How the Media uses Motivating Operations on Viewers


Let’s talk about a topic in behavioral science that is often overlooked called Motivating Operations. They happen all the time, and create a need for a behavior to occur which accesses or avoids something. In televised and internet media, organizations use these stimuli to get people to view these programs (and generate ad revenue for the media organization), or become hooked to a continuous chain of watching/viewing/consuming behaviors.

Motivating Operations are useful to this topic because they are a special type of stimuli that momentarily alters the value of the consequences, leading to behaviors seeking those consequences (reinforcers) to increase drastically. In other words, Motivating Operations have a great deal of control over behaviors that seek something out. They are triggers that make seeking out the consequences (in this case, dangerous/fearful or consummatory-related information) much more desirable. Let’s take a moment to break it down and find out how, in this theoretical example.


Value Altering Effects and Behavior Altering Effects

Before we get in too deeply in to how certain media organizations use these Motivating Operations; let’s talk about some of the aspects in play simultaneously that change the viewers/listeners/readers behavior.

Antecedent Stimulus (the Motivating Operation) The  Respondent’s (reader/listener/viewer) Behavior The Consequence

“Are there flammable liquids falling from the sky nearby? Find out in 10 minutes.”



Observing the media for the next 10 minutes, and then some.


The story is eventually delivered to the respondent.


Take this Motivating Operation for example. Note that it serves as an antecedent stimulus, meaning it happens before the behavior we are looking at, and that behavior is likely the behavior they are targeting to take place. This type of antecedent stimulus does not provide the information itself that would satiate the respondent. In fact, it provides a situation where we very much want to see resolution to, and that resolution is promised to us if we continue to watch/listen/read their interim programming (generating them ad money in the process). So before we even get to this behavior, or the consequence of that behavior, we have two things going on with this Motivating Operation that we track in behavioral science and applied behavior analysis;

A Value-Altering Effect: Where that motivating operation establishes a situation where that reinforcer we are looking at becomes extremely valuable to us. In our example, flammable liquids in the sky are extremely dangerous, and we have a vested interest in knowing about that danger. The Consequence (ie, the news story) is incredibly valuable to us at this point. They hold information we want.

And a Behavior-Altering Effect: This Motivating Operation is evoking a behavior that the responding has in their repertoire. Assuming they have watched/listened/read this type of media before, they are prime to exhibit that behavior in this instance, cued by this Motivating Operation. Maybe it’s clicking to get to the right part of the story, or the right link. Maybe it’s watching/listening 4 commercials before the story comes on. We (the respondents) demonstrate the exact behavior they are targeting.


Creating the Need and Sating It


The reinforcement, the consequence stimulus, we are looking for may outright be terrifying. They could be telling us about a scenario that would be incredibly dangerous; but we are still very curious, because that information would be able to cue behaviors that would benefit our survival. If, however, this information does not contain pertinent information to us, and we (as the respondents) are not in danger, we then escape a potential aversive stimulus and are reinforced by this as well. In either preparation for survival, or news of our safety, we are for the most part seeking either types of these reinforcers once we are presented with that Motivating Operation stimulus. Uncertainty is a common stimulus that humans are wired to want to avoid.

So now we have a situation following the presentation of their Motivating Operations, which we can see some more fictitious examples below:

  • Tune in at 9 to see why your home might not be safe!
  • 10 security weaknesses the new briefing revealed that will shock you!
  • Dangerous neighbors moving in? What could that mean to your family?
  • You will not believe what Unstable Government Official A said about… Find out more here.
  • 5 ways this Billionaire made more money than you, but first, chicken disease in our cities?

In all of these types of scenarios, they set up the respondents, their viewers/readers to interpret the value of that information in a few ways.

Condition A:  Positive Reinforcement Condition B: Negative Reinforcement Condition C: Punishment
They give you information you can use.

It may even be bad news, but it satisfies that curiosity and may also lead you to engage in additional behaviors to adapt, vent publicly, etc. It may even be a schadenfreude situation where the person is reinforced by another’s misfortune.


