Social Data: Getting the Most of Your Polls, Questionnaires, and Surveys

Economical stock market graph

Self Report Studies:

Self-report studies; you see them all the time online: surveys, polls, and questionnaires. You even see them on your receipts after you order a coffee. Your opinion counts. People want your social data. Some of these are used for marketing, and others are just done for the fun of it.

The reason they are called Self-Report Studies is that they rely on that group to give their own interpretation or information on the subject. The information that the group provides (or self-reports) is called data. Data, especially social data, is important to a lot of people because it gives a voice to a target audience. Many social media networks (Facebook, Twitter, etc) now give their users the ability to do their own self-report studies with only a few clicks of a button. Here are some tips to make sure yours are made with a scientific understanding of the principles!


A sample is the selection of a population that you are using for your study (poll, questionnaire, etc). These are the respondents to your self-report study. They are the ones providing your data. Since they make up the entirety of the feedback you will be receiving in your study, you probably want to get the most out of your sample, right?

There are two main ways you can do this. Scope of your study, and size/diversity of your sample.

Scope: The scope of your study, or poll, is the breadth of information you are looking for. It is the net you are casting to catch the information on your topic. [1,2]

You can use a narrow scope: using a topic that is relevant only to the select population you are targeting “Hello, Members of the Elephant Watching Club! Which is your favorite type of elephant?”.

Or, you can use a broad scope: using a topic that has broader relevance on a larger topic: “Hello, Members of the Elephant Watching Club! What do you think about Politician A?”

You might have noticed something in those examples. The survey is only able to track the Members of the Elephant Watching Club. The Elephant Watching Club is the extent of their sample. If the person wanted to get an answer that applied specifically to members within that club, then they would be fine with either scope; just so long as they did not interpret that as an example of a broader population. This leads us to the next one: size/diversity. [1,2]

Sample Size/Diversity:  This refers to the size of your sample, and the diversity of people/opinions within it. If you want to, say, get a representative sample for the United States of America, would you only sample the Elephant Club? Probably not! They most likely do not have the diversity or size to be of use. You would want a sample that is representative, or represents, the diversity in opinion of the target audience you are inferring from.

This may sound difficult for polling. How would you do it? Many researchers use what is called a “Random Sample”, which is a sampling method that gives every member of a population being studied an equal chance of being selected for that sample. It gives broader reach, as well as less hand-picking by the researcher which could lead to bias. If this is something that your current self-report study media does not do, try and adjust your topics to account for Scope, and Sample Size/Diversity! [1,2]


Tip! Target your self-report study to fit closely to your sample! Know the population you are studying and gear what you are looking for to fit within that group.

 Desk office business financial accounting calculate, Graph analy

Types of Questions:

There are two types of questions used in self-report studies: Open Questions, and Closed Questions.

Closed questions are questions which provide a limited choice, especially if the answer is taken from a predetermined list. This provides what is called quantitative (numerical) data, but do not allow the participant to give in-depth insights. They are “closed” because they give the respondents a pre-selected set of options to choose from. Polls often used Closed Questions for numerical data. [1,2]

  • Examples: “Pick your favorite ice cream from the following list: Vanilla, Chocolate, Strawberry”. or   “Do you like apples? Yes or No”.

Open questions are those questions which invite the respondent to provide answers in their own words and provide what is called qualitative data.  These questions give you more in-depth answering in the respondent’s own words, but do not allow you to quantify them as easily and compare them to others. They are “open” because the answer may be anything the respondent writes down or replies with. Questionnaires and Surveys include Open Questions for respondent-detailed replies. [1,2]

  • Examples: “Tell us what you think about our service?” or  “What about the apple grove did you like best?”


Social Media Example: A Poll would be Closed Question Data. The replies written by users would be Open Question Data.

Each type of data has its own benefits and drawbacks. You would want Closed Questions to provide you data that you could numerically analyze quickly. Everyone responding has the same answers, so it is like comparing apples to apples (so many apple examples…). But, if you wanted a more nuanced answer for the sake of feedback that did not have the same comparability, you could use Open Data to get more detail from your sample. [1,2]


Tip! Use the data that fits the type of output you want most. Want descriptive feedback (which you do not need to represent in a graph)? Use Open Questions. Want to make a graph and get numerical data? Use Closed Questions.


That’s Mean! (Median, and Mode):

Now let’s talk about some data analysis we can use for quantitative (numerical) data. You might get many responses from your sample that you’ve tailored both the scope, and sample size/diversity for maximum accuracy! What now? Now that you have the data, it’s time to interpret it. Sometimes the media or software you are using would do this for you. If not, take notice of these three terms: Mean, Median, and Mode.  These are what are called “Measures of Central Tendency”, and are used in statistics. If you want to know what most people in your sample are responding, while avoiding fringes; these might be useful to you. [1,2]

Mean is the average of the group of scores you get back. All numbers/responses being equal, this is taking all of them and finding the average response. You do this by adding up all the scores, and then dividing by the sum of the scores. [1,2] It looks like this:

  • Scores: 1, 3, 5, 3, 8. Mean (Average)= 1+3+5+3+8, then dividing by 5 (the number of scores) to get 4.

Median is taking the middle value or score when the responses are arranged from lowest to highest.  [1,2] This gets you a representation of the “middle guy” in the group, and looks something like this:

  • Scores: 1, 3, 3, 5, 8. Median= 3.

Mode is the score that occurs the most within your responses. When you want to see which exact response was chosen over the others, you can look at mode.  [1,2] It looks like this:

  • Scores, 1, 3, 5, 3, 8. Mode= 3. 3 was chosen twice.


Tip! Use the measure that gives you the most out of your self-report study! Mean (Average) is the most common you will see and is well liked for easy data output. Mode is when you are curious about the dead center respondents in your sample. Median is what you want if you are curious about the popularity of a specific answer being chosen.


Oh no! Response Bias:

You’re doing great! You have your sample, you have your scope and representative size/diversity, and now you even have your quantitative measures of central tendency! What could go wrong?

