Let’s break it down.

(ANTECEDENT) aka Discriminative Stimulus- “Only You” Song, and visual presentation of threat-related stimuli.

(RESPONSE) – Eliminating targets.

(CONSEQUENCE)- Added time to the interval to allow for more time to complete the task for further reinforcement, and verbal praise from Jacob in the form of “Good”, “Cull The Weak” etc. This is Reinforcement.

Or… (CONSEQUENCE)- in the form of Punishment. Fail to complete the task by either being killed by enemies, or failing the time interval, and you meet the punishment contingencies of starting over from the beginning, or verbal reprimands in the form of “No”, “You are weak”, “You are not a soldier”, etc.

In other words, Jacob is shaping repertoires. He’s not just pairing behavior. He is creating a series of trained responses, operants if you will, in the presentation of his conditioned stimuli to be completed in a way that he controls. It is the fundamental ingredients of all learning, but he has twisted it a little to make this heroic character fall right into a trap of uncontrollable lapses in judgment and responding in cruel ways that are uncharacteristic or were a part of the character from the start. Chilling, right? But like a rat in a maze, or a box, the character must follow these in order to progress. Press the lever, get the cheese. Shoot the opponents, get the praise and progress.

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Meta Game Talk: Conditioning The Players

Let’s talk a little about the big picture here. Yes, Jacob is fictional. Yes, this heroic character is fictional too. But when we look at the game from the lens of how it works on player reinforcement and punishment, we can actually see ourselves in the picture of this box. We are also conditioned, if we choose to play the game and continue to play the game, in a way that shapes and sharpens our behavioral repertoires. The same Discrete Trial Training that Jacob puts our character through, we are also participating in, and are contacting that same reinforcement and punishment as though it were our own (broadly speaking). We want to succeed. We want to continue. We want to win.

So, we get faster. We get more accurate. We learn the patterns. This is why we train. As Jacob has said so many times during these repeated trials. Each time, giving us a little more of a challenge. Each time, progressing us with different response repertoires to enact on the challenges in our way. It’s fun. In some ways, it can be a representation of the game as a whole. There are many reinforcers out there to get. Many contingencies to engage with. Even multiple endings (that’s the part that got me doing it twice).

I learned to shoot through both enemies in the revolver scene from the left. I learned to take the submachine gun in the next room and work from low to high, right, center, to left. For the shotgun, I turned corners with two lefts and one right at head level and tapped at the first sign of movement. For the rifle, I stayed low and aimed in short bursts, leading a clear line through the middle, and for the LMG… well, let’s not give it all away just yet. Your repertoires need honing too, and there are many variations that work.

That’s the fun.

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The Behaviorist’s Take:

5/5 Stars for me. This game has been a joy to relax with. It’s challenging, but still can be taken in small parts and missions as time allows. It’s not too much of a time sink for someone on a professional schedule, and not too much of a learning curve for putting half an hour a day in. The story is strong, the emotional bond between the heroic character and the sympathetic (and often funny) people they meet is also a great time. They even let you make your own custom levels and challenges for your fellow players in an Arcade mode. I dig it.

As I mentioned above, this will be my game for the Extra Life 2018 Charity Event taking place the first week of November. I am, believe it or not, the weakest player on my team, but I love talking behaviorism and psychology and will be doing it all day to support the locals in Philadelphia, raising charity funds for the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP). I’m not only an outsider fan of their great work with children, I often have direct contact with the children’s hospital in my day to day work with young populations and can’t speak highly enough about their commitment. Extra Life is a legitimate charity, and 100% of the funds go directly to the children’s hospital. I’m leaving my link below and will be overjoyed if readers could contribute in some part to my goal so I can hold my head up high this year. Any amount at all. I’ll be streaming and will be happy to respond to any comments. Have ideas that I missed? I love those. Send those too.

Extra Life Donation Link

Comments? Like? Questions? Leave them below!

References:

Cooper, John O., Heron, Timothy E.Heward, William L.. (2007) Applied behavior analysis /Upper Saddle River, N.J. : Pearson/Merrill-Prentice Hall

Far Cry 5 [Software]. (2018). Ubisoft Montreal, Ubisoft Toronto.

Image Credits:

Christian Sawyer, M.Ed., BCBA (original Photography/Screenshots)

Steam. http://www.steam.com- Far Cry 5 Logo

What Cats Taught Thorndike About Learning

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If you’ve heard the name Edward Thorndike, you are probably aware of the importance this psychologist had on early behavioral science. He was the one that coined the term law of effect, which is a theoretical precursor to the process of reinforcement. Thorndike was interested in psychology as an observable natural science, which at the time flew in the face of introspective methods. His work inspired many of the ideas and theories of B.F Skinner, and behaviorism as a whole, but what you might not know is that his big break came from what he learned from…cats.