The information removes a potential aversive stimulus.

You find out you are safe, or even that the threat or problem is not what you may have thought it was.

You avoid the potential problem. The question they posed created a condition where you may have interpreted threat or danger, and this information has (both created and) removed it.

The information you receive is aversive enough to punish future watching/reading.


In this scenario, you are given something so averse that it does not sate your curiosity, and also decreases the likelihood you will follow through on it again in a similar position.


In Condition A: Both the respondent and the media mrganization get something out of it. Assuming reinforcement took place, the respondent got something they needed from it and the media organization got the revenue from the prolonged engagement in that media. That respondent might even return to watch again some time.

In Condition B: Both the respondent and the media organization get something too. Assuming that reinforcement took place, the respondent “feels safer”, they avoided something they did not want and the media organization got the revenue from the prolonged engagement in that media. This respondent might also return to watch/read again.

In Condition C: The media organization may have misjudged the audience, but they still came out on top. The presentation of the Motivating Operation did in fact create that value-altering and behavior-altering effect, they got their views or their clicks. The respondent, however, was not reinforced. They were put off. They are less likely to engage in viewing behavior. A returning consumer is not as likely.

Not Just Once, but a Chain of Motivating Operations

Let’s think about Condition A and Condition B right now. The situation above looks very linear, but you have to keep in mind that during that behavior period, there could have been many additional stimuli that served as  Motivating Operations or Discriminative Stimuli* for other behaviors that the media organization tacked on. The viewers did their initial clicks, reads, ad listening, what have you. But there is a chance to create more opportunities.

  • Are the flammable chemicals coming for you? Tune in at 10:00… Breaking News! Tsunami’s may be coming to places you never expected!
  • You won’t believe what Government Official A said, but first our commercial break. INCREDIBLE PIZZA FOR LESS!

Once the initial story is over, several other Motivating Operations could have been put in place while the respondent was viewing to create a need to resolve other unknowns, gain access to something new, avoid other potential dangers, and answer new questions which have undergone value-altering effects to that respondent (viewer). By creating scenarios of concurrent Motivating Operations, operating at the same time, it potentially creates an ongoing need to consume this programming on a regular basis and as continuously as the consumer can.


Questions? Comments? Leave them below!


To those that are very interested in the topics of antecedent stimuli, like Motivating Operations, you might have heard of another type called a Discriminative Stimulus (Sd). They share very many attributes, and are sometimes hard to tell apart. For the sake of this example, this particular antecedent stimulus, keep in mind that it’s presentation establishes its (the question it asks) removal as a reinforcer. It is not a cue that provides the viewer with the opportunity to engage in a behavior to get reinforcer; it creates that reinforcer by its own presentation. There may be an additional factor/antecedent event of the scenario that creates a discriminative stimulus for a specific type of responding, but that does not exhibit the whole over-arching phenomenon we are talking about here.


  1. Cooper, J. O., Heron, T. E., & Heward, W. L. (1987). Applied behavior analysis. Columbus: Merrill Pub. Co.
  2. Langthorne, P., & Mcgill, P. (2009). A Tutorial on the Concept of the Motivating Operation and its Importance to Application. Behavior Analysis in Practice, 2(2), 22-31.
  3. Laraway, S., Snycerski, S., Michael, J., & Poling, A. (2003). Motivating operations and terms to describe them: some further refinements. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis
  4. Kim, M. J., Shin, J., Taylor, J. M., Mattek, A. M., Chavez, S. J., & Whalen, P. J. (2017). Intolerance of Uncertainty Predicts Increased Striatal Volume. Emotion.

Photo Credits:

  1. Pexels Stock Photos (Kaboompics // Karolina)

Click-Bait Psychology- How To Beat Misinformation

The world of Psychology has a vast appeal to public interest. We all want to know the inner workings of our minds, and the minds of others. We also like that information in a form that is easily accessible, and quick to understand. For better or worse, there is a great deal of psychological information at our fingertips on the internet; but the kicker is that there is also a disproportionate amount of misinformation. I am going to talk about how to get the right information, how you know whether that information you are consuming is supported (founded) or not, and the tricks being used to grab viewers towards misinformation for the sake of monetization (clicks which generate advertisement revenue). We risk taking these assertions and titles as fact, when in truth there may be little evidence to support it.