Well, sometimes the people responding. Their bias, or factors that influence how they pick selections in a self-report study, can give us skewed or inaccurate results. Sometimes we are able to adjust our self-report study ahead of time (by wording questions a certain way) to mitigate this, and other times it is simply a part of it. Keep in mind that when ever someone is responding to a survey or poll, it is their interpretation that makes up the data; it is not a direct observation of reality. [1,2] Here are some types of biases that you should be aware of:

Self-Serving Bias: This is when successes are attributed to internal factors (themselves) and failures are attributed to external factors (others). [1,2]

  • Example of a question susceptible to Self-Serving Bias: “Do you feel as though you have been passed over for a job for someone less qualified than you?”

Acquiescence Bias:  This is when respondents say “yes” based not on the question, but rather on the favorability of that response (even though it may be anonymous) to the studier.  [1,2]

  • Example of a question susceptible to Acquiescence Bias: “Look at this pic! Am I pretty today? Yes or No!”

Extreme Responding Bias: This is where respondents prefer to pick the most extreme responses possible from a selection. (ie. Something is “literally the best/worst!”). [1,2]

  • Example of a question susceptible to Extreme Responding Bias: “On a scale from 1 to 10, how good was that episode of TVSHOW?” 10! 10! 10! 1! 10!

Social Desirability Bias: In this one, people respond with the most socially appropriate (or inappropriate) answers that conform to the expected desirability of the group or studier. [1,2]

  • Examples of questions susceptible to Social Desirability Bias:  “Do you give to charity? Yes or No”, “Do you ever have rebellious instincts?? Yes or No!”

Do you see how these biases may affect the interpretation of data? Keep them in mind!


Tip! Know your audience, and know your questions. Even one favorable (or unfavorable) word in a question could get your respondents to reply according to these biases. Think about what type of biases may be expressed when answering your questions.


Get it Valid and Reliable:

There is one more important thing when you are studying a topic in social science: Validity and Reliability. These are factors that the person studying and presenting the self-report study should build in as best as possible before sending out their self-report materials to the world. These factors are what you use to make sure that you are studying something real, and that you are studying it accurately! [1,2]

Validity is the ability for a test/study to measure what it is intended to measure.  An example of this might be, if you are trying to study something like people’s opinions on a specific topic, does your question cover it, and is that question worded to target the topic specifically? [1,2]

  • Example: We are studying whether people enjoy the taste of chocolate. We ask “Do you enjoy the taste of chocolate?” 76% say yes! So long as everything is defined and specific, we could call this valid. 76% of respondents enjoy chocolate.
  • Non-Example: Whether people enjoy the taste of chocolate. We ask “Do you like sweet foods?” 84% say yes!, and in our study we conclude that that 84% of people enjoy chocolate. Wait a minute. Was that our question? Was our question tailored to fit the validity of the study? We used Sweet in our question, but we concluded on the factor of Chocolate. This is not valid.

Reliability is the ability of our test to yield (nearly) the same result each time we test with it. If we are able to test a sample with these questions, and provide an alternative test (on the same topic), we would get similar responses both time. The reason we need this is to be sure that it is not a fault or mistake in the test that is giving an inaccurate conclusion. Sometimes biased-wording, text errors, or jargon, can lead to responses being skewed or erratic. If 2 tests, or the same test twice, can get stead and similar responses from the same population, then we know that variability in responses is based on the respondents, and not our questions. [1,2]

  • Example: If you run the Chocolate Preference Test twice, and the first set of responses equal 80% while the next equals 81%; this is as close to reliable as you might be able to expect.
  • Non-Example: If you run the Chocolate Preference Test twice, and the first set of responses equal 17%, while the next equals 54%; there is something wrong. Assuming this is the same sample or even population, you might want to look at your test as a factor which influenced results incorrectly.

Both of these methods assure that you, the designer of the study, are not including factors that could effect the results you get. You want your results to match the respondents, not artifacts (unrelated data) embedded in your questions.


Tip! Test and re-test. If you have an audience, rephrasing questions on the same topic and presenting them again may get you a better picture when you keep validity and reliability in mind.

Questions? Comments?



  1. Wood, S. E., Wood, E. R., & Wood, E. R. (1996). The world of psychology. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.
  2. Cooper, J. O., Heron, T. E., & Heward, W. L. (1987). Applied behavior analysis. Columbus: Merrill Pub. Co.

Photo Credits:, (Luis Llerena, Kate Serbin)

Psych Terms: Stimulus Pairing

What is Stimulus Pairing? What why is it important? I would describe it this way. If you wanted to understand the foundation of how we learn (or any creature with a complex nervous system or brain), then stimulus pairing would be one of the first building blocks of the process you would come across. It explains the process of our reactions and future interpretation of stimuli in our environment. To understand it; let’s start with the original researcher Ivan Pavlov, and his discovery: classical conditioning.


Classical Conditioning

Classical conditioning (or respondent conditioning) is a learning procedure in which a biologically potent stimulus (like water, food) is paired with a previously neutral stimulus (in Pavlov’s case; a bell). It also can refer to the learning process that results from this kind of pairing, through which the neutral stimulus (the bell) comes to elicit a response/reflex (like salivation) that is usually like the one elicited by the potent stimulus. [1,2,3]

These were first studied in detail by Ivan Pavlov through experiments with dogs. Together with operant conditioning, classical conditioning became the foundation of behavioral psychology (behaviorism).

Review of Pavlov’s experiment:

Pavlov noticed that his dogs began to salivate in the presence of the researcher who normally fed them, rather than simply salivating in the presence of food. Pavlov called these “anticipatory salivations”, and wanted to explore the phenomenon more. To do so, Pavlov presented a stimulus (the sound of a bell ringing) and then gave the dog food. After a few repeated trials, the dogs started to salivate in response to the stimulus. Pavlov concluded that if a stimulus (the ringing bell) in the dog’s surroundings was present when the dog was given food then that stimulus could become associated with food and cause salivation on its own. This is the gist of stimulus pairing. [1,3]


Stimuli (and Responses) in Stimulus Pairing

Pavlov called the stimulus being paired the conditioned stimulus (CS) because its effects depend on its pairing with food. He called the food the unconditioned stimulus (US) because its effects did not depend on previous experience. This same terminology is also used for responses! They can both be conditioned (trained by stimulus pairing), or unconditioned (“natural”, “reflex”). [1,3]

Example Time!