People who are familiar with Thorndike’s law of effect are aware that his theory underwent several revisions, and his research came into criticism; but few would dispute that his dissertation on the associative processes of animals, and the puzzle box experiment raised the right questions that would lead to many of the processes within operant conditioning that we see used today. Thorndike owes much of that to the cats he worked with during the animal research. Thorndike was interested in animal learning. Could they learn? Were all their behaviors governed solely by reflex? If they could learn, what could they learn? Could they learn by observing others? To us modern readers, who are familiar generally with animal intelligence levels, this might seem like a no brainer, but in the late 19th century when Thorndike was doing his work a sizable amount of academics still held on to the old Cartesean view of animals as unconscious automatons. These cats, and Thorndike, would call that into question. They would demonstrate that they could not only learn, but overcome an obstacle that could not possibly be a part of their reflex system- a puzzle box. Cats solving puzzles?! Thorndike must be mad! (I’m not entirely sure his critics would have been that dramatic, but skepticism was definitely there.).

His experiment was simple. Place hungry cats within a box that required a simple action to open, in order to access food outside of the box. The puzzle box itself had a door which was shut by weighted string, and that string was attached to a lever or switch; by operating these, the door would open. There were other future experiments involving buttons which worked in a similar fashion, but the single response (which was not reflexive) was consistent. At first the cats wandered around the cage meowing, and circling, until they incidentally stepped or pushed on a lever, opened the door, and gained access to the food. This was not learning. This was incidentally triggering the device. BUT… when placed within the cage again, these cats were able to reduce their time wandering and meowing before they found the trigger and let themselves out. Thorndike tracked these times, noticing not only that these cats were able to find their way out faster each time, but also the rate at which this learning took place. Thorndike constructed a learning curve. The cats struggled at first, but got faster with each new trial until their rates of responding became efficient enough to level off. Thorndike believed that to even perform this type of learning required some intelligence intrinsic to the cats. Obviously some kind of intelligence that did not rely on language or introspection.

“From the lowest animals of which we can affirm intelligence up to man this type of intellect is found.”- Edward Thorndike

“Meow.”- Edward Thorndike’s Cat

Thorndike’s initial hypotheses were not always correct or confirmed however. Learning through observation, for example, was something he could not capture with these puzzle box trials. During the initial trials, he was not able to observe a difference in the rates of cats’ responding learned through their own trial and error, and cats who observed others escaping by pressing the lever/switch. (Later studies with other animal subjects would, of course, demonstrate animal learning through observation could in fact occur with certain animals). He also believed there might be some level of insight from the cats which helped them learn these tasks, but that too was not confirmed by his initial experiment- cats seemed to be more gradual learners from experience. This type of learning, again, appeared not to rely on language or introspective thought. Thorndike noticed that when he first put cats inside the puzzle box, their behavior seemed “erratic” or “chaotic”, but after successive trials the became more focused on finding the trigger to opening the door and engaged in fewer responses which did not align with the task. The cats were no longer circling and meowing; they were approximating responses that were previously successful and allowed them access to food. Thorndike concluded from this that this was responding based on the law of effect; that it happened due to past consequences. This would later be called by behaviorists as reinforcement, and documentation of the three term contingency.

“There is no reasoning, no process of inference or comparison; there is no thinking about things, no putting two and two together; there are no ideas – the animal does not think of the box or of the food or of the act he is to perform.”- Edward Thorndike

“…”- Edward Thorndike’s Cat operating a puzzle box trigger.

That’s not all. Thorndike also theorized that cats could engage in discrimination of human vocalizations, and behave differently in situations after being spoken to. Thorndike noticed that when he approached cats behind wired netting before feeding, they would leap up on to the netting and meow.

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(this author’s cat demonstrating exactly that)

To test this, he tested a loud proclamation in each condition:

“I MUST FEED THOSE CATS! (emphasis not present in original text)

Preceding conditions where he fed the cats, and

“I will not feed them.” (lack of textual enthusiasm probably accurate)

preceding conditions where he did not feed the cats.

He tracked these presentations and trials using frequency data collection, and in the conditions where he spoke “I must feed those cats”, and fed the cats, he found that cats would leap up more readily in the future, over the phrase where he did not feed them. This concept would later be referred to as responding to a discriminative stimulus. The cats would leap up and approach Thorndike (up to 60 times in the original research!) in the first condition, but also reduced leaping up when he voiced that he would not feed them. Thorndike was well aware that these cats were not spontaneously learning the English language, but they were discriminating between two very similar vocalized stimuli, and responding based on their previous experience and reinforcement. These ideas were not commonplace, or as well established as they are today. In many ways, these advances brought up unheard of avenues for the theory of learning in both animals and humans.

The theoretical implications of these experiments would shape later behavioral research into principles of operant conditioning well into not only the 20th century boom of behavioral thoughts and ideas, but even our time now in the 21st century.

Pretty impressive for cats, isn’t it?