What Psychology is, and what it is not.

Psychology is a field of study. People who undertake psychological research often have years of coursework under their belt, and when they publish it is often in the form of academic journals which are peer reviewed. That peer review is the important part. It means that other people with the same amount of skill and experience went over the study and found that the methods and findings were acceptable for publication, and (hopefully) replication. This does not mean the study is true, necessarily, but it does mean that the methods and findings pass the rigor that you would expect from empirical findings.

What Psychology is not; unfounded hypotheses based on invented constructs that have not been tested or platitudes. Let’s look at the difference of a few statements that are either founded or unfounded. Founded is based in fact, or at least the seeking of it. Unfounded is speculative, or unsupported by research into real phenomena, and usually entices readers by a reaction. Usually, the unfounded “click-bait” article is created to gather broad interest by using concrete claims that have very little evidence behind them. If you were to compare any peer-reviewed research article to the “click-bait”, you would see a huge difference in how these are written and how the findings are presented. One attempts to explain something by supporting it, the other takes an assumption as fact and generalizes it to get max appeal/shock.

Example Time!

“Based on a 2003 study, Researcher A and Researcher B found a correlation between the color red and aggression levels in teens.”– This is something we could begin to consider founded. We have three big hints:

  • Reference to an actual study. You could read it yourself and come to your own conclusions.
  • The names of the authors/researchers. The reader could look them up, or even contact them for better understanding or replication.
  • The word correlation and not “causes”. This is a big hint that it was actual research with a sample of people. Research often infers, it does not conclude broadly.


“10 Things Men or Women Do Differently! Women/Men ALWAYS…”– This seems unfounded. We have some hints.

  • The click-bait style title. Lists are commonly used to draw in interest to a website or article.
  • The word “Always”. Empirically designed research works on philosophic doubt and evidence in a subject. When something is studied, it is usually done with a sample; a small group of people to represent larger groups. These do not mean that it is a perfect causal effect to be applied to all humanity across time or the entire world.


“Pop-Psych Platitudes” and Title Hooks:

Here are some tricks that are used by “bad”-psychology to get your interest. Hooks. One liners. These are titles and phrases that throw out a topic you could easily agree with, but do not lead you to the “meat” of the matter. That kind of article would not tell you what research it referenced, or even worse, it could misinterpret research to fit a broader and more appealing finding that never existed. A good rule of thumb is; If they can condense 40 pages of research into one statement, you’re probably missing out on the actual findings. They use things called “Pop-Psych Platitudes”; things that appeal to what appears to be a truism and avoid actual empirical findings. Look at some of these examples:

  • Why Your Dog Is Always Right About Your Mate- They Have Senses.
  • Women/Men Choose Better- It’s In The Genes!
  • Read Lies In the Eyes- 5 Big Tips To Liars.
  • If You’re Not Happy, You’re Not Using Mindfulness.
  • Smart People Get Hurt More Easily By Rejection.
  • Every Time You Forgive, Your Brain Becomes Happier.
  • Trust Is Earned, Not Free.
  • 10 Things Anxious People Know.

The titles above have some appealing points to them, don’t they? You could apply them to an experience you may have had before, or a belief you have on a topic. You might really want to affirm that by clicking on it and reading a few persuasive paragraphs on the personal experiences of the writer (these are called anecdotal statements, not research). They appeal to the reader’s biases or personal experiences by using broad language and big claims they want to read. They may reference a single research article to support their claims, but fail to mention the techniques in the article, the sample used in the article, and the actual conclusion of the article itself. They may also have cherry picked a single article (line or paragraph) that had not been replicated by other researchers to support a broad claim. These give the semblance of academic research, but fail several benchmarks of being empirical and trusted as a true representation of a discovered or explored phenomena.