Unconditioned Stimuli- Food, water, sleep, light, temperature, et cetera. These are all considered “unconditioned” because we do not need to be taught to react to them. Many of these are either biological necessity or things that we respond to reflexively.

Conditioned Stimuli- These are things that are “learned” or take on new meaning by being paired with one of those unconditioned reinforcers. Let’s use a food example again. You hear a jingle, or advertisement, for your favorite restaurant. It may take on the effects of that previous experience with the food.

Unconditioned Response- Examples of these are more often than not reflexes. Your pupils widening to light. Salivation when in the presence of food. These are untrained and happen regardless of history.

Conditioned Response- These are trained responses. Remember that food example with the conditioned stimuli? The food jingle. A response to that might be salivation, or seeking (appetitive) behavior for that restaurants food. These are commonly seen with phobias or aversions as well. If you get in to a car accident in your red car, your response in the future might be to react with panic or anxiety in the presence of another red car.


Make sense? What other scenarios can you think of? What stimuli have you been conditioned to?


Comments? Questions? Write them below!



  1. Cooper, J. O., Heron, T. E., & Heward, W. L. (1987). Applied behavior analysis. Columbus: Merrill Pub. Co.
  2. L. Brink (2008) Psychology: A Student Friendly Approach
  3. Shettleworth, Sara J.(2010)Cognition, Evolution, and Behavior (2nd edn) Oxford Univ. Press

Photo Credits:

Psych Terms- Stimulus Control

Stimulus Control

The term we are going to talk about today is a pretty important one; Stimulus Control. It’s a term used in behavioral psychology (behaviorism) to describe the relationship between an antecedent stimulus (setting, etc), and the control (or altering effect) it has over the behavior that follows it.  Another way to phrase it is, stimulus control is a phenomenon that occurs when an organism behaves one way in the presence of a stimulus, and differently when it is not present. [2]

The stimulus itself in this situation is called the discriminative stimulus (sometimes written as SD ). A discriminative stimulus is a stimulus in which a prior behavior had undergone either reinforcement (strengthening its future use) or punishment (weakening its future use) in the past, leading to how that behavior is adaptively used in a condition (stimulus) that is similar to it in the future. We are describing what factors have a controlling effect on behavior, due to their history. [1,2]

So, in the presence of this discriminative stimulus, a behavior might exhibit changes in frequency, duration, amplitude or intensity, and how quickly or slowly it occurs following that discriminative stimulus.  [1,2]

Let’s look at some examples:


Let’s say the discriminative stimulus is an itch. The person has a history of relieving that itch successfully by scratching it. So, what behavior (response) comes under stimulus control of the itch? Scratching. In the presence of the itch, the scratching behavior is likely to occur. That, is stimulus control.


How about this one? It’s now 7 PM on a Thursday. In the past, at 7 PM on Thursdays, a favorite show comes on television. What behavior (response) might come under stimulus control of that discriminative stimulus (the favorite show being on)? There might be a few, or a chain, you could say;  sitting down, turning on the TV, flipping to the channel. All of these behaviors are under the stimulus control of it being 7 PM on a Thursday, and having been reinforced (rewarded) in the past.

How many conditions can you think of that would show this relation? Plenty, right?

Countless behaviors fall under stimulus control. That’s what makes it such a fascinating  topic and definition.


Questions, Comments? Leave them below!


1.Baum, William M. (2005). Understanding behaviorism : Behavior, culture, and evolution

2. Cooper, J. O., Heron, T. E., & Heward, W. L. (1987). Applied behavior analysis. Columbus: Merrill Pub. Co.

Photo Credits:

Up Your People Watching Game- With Science

It’s all about the non-verbal cues.

You’ve heard the Dr. Mehrabian quote, right?  “Communication is only 7 percent verbal and 93 percent non-verbal.”. [1]  Well, according to his work, there’s a lot to be said about what goes unsaid. Out of that 93%, 55% is body language, and the other 38% is tone of voice. The funny thing is; we’re already doing it all the time. We pick up on these cues without even being aware of it. Think about your text conversations versus speaking to someone in person. Is it the same? Do you get the same depth of understanding? Probably not! [1,2]

We give off cues, or hints, during our interactions that act in the same way as verbal communication. We are constantly showing, or in some cases hiding, behavioral representations of our internal states (like emotion), that give a wealth of context and information that could be better used in understanding a speaker.


The possible historical and evolutionary reasons for it.

Evolutionary theory has a big role in psychology. When people are born with innate abilities to understand one another, we want to understand why, and where it came from, right? If we look at this through an evolutionary theory lens, let’s take in to account all the other creatures on this planet that communicate to one another. Do they have as complex a language system as we do? No. Then how do they do it?  Non-verbals. Body language and tone.  [1,2]

Take other primates for example. A sneer, a lifting of the lip, narrowing of the eyes, and baring of the edges of the teeth is a universal signal. It’s a gesture of aggression, or defensive posturing. One way or another, persisting with a creature that’s sneering is likely to go bad. What about cats? Have you seen them pull their ears back, bare their teeth, and hiss? It’s another non-verbal gesture that tells us the same signal:  back off. [2]

Now back to us. Think about our expressions. There are many of them, and not only that; these expressions are innate. In 1966, Dr. Paul Ekman did a study across the world to compare the uniformity of expressions across humans and cultures that had never met or been introduced to one another. Even distant tribes (The Fore) in Papua New Guinea.  His findings showed that there were facial expressions, universal ones, that had the same meanings in every single society and people studied; “Anger, Disgust, Fear, Happiness, Sadness, and Surprise.” [3]. When showed pictures with these facial expressions, people were able to identify each of those expressions with emotions, without being taught their meaning. It’s innate to us humans to be able to read the faces of others, regardless of what language they speak. [1,3]

That being said, there are some non-verbal gestures that are learned as well, and have different meanings across countries and cultures. The raising of certain fingers, for example, could have harmless connotations in one place, and be seen as vastly rude in another. Keep culture in mind. [1,3]

man sitting on chair. Isolated white background. Body language. picking nonexistent lint

How Body Language and Cues Work

Let’s preface this. Reading body language and cues follows the same rules as communication with language; sometimes you can interpret them correctly, and sometimes you can interpret them incorrectly. Non-verbal cues take both listening for tone, and visual contact with the communicator in order to piece together the broader picture. Research and experts on the topic, have given us some simple ground rules that can help minimize these misinterpretations. [1,2]


  1. Look at the Gestures and Cues in Clusters-  Think about it this way. One word can convey a small amount of meaning, but a sentence can convey much more. It’s context and finding how it all fits together. When reading gestures and cues, you need that same amount of context. If cues are data, you want as much as you can get before jumping to conclusions.