Questions? Comments? Likes? Other?

Leave them below!

References:

1] Chance, P. (1999). Thorndike’s Puzzle Boxes And The Origins Of The Experimental Analysis Of Behavior. Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior,72(3), 433-440. doi:10.1901/jeab.1999.72-433
2] COOPER, JOHN O.. HERON, TIMOTHY E.. HEWARD, WILLIAM L. (2018). APPLIED
BEHAVIOR ANALYSIS. S.l.: PEARSON.
3] Famous Quotes at BrainyQuote. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.brainyquote.com/

Picture Credits: http://www.pexels.com, Christian Sawyer (Photo)

Why I Leave My Political Hat At Home

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Opinion piece time. I leave my political hat at home. Or, at least I try to. I leave my belief systems about policy and voting to conversations with friends, Twitter (if I can’t help myself), and the local networking events where local politicians from town hang out- that way it’s just contextual. I’m friends with the local school board. I’m on a first name basis with the mayor of my town. I catch up and chat with the local councilmembers. I have a political life which is just as strong as my professional life. It’s not easy to split the two. More often than not, me deliberating on a choice at work does hit on several pieces of what makes my moral compass orient the way it does. I believe in compassion. I am a behavior analyst- it’s from the behaviorist tradition. It is observational, data-driven, research-based. I don’t allow personal opinion impact what happens with decisions with clients. Thankfully, data does that for me. Is this effective? Yes or no. Why? Well, the data suggests…

I can’t just put up a phase change line on a client’s progress graph because my opinion about a far-reaching political event somehow relates. It’s unfair. It’s my lens getting shifted which impacts more than me if it’s not reined in. The clients are individuals, deserving of individual care. Outside of that, it also means that I have people working with that client which report to me- RBT’s (Registered Behavior Technicians). They worked hard to get that credential. They’ve passed their tests and went through their supervised hours. They are professionals. Would it be fair for me to walk into work with a political or ideological idea in my head and try to bring it up to them? Of course not. That’s not their job. Their responsibility is to the client, based on the real world observable responses and data they see and collect. They depend on my unclouded experience and judgment. Even if they were to be outspoken about a political view (which happens), I can’t let that color my opinion of them or how I treat their judgment. It could. It easily could. But that’s my professional line drawn in the sand.

Here’s a common counter I’ve heard: Things are getting bad here. We need to speak out. We need to take a political stance in our personal and professional lives.

If it involves the vaccine pseudoscience? I’ll bite. I can justify that because the evidence is there and it relates to my work.

But here’s the pickle. The people who bring up that counter argument assume something. They assume that just because we share a job title, and do the same thing, and care about the same pursuits that we have the same political opinion, and I’d be an addition to their circle. Now, when those political views have already been expressed, I can be pretty sure whether I agree or not- and it’s a mixed bag, but surprisingly to some- I don’t share the expected viewpoints. Were they looking for differing viewpoints? I can’t be sure, but it doesn’t feel like it. Is it worth turning a workplace contentious? Is the workplace the place, and the time, to deal with these issues?

“But Chris, surely you don’t support _____.”
“You work with kids though. How could you ____?”
“If you’re not ____ then you’re ____.”
“_____ did something terrible. You can’t support ____ could you?”

I have nuanced viewpoints. They don’t follow a single ideology, or politician. That potentially makes it even worse. My political stance might not align with anyone who is unipolar in their support or views. The world is a big place. The United States is a big place. Pennsylvania is a big place. There are a lot of different people with valid but different views. In my personal life, I can vote with my conscience. I can even refuse to vote if it aligns with my conscience. I can protest who I want to protest. I can talk to local politicians from both parties. I can talk with local third-party candidates. I’m outspoken on education in these settings and with these people. But they don’t report to me. They aren’t my professional peers either. It’s the context that makes sense to me. If I meet someone from work, off the clock, and they want to talk about these issues; then I would be perfectly fine putting my thoughts out there. Discuss. Change my mind. Sure. I’d have to draw a line somewhere though. It can’t get heated. Even the small stuff would have to be calm and rational and most importantly; wouldn’t be evident at work the next day.

In my profession as a Board Certified Behavior Analyst, the board (BACB) that governs how supervisors treat supervisees are pretty clear in many respects. Dual relationships, abuses of power, conflicts of interest- they all have some clear delineation. Politics isn’t mentioned specifically, but imagine a case where there was an outspoken supervisor who did espouse their views and acted on perceived implications of those views at work. Would that affect the people directly reporting to them? How sure could we be that it wasn’t? I stepped into work on November 9th, 2016. I felt it. Whatever it was, it was there. Putting that into the supervisory relationship is a dangerous game, in my opinion. I’m not saying other people can’t do it, but it’s not something I’d feel comfortable with given the potential to go bitter.

