Symbols and Notation in Behavior Analysis


Symbols and notation in behavior analytic research is fascinating. I find myself thrilled coming across the diagrams in the professional literature and getting so much from so little. A few letters, an arrow, a nice Δ (delta); it’s beautiful. If you are familiar with journals like the Behavior Analyst, The Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis (JABA), or The Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior, you might have encountered some of these symbols. Now what these symbols and notations do, is help take large concepts like a Response, or Stimulus, or Reinforcement and Punishment, and lay them out into an orderly system of presentation without the need for paragraphs of explanation. Let’s look at this one for example:


It shows some very common symbolic notation.

S, stands for stimulus.

The arrow, stands for “followed by” or “elicits” depending on whether it’s operant or respondent.

R, stands for response.

These are the foundational pieces of behavior analytic symbol and notation. I’ve created a chart below to show you these and some of the other variations you might come across.


We can see some interesting variations between the notation symbols, mainly when it comes to how we use them in terms of conditioned and unconditioned. When we are talking about stimuli and responses that are not reinforcers/punishers, we use the abbreviations; S for Stimulus, R for Response, C for conditioned, and U for unconditioned. The status of the stimulus or response as either conditioned/unconditioned always comes as the first letter of the initialism.

When we talk about reinforcement, punishment, discriminative, and delta, the S for stimulus always comes first as a capital letter, followed by the type of stimulus in superscript. Now, unlike the basic conditioned/unconditioned stimuli/responses above, these superscripts use capitalization to distinguish between a conditioned reinforcer/punisher, and an unconditioned reinforcer/punisher, so remember to keep an eye out for that. Unconditioned punishers and reinforcers use a capital letter in superscript, while conditioned punishers and reinforcers use a lower case letter in superscript. Following the conditioned/unconditioned formatting, we distinguish between “positive” and “negative” by using + for positive reinforcers and punishers, and – for negative reinforcers and punishers.

This is very helpful when we want to nail down exactly what kind of contingencies we are seeing. You may remember that reinforcement is a process where a behavior is more likely to occur in the presence of an antecedent, because it has been reinforced in the past in those conditions. What that kind of reinforcer was, is important. Was it unconditioned? Things like food, water, etc. The basics things we as humans seek out naturally.  They are very effective, but can become subject to satiation. Now what about an unconditioned reinforcer? Something trained, or taught, through past experience. Money is a common one, tokens as well, or even art. The distinction between conditioned and unconditioned is no small gap, conceptually, so we want to be clear when we read these symbols as to what we are actually talking about.

Now that we have the symbols, let’s combine what we know to examine this example!


We would read this as, a Stimulus (S) is followed by a Response (R) which is followed by the presentation of an Unconditioned Positive Reinforcer SR+.

What kind of examples can you come up with? Leave them below!






Sundel, M., & Sundel, S. S. (2018). Behavior change in the human services: behavioral and cognitive principles and applications. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, Inc.

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