    Misinterpreting Clusters:
    “Oh! They looked at me from across the room! This must mean that they are secretly interested!”.

    Does it? Could one glance, which may have been accidental, be a certain sign? Maybe it’s best to get a broader picture of more non-verbal behavior that follows. [1,2]

  2. Congruence with Words.-   When what someone is saying is not matching their body language; it’s a much better bet to go with the body language (clusters, not single movements/tones).
    Misinterpreting Congruence: “They said they were ‘Fine’, but then ignored me for 2 weeks! I wonder what I missed?”.

    Are the words congruent (fitting/matching) with tone, or gestures? An angry face and tone of voice can say much more about a situation than a single word. [1,2]

  3. Context, Context, Context- Take the context in to consideration. Some gestures and motions are brought about by external/environmental stimuli as well, and may not be what you initially interpret them to be.

    Misinterpreting Context: “I see that they crossed their arms over their chest. Clear sign of defensive posturing! I’d better not talk to them… Gee, it sure is snowing pretty hard today.”

    One behavior that could be used to warm yourself in a snow storm could be another non-verbal cue during conversation. It is always important to take context in to consideration, because gestures/non-verbal are not mutually exclusive. [1,2]

Working Examples

The number of gestures we could cover here could cover entire volumes, but here are a few that you can take and use without much practice.

Facial Expressions:

Facial expressions are easy for some people to pick up on, but deciding when to check in on the facial expression of your partner is much more important than simply being accurate when you try. Checking in often gives you the chance to gauge changes in non-verbal cues. Let’s look at some facial expressions below.


Can you discern the message that each expression above is trying to convey? Probably very easily! But let’s focus again on checking in. What would happen if during the course of your conversation, the person’s expression goes from the first expression on the Top Row, to the first expression on the Bottom Row? It may not be as big a difference as Happiness to Anger, but there may be signs of disapproval.

How might you use that observation in your conversation? Change tone? Change topic? Inquire about their opinion? One simple check-in on their facial expression could turn the tide of your engagement with them. What about if they went from the last image on the Top Row to the last image on the Bottom Row? What you might have just said, or a change in a setting stimulus, may have turned a situation of low positive engagement, to a much more open opportunity to engage. [1,2]

Open vs. Closed Postures

Business speech

Take a look at this image above. This has some key components of what is called an “Open Posture”. An Open Posture is a posture in which the vulnerable parts of the body are exposed. The chest is uncovered by the arms, the palms are out, and there is no tensing or covering of the neck. Feet are facing forward and there is also a gap between the legs and a wider stance. Open posture is often perceived as communicating a positive attitude, agreement, or engagement. When someone is poised like this and showing these types of non-verbal cues, you can likely infer interest in their current engagement and their cues of willingness to receive interaction. [1,2]

Using the 3 Rules on an Open Posture:

  1.  Are you looking at the cues in clusters? An open posture, with a high rate of speaking, and positive/affable tone is a good sign that you are interpreting this posture correctly.
  2. Is there congruence? Does the person exhibiting this open posture have the  speaking style to match it?
  3. What about context? Are there any other environmental factors going on that could be causing these cues to appear outside of the role of communication? Culture may also play a role in how often these gestures are exhibited.

Woman crossed arms

What about this picture above? This has some key components of what might be called a Closed Posture. Notice that the expression on the face is not holding direct engagement with any speaker, the arms are crossed protectively across the chest, and the legs/feet are also crossed. As opposed to the Open Posture, which bares “vital areas” to others, the closed posture is protecting and shielding them. Closed posture often gives off impressions of social detachment, disinterest in speakers, and possible hostility. [1,2]

Using the 3 Rules on a Closed Posture:

  1.  Are you looking at the cues in clusters? Closed posture, like the picture above, shows a collection of these features and lends to a higher degree of validity about what it might mean. One crossed arm, or half a crossed leg, may demonstrate uncertainty, rather than anger.
  2. Is there congruence? Does the person exhibiting this closed posture have the  speaking style to match it? Are they speaking at all to the person/people in front of them?
  3. What about context? Are there any other environmental factors going on that could be causing these cues to appear outside of the role of communication? (Cold, for example.). Culture may also play a role in how often these gestures are exhibited.


Nodding is something that most people interpret fairly easily, and in most cultures (but not all) demonstrates agreement. There is a second use to nodding, though. Research has shown that nodding is also used to encourage further interaction. When one person hears something they like, they may engage in repeated nodding in order to encourage the person they are speaking with to continue.

Specifics of the gesture are important, however. Curt (quick and sudden) nodding, may encourage a faster rate of speaking for the purpose of ascertaining a point quicker. Slow nodding with a smile, may simply be encouraging the conversation to continue longer based on the enjoyment of the interaction. [2]

Using the 3 Rules on Nodding:

  1.  Are you looking at the cues in clusters? Could a single nod tell you much of anything? It may be affirmation, encouragement, or rushing a conversation. Other cues could help differentiate this.
  2. Is there congruence? Does the person exhibiting nodding speak, or not? Do they withhold their words while the other person speaks? This may be agreement. Do they nod and interject? This may be rushing the conversation. Two very different purposes.
  3. What about context? Could someone in a group be nodding to just one specific person, over another speaking at the same time?


Proximity, or closeness between communicators is important. When we say closeness here, we are not speaking of emotional closeness, but rather actual distance between people when engaging. Have you heard the term “personal space” or “personal bubble”? In general, there is an area of distance between speakers that “feels comfortable”. When people engage comfortably, it is generally at arms length, without that distance becoming a factor to interrupt the conversation.