I believe that if something needs changing, it can be done with every opportunity that a citizen has. That goes for maintaining a high held value or traditional ideal. People are free to do both. Bringing that explicitly to the workplace, with a position of influence and supervision responsibility, has risks. I’d much prefer to leave that particular hat at home.

 

References:
Just me.

Photo Credits: http://www.pexels.com

May I have your attention please? The Nominal Stimulus vs. The Functional Stimulus

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Hm?

What’s that?

Sorry, I wasn’t paying attention.

You’ll see this happen in some case studies, research articles, classrooms, and even therapeutic practice. A situation laid out with everything in mind to elicit the predictable response. You ask “What’s two plus two?” and eagerly await the “four!”…but it doesn’t happen. You call out to someone who’s wandered off “Hey! Over here!”, and they keep on walking. You picked out your discriminative stimulus so well but the response had little or nothing to do with it. You were missing the big piece of responding to stimuli that is absolutely obvious on paper, but so easily overlooked: Attention.

Stimulus-Response contingencies are a good place to start with explaining why this is so important, because they’re often the simplest and easiest to explain. One thing happens, a response follows it. The in-between that goes unsaid is that the respondent was actually able to perceive the stimulus, otherwise the response was either coincidental or unrelated. The stimulus that is never perceived, or attended to, is called a Nominal Stimulus. It happened. It was presented purposefully. It’s not a discriminative stimulus. It plays no role in selection. The individual is unaware that it even occurred. Nominal stimuli are the “everything else” in a situation that the intended respondent is not attending to.

Imagine a teacher in a classroom helping a student write their name. They first prompt by demonstrating how the name is written. The student does not copy it. So they take the student’s hand and physically guides them through the name writing start to finish, then they reinforce with some great descriptive praise to reinforce. Great! The student learned something, right? They’re more likely to at least approximate name writing in the future, right? How about the first letter?

Not if they were looking up at the ceiling the whole time. Nominal Stimulus.

The teacher may have set up a great visual demonstration, planned out a prompting strategy, and planned out a reinforcer to aid in learning the target behavior- but not one of those things were effective, or even meets their respective intended definitions, without the student’s attention. What the teacher was actually looking for, with any of their attempts, was a Functional Stimulus.

A functional stimulus, attended by an individual, that signals reinforcement for a specific behavior? That is the feature of the discriminative stimulus (SD) that elicits previously reinforced behavior. It’s received by the respondent in a meaningful way.

The lesson here in this distinction is that observers can sometimes assume stimulus-response relations or failures in responding because they are working with situations that present Nominal Stimuli instead of Functional Stimuli. Without distinguishing the attendance of the respondent, one could simply document a discriminative stimulus occurred when it had not. That would lead to inaccurate data, and further inaccurate intervention development based on those inaccuracies.

Check for attention. Always. It may not always be the easiest thing to discern. Auditory attending is not as easy to infer as visual attending is, but by keeping the nominal and functional stimuli in mind, you are in a better place to test for conditions that better facilitate both.

Let’s try one more example.

Take this guy in the car. He’s got his phone out. Just got a text. Now THAT was one sweet discriminative stimulus. Tons of reinforcement history signaling behind that one.

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The street lights in front of him? Nominal stimuli.
The stop sign down the road? Nominal stimulus.
The cars on either side of him? Nominal stimuli.

Not all unattended stimuli are nominal stimuli exactly, but in a society, these signals (lights, signs, other people’s proximity) are delivered with the intended purpose of changing or governing the responses of people in order to make sure everyone drives in an orderly and safe(ish) way. Even when a person is attending, partially, to an array of stimuli around them; all supposedly “important” in one way or another, some don’t actually register without specific attention.

One more example. Last one, I promise.

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An instructor is working with a non-verbal child to build communication. They are seated at a desk. The child is staring off at one of the walls and reciting some continuous vocal stereotypy to themselves. The instructor is guiding a communication board- a page with the alphabet on it.

They… rapidly… move the board’s position in front of the child’s finger, anticipating and…prompting… the words “I W A N T L U N C H”. They stand up with glee and reinforce this…method… with a “Great job! Let’s get lunch!”. The child continues to stare off at the wall, and continue the repetitive stereotypy until lunch is brought over.

What might that instructor infer from this process if they were not thinking about nominal stimuli? Well, they might infer that the process was in any way impacted by the child’s responding. Or, that the board and prompting was received in any way by the child. It could get a little confusing.

That’s the importance of nominal and function stimuli.

Questions? Comments? Likes? Leave them all below!

References:

Healy, A. F., & Weiner, I. B. (2013). Experimental psychology. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.