Experience with the speaker is also an important factor here. People who know each other longer can be comfortable in closer proximity, than say someone they had just met. Longer distances (2 arms length or more) may show signs of uncertainty or a factor of group dynamics (avoiding intrusion). Crossing into people’s personal space by reaching, is often done briefly, as to avoid a negative reaction. People also may use closing proximity to test the comfort of their speaking partner with their presence (although this is often seen as impolite and may further distance the speaker).

Consider the following situations of proximity/closeness: Shoulder to shoulder sitting beside a friend, and shoulder to shoulder with a stranger in the elevator. These two very different scenarios have two very different outcomes in terms of what interactions might occur between these individuals. Closing proximity may also even be used in threatening gestures or posturing. Judging distance and proximity relies judging other social cues and mediating a safe and comfortable middle ground for both speakers. [2]

Using the 3 Rules on Proximity:

  1.  Are you looking at the cues in clusters?  Someone brushing by another person while walking does close proximity, but there is no sustaining of that proximity. Judging the intention of proximity with other cues is important.
  2. Is there congruence? Is a person crossing the room to speak in a positive and open tone, or aggressive and hostile? Wording may give more information of intent with proximity.
  3. What about context? Proximity is often mediated by crowds, or availability of space. A tight fit in a room may not suggest the person engaging in closer proximity has any intention of gauging closeness, interest, or hostility; it is simply happenstance of the environmental condition.


Let’s get Behavior Analytical.

When you look at behavior, you can not try and study it in a vacuum. Behavior is something that is ongoing, and goes through the processes of reinforcement (strengthening that behavior’s use in the future) or punishment (reducing that behavior’s in the future). Non-verbal behavior follows this same type of adaptation.

When we engage a person, or observe them, their non-verbal cues are both reactions to the environment/speaker, and also operant behaviors (behaviors that act to change or get something) on the environment/speaker. A smile after a compliment is both a reaction to the compliment, and a non-verbal communication to reward that compliment (intentional or not). It creates a chain of reactions and responses that lead in to longer and longer chains. Observing how one stimulus (cue, word) precedes a response (reaction, cue, etc), and then becomes the very stimulus that leads to a response from the original speaker shows us that it is a constant back and forth, each link in the chain both reinforcing and being reinforced (or punishing and being punished), as the conversation or interaction continues. [4].

Keeping that in mind, let’s also talk on what might modify the meaning of some of the cues above.

  • Frequency/Rate- What is the rate of interaction? Is a person engaging in these cues consistently, and how often are they responding to the speaker/situation?  A person engaging quickly with another person, both communicating in cues and words, may show greater interest. Higher rate means more engagement, which leads to higher rates of that interaction being reinforced (or punished, in some cases).
  • Extent in time- How long is the engagement going on? Let’s say you walked up to someone, spoke with them for 20 seconds, then moved on. Do you think that would be enough time to get a broad idea of their communication cues? How about 20 minutes? How might that give us a better idea and practice on picking up on this person’s cues?
  • Locus in time- This is both a factor of time (when), but also latency (how long it takes to get a reply). You might see this phenomenon more in texting, but it also may appear in group conversations. Imagine you speak to a person, and it takes them 5 minutes to get back to you; (assuming your follow the rules and take context into the picture) how might that effect your assessment of their interest?
  • Baseline- This is a very important factor in reading non-verbal communcation, or any communication in general. What information above is consistent with the individual? Do they talk often or less? Do they engage often or rarely? Do they speak slowly or quickly? Changes in these cues can be more important in determining non-verbal factors than the cues themselves. A person who appears calm and confident in posture, suddenly losing composure, gives us emphasis that a person who is erratic in their postures/expressions might not.

Taking all these things in to consideration can give a much broader and more accurate depiction of the people you engage with (or watch), and with a little practice, can improve observation skills in and out of conversations.

Questions, comments, thoughts? Leave them below!


1. Mehrabian, A., & Ferris, S. R. (1967). Inference of attitudes from nonverbal communication in two channels. Journal of Consulting Psychology, 31(3), 248-252. doi:10.1037/h0024648

2. Pease, A., & Pease, B. (2006). The definitive book of body language. New York: Bantam Books.

3.  Ekman, P. (1980). The face of man: expressions of universal emotions in a New Guinea village. New York: Garland STPM Press.

4. Cooper, J. O., Heron, T. E., & Heward, W. L. (1987). Applied behavior analysis. Columbus: Merrill Pub. Co.

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Psych Terms- “The Automaticity of Reinforcement”

Recap time! Do you remember what a reinforcer or reinforcement is? Reinforcement is the process by which a consequence (reinforcer) strengthens the rate of a behavior, in the same or similar context in the future. Learning through success. [1]

Do you also remember the previous subject we were reviewing called “Belongingness” by Thorndike? Belongingness was a “law” which stated that reinforcement/reward or punishment was at its strongest when it worked on responses relevant to the situation. What this might look like is that if a behavior operates on the environment, a reinforcer which matches this context would be stronger than a happenstance reward that followed an unrelated behavior. Context is important, but it does not need to be spelled out, or explained to the organism at the time, for it to be effective.  [1,2]


The Automaticity of Reinforcement

Now to introduce something called the Automaticity of Reinforcement

This phenomenon explains how processes of reinforcement affect us, and have affected us, to learn without exactly being “aware” of it.  Automaticity of reinforcement refers to the fact that behavior is modified by its consequence irrespective of the persons “awareness” of the process or purpose. [1,2]

When we study something like this we should not refer to hypothetical constructs such as “expecting”, “understanding” and “knowing”. This leads to circular definitions of the phenomenon.  The behavior (action) itself is what is reinforced, the person or organism is not. Looking at this through the lens of adaptation; we look at learning as a process by which the (operant) behaviors we use as increasing in the future because they were successful. A consequence of success (reinforcer) followed the behavior, thereby strengthening its future use. [1,2]

It is how we learn to speak, walk, read, and every other process by which we engage in our environments and flourish in life and society. It is all due to our individual histories of engaging in a behavior which is rewarded by circumstance in the environment, or others. Behaviors that are successful, flourish. Behaviors that are not successful, do not. [1,2]


Take these examples:

  1. Jumping over a puddle. A person bends their legs and pushes off with sufficient force to leap and clear the puddle, and their reinforcement is being able to get to the other side (dry). No one needs to tell them they were successful, and they did not need to vocalize “I jumped and I am dry!” for that behavior to be reinforced. If a person jumps as high in the future, it is because of this event providing the reinforcement of that jumping behavior.
  2. A child learning their first sounds. A child may say “aaahhh!” when echoing a parent’s “aaahh”. If this child has no history of language, or the ability to speak, would we need to say that they understood a parent saying “Good job saying ahh!!”? Not at all. The praise of the parent serves as a reinforcer regardless. The tone, facial expression, and social interaction may all serve as reinforcers. If the child is quicker to echo the parent, or engages in more “aaahhh!” vocalizations, we can say that reinforcement has occurred.