Ormrod, Jeanne Ellis. (2012) Human learning /Boston : Pearson

Tabletop Roleplaying with a Behavior Analyst

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There are a vast array of opinions on role playing games. The stereotypes about them are prevalent in the popular culture of movies and televisions shows- mainly depicting the socially inept cliches rolling dice and spouting an incomprehensible language of their own. That type of depiction does get laughs, but it also is unlike anything I’ve seen in reality. I was influenced by those caricatures of role players too. For a long time I did not understand the appeal of piling up in a dark basement, playing a game about pretend people where nothing really mattered and there were so many rules to learn. Where’s the fun in that? It was the wrong outlook, but the right question. There was fun in it. It just took the experience to actually try it out and find it for myself.

Tabletop Role Playing is just a form of collective story telling. If you’ve ever seen a fictional movie and been engrossed in it, or had an idea for a novel, these are the same types of precursor behaviors to putting yourself in someone else’s shoes. There’s a fun to that. Taking on a different personality for a moment, and seeing a viewpoint unlike our own. If we want to get psychological about it, there might be some aspects of Adlerian play theory, or Bandura’s social learning through vicarious reinforcement in there. The gist of it is; one person sets the stage of the story and determines the rules of how the game is played, and the players take on a role and navigate that world for a collective goal (most of the time).

If you’re the type of person who likes making materials like token boards, graphs, or craft projects- this is right in your wheelhouse too.

It’s best to start off as a player before deciding to run your own game. You get to understand group dynamics and how collective story telling works. I was in my 20s when I first started this type of role playing. I started late. I tried a little of everything I could get invited to. Some people like settings with dragons and elves, but that’s not my type of thing exactly. I gravitated towards more realistic settings where interpersonal relationships and psychology was more grounded in humanity. Fictional worlds not too different or fantastic from our own. What I learned quickly is that these games work on Skinnerian principles- many things do, but role playing had a specific feel of reinforcement schedules that was familiar to me. The person who runs the game, sometimes called a referee, sometimes called a DM, sets the scale of what actions are reinforced and what are not.

Sometimes these are fixed reinforcement schedules based on experience: points that are rewarded that can be applied to the characters skills and attributes to make them more proficient, or more hardy to tackle the adventures. A measure of how much the character grows.

Sometimes these reinforcement schedules are variable ratio items: like in-game money, armor for your character, and tools that they can use to tackle different obstacles. A measure of what the character has, or can spend.

The players themselves run into variability by natural consequence; every action they decide to have their character make, if it is a specific skill or difficulty, comes with rolling a die to see if they succeed or fail.

These can be run like any other Skinner box. Compound schedules appear to be the most interesting to players. A fixed ratio that can be expected- perhaps collecting something important for one of the protagonists in a decided location. Or maybe a variable ratio- deciding what foes give up what item or monetary reward for being bested. Some people run their games with combat in mind; every situation is a nail to be beaten down by a well armed adventurer’s hammer. There’s a thrill to that kind of gameplay, but I find that it isn’t compelling enough for me. I prefer to create stories that have the opportunity for danger, but the risk of engaging in combat is sparsely reinforcing and has a greater opportunity for punishment. A live by the sword, die by the sword style of reinforcement schedule. There may be rewards to a quick and brutal choice, but a player can lose their character just as easily. I like using social stories in therapy to develop more adaptive skills. I use that same mindset when designing a game too- why resort to violence when you can talk your way out of trouble?

Say there is a dark concrete room, dim lights, seven enemies outnumber and surround a poorly armed player group. If they choose combat- they would most likely lose. It might work. I would allow it. Let the dice roll and see if they succeed. But more often than not, a clever player can decide to roll their die in a very different way; persuasion. I set the mark much lower for that if they have the right pitch. They make a deal even the most brutal enemy couldn’t refuse. The die is rolled- they win. Now there is one enemy less, and one more temporary friend to the adventure. The other enemies aren’t just going to stick to their hostility- maybe they overheard that, maybe they’re swayed too, maybe this causes division in the enemy group. The player group capitalizes. They play bluff roles. They play intimidation rolls. They play oratory rolls to back their fellow players up with a rousing speech. The tables turn, and now they’re on the side with higher numbers and that piece of the game is won.

That situation is harder to pull off for players. It takes more thought. More coordination. Turn taking. A minute or two to step away from the game, collect their ideas, then bring it back. I’m not trying to run a stressful table here- thinking is allowed. They devise a plan that works better than pulling a sword and pulling a trigger. I reinforce. Experience for “defeating” an entire room. They did after all. “Tangible reinforcers” in game for the characters. They get a bartered deal that they’d never get anywhere else if they’d been violent to these bad guys. Negative reinforcement- they avoid the aversive harm that is revealed to them when they now know- after persuading their enemies- that the enemies outmatched them in hidden weapons. The players used teamwork, not just some haphazard dice throwing about blood and guts. Group bonus. More experience for everyone. Why not? They played the game their way and they played it smart. These were not just four people sitting around a table doing their own random guesses for a quick and easy win, they came together with ideas that I would never have thought up for the story and won it themselves. They changed the story. Now it’s my turn to adjust my ideas to their new role played reality.