At no point, for each of the things we have learned in our life, did we have to engage in verbal behavior to contextualize it, or order ourselves to learn or forget it. We do not say “I was successful, I will remember this”, or “I was unsuccessful, I will forget this.”. Although we may engage in these verbal behaviors to construct a narrative for ourselves later, they do not necessarily have any effect on the actual processes and learning at the time.


Food for thought, how could this process explain the learning of novel skills in novel situations? What about animals without language? Or pre/non-verbal children?


  1. Cooper, J. O., Heron, T. E., & Heward, W. L. (1987). Applied behavior analysis. Columbus: Merrill Pub. Co.
  2. Fraisse, P., & Piaget, J. (1968). Experimental psychology; its scope and method. New York: Basic Books


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Questions? Comments? Leave them below!

Psych History- “Belongingness” in Behavioral Theory

“Belongingness” in Behavioral Theory

First, some context! When we look at behavioral psychology, a great deal of it came up as a philosophical model in the late 19th/early 20th century, which gained traction for the following 60 or so years.

One of these original scientists/psychologists who contributed was named Edward Thorndike (1847-1949), who had a number of contributions to the growing science. Some of his ideas stuck around, and others were refuted by more modern theories and evidence, but one of the more interesting theories was that of Belongingness. [1.2,3]

One of the backbones to the various philosophies of Behaviorism is the theory that operant behaviors act very much in the same sense as evolutionary forces; adaptation is what causes behaviors to come about, because they are functional, and work on the environment to achieve or “get” something. [1,2]

Thorndike had an idea called the “Law of Effect”, and predates Skinner’s work in operant condition, but appears to be studying the same phenomenon: a behavior is more likely to occur when it is rewarded. Belongingess follows this and takes it a step further. [1,3]

Belonginess is a “law” that Thorndike proposed to describe this type of phenomena, and to paraphrase them; “punishment or reward has to be relative to a situation in order to have effectiveness”. For a reward (reinforcer) or punishment to be at its greatest effectiveness, it has to be working on a behavior relevant to the situation. [1]

Let’s look at an example:

Antecedent (Setting Event) Operant Behavior (What behavior is happening) Consequence (Reward, or Punishment)
You are in line at a coffee shop and it is now your turn.


You say “I would like a coffee, please”, and hand them money. You receive your coffee.

Given this situation, and assuming your coffee is as good as you expected, this reward fits a behavior working on the context of the situation, and is more likely to strengthen that behavior to occur in the future, according to the “law of belongingness”.  If a behavior acts to get coffee, and it receives that coffee, then that context lends to the strength of that behavior being learned. [1,2,3]

This theory influence many aspects of the behavioral philosophy and science to follow it, and how reinforcement (rewarding, as it was called then) is effectively used. There is also an interesting effect of reinforcement that Thorndike was not aware of at the time; what is called the automaticity of reinforcement. Look for that one in the next Psych History.

Questions? Comments? Leave them below!


  1. Fraisse, P., & Piaget, J. (1968). Experimental psychology; its scope and method. New York: Basic Books
  2.  Singh, A. K. (1991). The comprehensive history of psychology. Delhi: Motilal.
  3.  Goodenough, Florence L. (1950).Edward Lee Thorndike: 1874-1949. The American Journal of Psychology.


Discriminative Stimulus vs. Discrimination Training

Applied Behavior Analysis can use a lot of jargon and technical terms for things we see day to day, and it’s sometimes necessary to use extra words to put distinct meanings to phenomena we see and study. It’s also important to distinguish between them.

ABA (Applied Behavior Analysis) terminology can be tricky. Today I had someone ask me the difference between an SD (discriminative stimulus) and discrimination training. Both sound alike, and both are on an RBT© exam. They’re very similar in one respect; you want the learner/responder to tell one thing (stimulus) apart from another. The big difference is what.

The SD (discriminative stimulus)

An SD is all about reinforcement availability. When an Sis presented, the response you’re looking for is shown to be in a condition to be reinforced. So, when you see an SD  you would generally engage in behaviors that would be rewarded under that specific condition. Let’s look at some examples!

  • The jingle from an ice cream truck ⇒ Running outside with your money.
  • A friend turning around to smile at you ⇒ Saying “Hi!” and starting conversation.
  • Candles on your birthday cake ⇒ Blowing out candles and hearing Happy Birthday!

Without those discriminative stimuli, those responses/behaviors would be silly, and ineffective, out of context.

Discrimination Training

Discrimination training is used to pick one thing (stimulus) from a group of other things (stimuli) that have similarities. So, for example, if you have an array of colors, being able to pick out blue when asked “Give me blue” (which is an SD as well) is an example of discrimination training. You are able to select a single one from a group based upon preferred, or important differences. Make sense? Let’s look at some examples!

  • You walk in to a pet store full of puppies ⇒ You pick out a labrador.
  • You tear open a bag of fruit gummy bears ⇒ You pick out the delicious red cherry ones.
  • You go to a car dealership to pick out a favorite ⇒ You pick a cool fast sports car.

Questions? Comments? Send your feedback!

What is Reinforcement?


Reinforcement or reward?