Now…It doesn’t always play out that way. Variable reinforcement is a necessity in a game of rolling dice. So is variable punishment. Sometimes the dice roll, and there’s a failure. Or worse- a critical failure! Not only is the prize not won, or the intended action not completed; it was actually a detriment to even try. Players have crashed a car. Blown up a usually harmless household item. Set a pacifist character in the game into a fit of rage and spoiled a whole quest line. That bank vault actually had a skunk in it. It happens. It’s something like a gamble, but when the reinforcement flows heavier than the punishment, it’s all worth it. It evens out. It takes a strong story, it takes a coherent direction and narrative, but the players do all the heavy lifting. They think. They plan. They roll the dice. Everyone has a great time.

You get to see patterns in that. Make it more challenging the next time. More engaging. Take the next story point in a way that you’d never have thought of before.

Let’s not forget that even when the game is done, there’s a friendship there now. People got to know each other a little better. They got to see people they talk to in a different light, more creative to one another, more inventive. Sometimes some playful rivalries come out of it. There’s also a community out there with shared experiences that goes beyond individual play groups and tables. Thousands of other people playing the same game their way. I personally love the community. I have ideas about how to run the game, and run it by others who play the same game but have done it better than me. I adapt. I improve. Sometimes, I even have an idea about how psychosis works in this imaginary world, and reach out to the internet with an interpretation on new rules-….and the creator of the game itself (Maximum Mike Pondsmith) replies.

mm

Talk about fun. Talk about reinforcement. I’ve learned never to underestimate what a good table top roleplaying game can be, or what it can bring to an otherwise ordinary afternoon. If you’ve never tried one? It’s never too late. Groups are out there with every age, every time commitment, and every skill level. Give it a shot. You might just like it.

 

Questions? Comments? Likes? Leave them below.

 

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Remembering the Pre-Aversive Stimulus

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There are some terms and concepts from behavioral psychology’s past that have found themselves buried in time. Tucked away in a journal here or there but largely forgotten. The older research that tracked rates of behavior following “noxious stimuli”, for example- A phrase we don’t use anymore.  Time has also changed the fascination with respondent conditioning and effects that just two (or more) paired stimuli somewhere along the line could change responding for a lifetime. Powerful principles, which with progress now seem so mundane. Somewhere in there, we have the pre-aversive stimulus.

The pre-aversive stimulus had a great role in early behavioral science animal research to describe responding patterns, but the concept easily applies to humans as well. A pre-aversive stimulus, simply put, is the stimulus that reliably precedes an aversive stimulus. Have you ever heard the term avoidance responding? Some people may call that “escape-maintained behavior” in the field but it is effectively just that- engaging in behavior (responding) to avoid a stimulus that was aversive in the past. Running away. Getting away. Dodging it. What signals that, then? The pre-aversive stimulus. It goes even further. Just through respondent conditioning, the pre-aversive stimulus can take on features of the aversive stimulus and become a conditioned aversive stimulus itself. Then there’s another pre-aversive stimulus that could reliably precede that, and with enough second-order conditioning, you could get messy (over)generalization and find all sorts of related stimuli as aversive. Generalized Anxiety Disorder theoretically works on this same principle. It’s not hard to see how this kind of thing can tangle up a person’s life- whether they are able to realize it and vocalize it or not.

 

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Wait! Isn’t a pre-aversive stimulus just a kind of SD?

Let’s not jump to any conclusions and mistake a pre-aversive stimulus for an SD just yet. They have some things in common. They’re both stimuli (but so is almost everything else). They can both be considered antecedent stimuli when we look at the framework of the avoidance responding that sometimes follows them. They signal something. All good comparisons- but here’s a big distinction if you don’t remember: A discriminative stimulus (SD) signals reinforcer availability for a specific type of response.

The per-aversive stimulus does not necessarily have to.

In some situations, you could conceptualize a case for negatively reinforced behavior, but that might muddy the definitions of both terms being used concurrently. They speak to different phenomena even though they could describe one particular stimulus. The big difference is that the cue for available reinforcement is not necessary for a pre-aversive stimulus. It is simply a stimulus that has commonly preceded something aversive, or bad.

Example: An individual has been stung by a wasp before. Maybe several times if they were unlucky. Prior to the stinging, they heard the buzzing around a wasp nest.

That buzzing could likely become a pre-aversive stimulus, and through respondent conditioning, a conditioned aversive stimulus itself in the future.

In the research, pre-aversive stimuli tended to evoke “anxiety” in respondents- which was quasi-operationalized to the term conditioned emotional response (CER), also called conditioned suppression. That’s an important distinction to keep in mind. Here, a pre-aversive stimulus appears to suppress or decrease responding- not signal reinforcement for a response like an SD would.

Like freezing near a wasp nest when buzzing is heard. The usual comfortable walking pace (response) is suppressed in the presence of the buzzing sound (pre-aversive antecedent stimulus).