Have you ever heard the term reinforcement (in the context of learning or psychology) and wondered what it might mean? Reinforcement, as was originally studied, was a term that came about in behavioral psychology to describe the phenomenon of a consequence event strengthening the behavior that came before it, and increasing the probability of that behavior occurring in the same setting/situation in the future. In essence, it’s a condition that teaches a behavior to occur more often. It’s a cornerstone of learning. [1,3,4]

To help get a good handle on this, let’s break out a time-line:

Step 1 (Before Behavior):
Antecedent· Precedes the behavior.

·Can be a setting or other stimulus (interaction, etc).

Step 2: Behavior

-This is the behavior we are looking at and tracking.

·It is operant. It operates on the environment , or acts on it in some way.

Step 3  (After Behavior):  Reinforcement

· A stimulus following the behavior that is desirable to the person.

Walking into an ice cream shop.
Ordering and paying for an ice cream.
Having and eating the ice cream.

The table above demonstrates a common type of data collection on behavior (called A.B.C), and demonstrates the concept of the three-term contingency. To understand reinforcement of a behavior, you need all three pieces (before the behavior, the behavior, and what happens after). [1,4].

So what makes this different from a reward? Why is the terminology of reinforcement so important? To answer that question, we have to think ahead. A reward can be a one time event. It often follows a behavior that we want to give credit to, but only in reinforcement, are we looking for future evidence that it raises the probability of the behavior happening again. If someone does something and gets a reward, that could be all that happens. If that person continues to do that behavior in a similar setting, following that “reward”, we can call that reinforcement. Reinforcement is all about future behavior from past consequences. [1,3,4].

Looking at this from a learning theory perspective, do you think it is more beneficial to apply a rewarding stimulus before a behavior, or after? Think of this common scenario:

A child is screaming in a shopping cart. A guardian says “Sshhh!! Here, have this chocolate!”, and gives the child chocolate mid-scream. The screaming stops, at least for the duration of eating it. In this situation we see that the chocolate was given before the behavior the guardian wanted to see (quiet, not screaming). But, it was given after the screaming behavior. It is plausible that the screaming behavior will increase in the future in order to get access to chocolate. [3,4]

What about this scenario? A child is screaming in a shopping cart. A guardian says “Sshhhh! If you lower your voice you can have this chocolate.”, and the child eventually stops screaming. The guardian then provides the chocolate, which the child accepts and eats. Here, the chocolate came after the appropriate behavior was demonstrated. It is plausible that the longer duration of quiet, or the act of quieting following the request from the guardian would increase in the future.  [3,4]

Can you spot the difference and importance of when and how reinforcement is used?


Types of Reinforcement

There are as many types of reinforcers as there are stimuli in the environment that people enjoy or desire. These stimuli are practically endless in number, and vary from person to person. There are certain things that naturally reinforcing biologically, these are called Primary Reinforcers. They include food, drink, stimulatory pleasure. Then, there are Secondary Reinforcers. These are reinforcers that are conditioned or learned. They include things like money, reading, music. [1,2,4].

Primary Reinforcer Examples: Food, air,  water, warmth, physical contact.
Secondary Reinforcer Examples:  Money, verbal praise (“Good job!”), high scores or grades, trophies.

That’s not all. There are even variations of Reinforcement itself. If reinforcers are the stimuli, then reinforcement is the method by which they are applied. These come in two forms: Positive Reinforcement and Negative Reinforcement.  When we use these terms, keep in mind that they are not a subjective judgement of “good” or “bad”.  Positive Reinforcement is the addition of a stimulus that would increase future probability of behavior. This could be any of the examples listed above in terms of Primary or Secondary reinforcers. Negative Reinforcement is slightly different. It is the removal of aversive stimuli which increases the probability of future behavior. Both positive and negative reinforcement increase behavior in the future. [1,3,4]

Positive Reinforcement Example: A person says hello, and they are greeted with a smile and handshake.

  • The smile and handshake are added, and will influence future levels of saying “hello”.
Negative Reinforcement Example: A person says “Can you turn that down?”, and the other person turns down their loud stereo.

  • The volume level of the loud stereo is removed, and will influence future levels of requesting to “turn it down”.


Let’s touch back on our original example. There are sometimes situations that give out false positives of reinforcement, or incorrectly strengthen behaviors we do not mean to increase. Think about the first example of the child in the shopping cart:

  • A child is screaming in a shopping cart. A guardian says “Sshhh!! Here, have this chocolate!”, and gives the child chocolate mid-scream. The screaming stops, at least for the duration of eating it.

The screaming stops, doesn’t it? The request for Ssshh!! was obeyed, wasn’t it? Not exactly. There was no time for the child themselves to show any operant behavior towards that request. The chocolate was provided following the screaming, and in fact interrupted it. This is closer to bribery than it is reinforcement, but since for the sake of this situation chocolate is a desirable stimulus, it can still have a reinforcing effect on the behavior that preceded it: the screaming. It is not the request the child learns to follow, it is the continuous screaming that achieved a more desirable condition. [3]

In that moment, both scenarios did achieve limited quietness, but over the longer scope of future trips in a shopping cart, the condition where the screaming was interrupted by chocolate lends itself to higher future rates of it reoccurring. [1,2,3,4].

Reinforcement can be accidental, and the learner can even be totally unaware of it happening. It does not require conscious effort, awareness, or focus in order for this type of learning to occur, either. In each case, behaviors are strengthened by the placement in time of the reinforcer (and its effectiveness/desirability as a reinforcer). Too soon, and you may strengthen an unintended behavior. Too late, and you may miss the chance for that reinforcer to have an effect. [2,3,4].

Questions? Comments? Write them below!




1] Skinner, B. F. About Behaviorism. New York: Knopf; 1974.

2] Ferster, C.B., & Skinner, B.F. Schedules of reinforcement. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts; 1957.

3] Mowrer, O. H. (1960). Learning theory and behavior. New York: Wiley.

4] Skinner, B. F. (1965). Science and human behavior. New York: Free Press.

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The Four Big Functions of Behavior


The Function of Our Behaviors

When we look at patterns of behavior, they can for the most part fall in to four categories: Access, Escape, Attention, and Sensory.  Why do we do what we do?  And why do we do it again? The study of the functions of human behavior, and the factors that make up the modern science of behavior analysis are could fill a library. This is just a brief glimpse in to the topic of functional relations, and the four functions.