 

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Anxiety! Conditioned Emotional Responses! Conditioned Suppression!

Respondent conditioning research has some fascinating lessons that are just as relevant today as they were decades ago. Sometimes in the day to day practice of behavior analysis- things get oversimplified for the sake of ease of practice.

Behavior goes up? Reinforcement is at work.

Behavior goes down? Punishment is at work.

To a degree, those definitions work. Even with our wasp nest example earlier, those initial stings could absolutely punish some future walking behavior. But we can’t forget about the little things- the little preceding stimuli that have so much to do with the actual phenomenon. The buzzing didn’t punish the walking. Don’t forget the antecedents. Don’t forget the respondent conditioning. Taking the time to examine just one more step explains the process so much more clearly.

What conditioned pre-aversive stimuli appear to evoke conditioned emotional responses in your day to day life? Do you see conditioned suppression of behavior, as a result, that would have otherwise been there? What pre-aversive stimuli could be “tagging on” to the effects of an aversive stimulus you’re aware of? Does it evoke any avoidance behavior?

Too simple? Laurence Miller ‘s (1969) work on compounding pre-aversive stimuli might whet your broader research appetite. Citation below.

Thoughts? Comment! Question! Like!

 

References:

Coleman, D. A., Hemmes, N. S., & Brown, B. L. (1986). Relative durations of conditioned stimulus and intertrial interval in conditioned suppression. Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior,46(1), 51-66. doi:10.1901/jeab.1986.46-51
COOPER, JOHN O.. HERON, TIMOTHY E.. HEWARD, WILLIAM L. (2018). APPLIED BEHAVIOR ANALYSIS. S.l.: PEARSON.
Miller, L. (1969). Compounding of pre-aversive stimuli1. Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior,12(2), 293-299. doi:10.1901/jeab.1969.12-293
Ormrod, J. E. (2016). Human learning. Harlow, Essex, England: Pearson.
Image Credits:
http://www.pexels.com, photographer Hubert Mousseign

How I Designed An Effective RBT Training Program

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When the BACB introduced the Registered Behavior Technician (RBT) credential, I remember reading the email all the way back in 2013 and having my brain race over just how credentialing the entry-level ABA practitioner might work. It was in a sense revolutionary- how many people in psychology or education undergraduate programs would believe that they could work full time in a field related to their study before graduation, and be credentialed for it? I knew that eventually it would be my role to design an effective and efficient RBT training protocol to give the new ABA practitioners a solid education in the basics of ABA and therapy implementation. I started as a therapist myself. I went through the process that eventually lead to my BCBA graduate studies and certification. The question now was, if I were starting all over what would I have wanted to set me up for the greatest chance of success?

The BACB Standards

The RBT Task List and the training guidelines are essential. These are necessary for counting towards the credential. There are certain things you can expound on, and present in variations of practicality, but everyone passing the 40 hour training essentially has to learn the exact same thing as it’s listed by the BACB. Think of this as you would an approved course sequence for BCBA classes. I think it has the best current structure to the material necessary for this level of service, so even if you are thinking of using training that does not necessarily require the RBT credential, this is a great “ABA style” guideline for the necessary skills.

I like to think of it this way: You don’t want to train staff for just the challenges they face right now for clients, you want them to be prepared for all the appropriate behavior-analytic necessities down the line too.

When I designed my first RBT training protocol in 2015, I stuck to the RBT Task List and BACB standards for RBT training to the letter (I still do, but added and improved upon it). My picks for what would be used as the source material to fill out this training were: B.F Skinners collected works, the Baer, Wolf, and Risley article, and my favorite, “Applied Behavior Analysis” by Cooper et al. For my first run at this, I broke it down into modules with discussion board posts, quizzes, and “chapter exams” for each section. While this material was being run, I also preferred to apply these to real-world client situations so that what they saw on the pages could be implemented. Every trainee would meet a real client, see how the material relates, and practice shadowing/running some of the techniques.

Some of the trainings I was seeing online were just Q&A material presentation with quizzes, but no actual practice. That gave me pause because I knew the next step required by the BACB was the competency assessment and that requires actual in vivo clinical skill usage for most sections.

Training to meet the standards of the Competency Assessment and the RBT Exam

My initial 40-hour training program was built from the ground up based on the framework that the BACB set out. It was not until the actual trainee feedback came back from both the competency exams (in clinical skills judged by a BCBA), and the results of the RBT Exam (a Pearson computer testing center exam) that I was able to get the correct amount of information to expand on the areas where most were finding the difficulty. If you’ve taken the BCBA exam, the RBT exam is very similar in style. It’s tough, but has a smaller and more appropriate task list for the job. Multiple choice, but best answer. None of that easy 3 answers are wrong, 1 answer is right. My second training, which I created at the tail end of 2015 and revised twice into 2016 aimed to treat a common difficulty that was arising from my experience with the gaps between the Competency Exam and the RBT Exam. The RBT competency exam was a breeze for people who could use the language and run the data collection, graphing, and skill acquisition skills with clients in the real clinical setting, but when it came to the Pearson exam; using the terms to answer the questions was much tougher. Familiarity with terms was good enough to pass clinical muster, but that RBT Exam was a tough nut to crack.