Before we get into that, let’s get into this.

Have you ever heard of the choice-supportive bias? The gist of it is, we make a choice, and then later ascribe either more positive or negative rationalizations to it as though it were the actual reasons for the choice itself. We, in essence, attribute a more complex reasoning process to our choice for the sake of a narrative. This is a process that takes place after the behavior occurred.  Great for imaginative and alluring story-telling, but not great when we want to actually understand what maintains patterns of what we do. [4]

In order to study these maintaining factors without a bias like this, we use what’s called a Functional Behavior Assessment. A Functional Behavior Assessment (FBA) is used to formulate and support theories on the ongoing “functional relations” between behaviors and their environment. A functional relation is a term used to describe that when one event or stimulus (antecedent) occurs, a behavior is more (or less) likely to follow it than it would be random. This is based off of past history of reinforcement (reward). [1,2,3] Behavior is adaptive, it evolves as we gain experiences. One doesn’t just “grow up” and get handed a book of things that we then do; it is a process of behaviors in our past that have worked or not worked for us that gives us the repertoire we have today. Certain medical conditions or physical disabilities exhibit behaviors that are not directly controlled by these functions. Ruling these out first is the best idea before looking specifically at a functional analysis. [2]

Let’s go with an example:

Bob walks to the store. He sees an orange on the shelf, picks it up, pays for it, and gets to eat that orange. The next day, he also walks in to the same store, looks for an orange, and goes through this same process again.

A choice-supportive bias explanation might be that Bob really loves oranges, and that he knew the juiciest most amazing oranges come from that store, and he really loves the people in that store because they are so friendly when he pays, and he saw his friend John there the other day and John is from California, which must mean he remembered something about oranges, etc, etc, etc.

Does that help explain the base question? Maybe. Is it something we can reliably test? Not very easily, and even if we did, many of those factors might be superfluous. In the most common practices of behavioral science, private events (thoughts, feelings, etc) exist, but they provide poor data and are actually subject to interpretation (self-report biases, attribution errors, poor recall, untruthful responses, etc), and are moderators rather than causal. [1,2] We rely mainly on observable events. Setting. The environment and past experience appears to play the greatest role on what we do and why we do it. It can explain these patterns more precisely than recollections which may be subject to bias. [1,2.3] Looking at this scientifically, we want a pattern. Patterns and replication are very helpful when producing theories. [1,2,3]

All we need for the sake of this pattern are 3 things:

The Antecedent (what happens before the behavior): Bob enters the store, and he looks at the orange.
The Behavior (what did Bob do?): Bob purchases that orange.
The Consequence (what did Bob get?):   Bob eats that orange.

From these three things, we can see the first step of the pattern. If he returns to that store, and he sees a similar orange, and buys that orange, we can reasonably say that his behavior was reinforced (rewarded). Reinforcement is an effect on future behavior. It follows an initial behavior and increases the future likelihood of it occurring in similar situations (antecedent settings). The consequence? That was the reinforcement step. Bob ate the orange, and then pursed that same experience the next day or week. If he did not go back to that store, we could say that the behavior was not actually reinforced to any observable effect.

Seeing these functional relations, we can pick apart the factors that hold us to our specific likes or dislikes, or why we do certain things in certain ways. They can help us change these patterns to a more socially appropriate, or even more functional alternative. An example might look like this, if Bob robbed the store instead, he would still access and be reinforced by the orange. Buying the orange was the “better” alternative and satisfied the same function.



Access, Attention, Escape, and Sensory:

Let’s take a look at these four classes of maintaining functions.

Access: This pertains mainly to tangible items. Items we can get. This could be food, vehicles, money, etc. These are things that you can see with your eyes and interact with.

Attention: This pertains to an interaction, praise, or even a signal, from others. This could be a look, a conversation, etc. Any response or increase of awareness from others.

Escape: This function relies on removal of an aversive item, situation, or stimulus related to a prior event which underwent punishment. Moving away from fires, for example. Avoiding interaction with specific people. This function is to get away from something, or avoid it entirely.

Sensory: This function, unlike the others, does not rely on outside factors. These are internal rewards from the body itself. Physical contact, for example.


Are they exclusive? Can’t a behavior be maintained by more than one?

Absolutely, and that is more common than behaviors specifically maintained by individual factors. [1] Let’s take Bob for example, and his orange. You could hypothesize from what we have observed already that his orange buying behavior could be maintained by both Access, and Sensory. Going to that store, he gains access to oranges. While he eats it, it may provide reinforcement through sensory means as well (taste). The hypothesis is the first step of many. Testing each factor, or observing changes in the environment which has an impact on that behavior’s use in the future would yield more and more accurate representations of that functional relation between behavior and environment. [1,2]

Other things to consider.

There is a factor that also decreases the future probability of behavior. It follows the same rules as reinforcement, except that the behavior does not become a stronger habit or pattern, it lessens. In the same way that Bob may go to the store to get that orange, and has been for weeks, one day he might pick up a spoiled orange, and eat that orange. That would have an effect on this pattern of behavior. Instead of strengthening his pattern of buying and consuming oranges, it would either lead to an adaptation of his behavior (checking the orange for spots, for example), or reduce his visits to that store entirely. These are factors that we could track if we were keeping a log of how the setting, or environment, influences his behavior.

Can you think of any examples you could fit in to this paradigm? How about some things that you have trouble fitting? Reach out! Let’s explore it.



[1] Iwata, B. A. (1994). Functional analysis methodology: Some closing comments. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 27(2), 413-418. doi:10.1901/jaba.1994.27-413

[2] Hanley, G. (2012). Functional Assessment of Problem Behavior: Dispelling Myths. NCBI.

[3] Oliver, A. C., Pratt, L. A., & Normand, M. P. (2015). A survey of functional behavior assessment methods used by behavior analysts in practice. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 48(4), 817-829. doi:10.1002/jaba.256

[4] Mather, M., Shafir, E., & Johnson, M. K. (2000). Misrememberance of options past: Source monitoring and choice. Psychological Science, 11, 132-138

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