I adjusted my training to fill this skill gap I was seeing with some of the applicants by testing the terminology during the competency assessment during the option interview section. The BACB has a great sheet they included onto the RBT Competency checklist, which has a series of opened ended topics that the applicant discusses with the testing BCBA. I took those, and adapted some of the tougher relations- People could tell me what frequency data was, but they couldn’t explain what continuous measurement was used for. People could tell me when we used partial and whole intervals, but couldn’t describe why discontinuous measurement was appropriate for a situation. People could use prompting during a discrimination training program, but couldn’t always figure out how to stimulus fade if they saw improvement. Could a 40 hour training really condense all of this down to meet the rigor of the exam? The competency was a breeze for most applicants after the training, but the test required some considerable additional studying if they had never practiced ABA clinical work before. So, I kept going with it, tweaking my training to give some obvious terminology repetition, gain some fluency with the practical in-person time during the 40 hour training. Pass rates went up. Not to 100%, but higher than the first version.

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Competency Exam as Feedback

The Competency exam step was really something interesting. It was where we saw the independent clinical skills of the RBT, therapeutically, with real clients, and measurable results. It had interobserver agreement (IOA) built into it. It hit on every topic of the task list, but on the other hand, an applicant could potentially display 1/4 skills and still pass a section which had its own challenges. But we got great feedback from the applicants during the process, how they saw the training, how comfortable and proficient they felt they were, how proficient they actually were.

The competency exam did allow for some limited roleplay where the in-vivo skills were impractical for the situation, but we used those sparingly. The real situations often challenged the applicants in ways that we the observers could not have thought up. There were teachable moments, there were even sometimes failures of the competency, but the next week they were back to try again.

We all learned a lot.

The trouble was that the competency exam was technically separate from the 40 hour training. Someone could come to apply for a position, require a competency exam, but already have a 40-hour certificate from an online training site. More often than not, when it came to skills like discrete trial training (DTT), or other skill acquisition routines that required more than objective maladaptive behavior measurement; these applicants would simply struggle. The prompting techniques were sloppy. “Least to most” was not in their vocabulary. “What is chaining?”– we’d hear. Orientation for the position was not enough, even with a legitimate online 40-hour training. This was also feedback. Was our training process over teaching? Was it too difficult or complex for what the RBT role was designed for? Were we demanding too much from our applicants during the RBT process? If so- how were we to measure that? And how exactly were these materials we were training with, and competency testing with, serving us so well with the applicant results on the RBT Exam through Pearson. Did these outside trainings have the same post-training measures? Did they use feedback? It would be impossible to survey them all. The answers came from somewhere else. The people who actually trained and tested with us the entire way through. Our first year RBTs. They did my training, they passed the competency, they passed the RBT Exam, and they were still working under qualified BCBAs directly in therapy every single day.

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Registered Behavior Technicians as Models in the RBT Training Process

If I were to say one thing that gave the greatest leap in how well we could get new applicants through the process, pass the material, retain the material, and pass both the competency exam (which was a little subjective based on BCBA), and the RBT Exam (which was the be-all objective computer test)- it was the inclusion of practiced Registered Behavior Techs in the 40-hour initial training process itself. They had the viewpoint that a veteran BCBA might not. They went through the most recent RBT Task List updates. They passed their renewal competencies. They knew what these new applicants would have to know not only to pass the competency, but the RBT exam, and prospective employment under a BCBA. They knew it all.  It was late 2017. We had feedback from applicants, we had feedback from post-exam takers, and now we had feedback from the VIP RBTs that were involved in training the new staff.

We had the process down to a well oiled machine. Sometimes we had people slip through the cracks. Sometime we had no calls and no shows. Sometimes people just had test anxiety and had to retake. But the actual practice and feedback from all pieces and perspectives at all levels helped shape it to the form I currently use today. It kept it fresh. I cut out some of the useless parts that didn’t seem to help as well as hands on practice- the discussion board posts. I added more hours into the 40 that were hands on. More terminology usage. More skill transfer checks. Same RBT Task List. Same BACB framework, but with a multi-level feedback and checks and balance system. Everybody had a part to play in the training of the applicants now, and those applicants held on to the things that they would teach to the next applicants that came through once they were RBTs.  Then those RBTs wanted to be BCBAs. Tens. Maybe close to a hundred now.

Three years. Enough time for a graduate program. Enough time for 1500 hours of supervision. Enough time for a BCBA exam cycle. I saw the next generation grow up with ABA right before my eyes.

I love it.

 

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