Another big trick is a Title Hook. You remember the trick of putting a number in the title? “8 Things You Won’t Know About Anxiety!”. Just 8? Sure. Why not. We all have time to read 8 statements. Right? Sometimes they will employ a stronger hook to get you to read. “8 Things You Won’t Know About Anxiety! Number 5 Will SHOCK you!”. See what they did there? You are tempted to look at number 5, which leads you through over half of their statements separated by clicks to different pages. Those pages are probably monetized, and most likely have very little in the way of actual facts or research supported claims.


Startup Stock Photos

The Risks of Being Misinformed

There are risks to misinformation. It gives you, the reader, the experience of feeling as though you have learned something, or reaffirmed a belief you had, without the benefit of using real scientific methods and without the benefit of knowing that this topic was rigorously studied. When researchers take a topic, more often than not, they come away with what is called a Null Hypothesis. A Null Hypothesis is the condition in which the researcher could not prove what they set out to prove. That is what real research runs the risk of every time. Not every hypothesis that’s put to the test works out. Many times, a hypothesis has to be refined several times, with multiple caveats. “No, we couldn’t prove that Disorder A coincides with candy bar eating, but we were able to show that Food Additive B might have an effect on a symptom of Disorder A, based on…”. This is the type of wording you would find in the conclusion section of many research based and peer reviewed articles. See how different it is from the click-bait?

Many times research is not instantly easy to interpret, has a conclusion that is not always completely confirmed , and raises more questions than it was set out to answer. But it is the spirit of science. You find correlation, links or connections between factors, but never the always.

If you would like to further your knowledge in psychology, read some articles with true empirical weight, I suggest you take a look at the National Institute of Mental Health’s webpage ( . It has articles free of cost on almost any topic you could have an interest in. I implore you to take a look and see what a truly rigorous study looks like. Much like a good story, it has a beginning, middle, and end that beats out a click-bait unfounded affirmation any day.


Questions? Comments? Reply Below!



  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.
  3. NIMH » Home. (n.d.).

Photo Credits:

  1. Pexels Stock Photos


The Modern Behaviorism


This is going to be a broader piece, and take in to account some of my personal experiences in the field of psychology, at this time. This topic was inspired from a few posts online, and various questions that interns and therapists I supervise have asked me based on their learning in undergraduate Psychology coursework. What it comes down to is: “Isn’t behaviorism outdated? I thought it died out in the 50’s. We’re more than stimulus-response machines.”.  As you might be aware, psychology as a whole has moved in a different direction from the 1950’s, and they are absolutely correct that the modern consensus in all fields view beyond the simple relations of reinforcement and punishment. [1,3,5]

Cognitivism, for example, was born as a kind of backlash to those kinds of simplistic Behaviorist philosophies. Since then, Cognitive-Behavioral theories to therapy, a combination of the two, have taken the greatest root in providing mental health services. So is that the end of it? Is that the extent? Not quite. In my opinion, I believe both far ends of the spectrum will lead to entrenched and nonviable theories. Behaviorists that stick to the Thorndike era mindset are bound to miss out on what usefulness came from the following decades, and on the same hand strict Cogntivists would find themselves battling with the dreaded circular reasoning, unnecessary dualism, hypothetical constructs, and  explanatory fictions. There are two very strong cases for missing the forest for the trees in both of these conditions. One ignores too much, the other risks oversight of what is there by looking for what might not actually be. [1,5,6]

Let’s take some words from B. F Skinner’s own mouth, one of the renown Behaviorist researchers and writers:

“When a person has been subjected to mildly punishing consequences in walking on a slippery surface, he may walk in a manner we describe as cautious. It is then easy to say that he walks with caution or that he shows caution. There is no harm in this until we begin to say that the walks carefully because of his caution. … The extraordinary appeal of inner causes and the accompanying neglect of environmental histories and current setting must be due to more than a linguistic practice. I suggest that it has the appeal of the arcane, the occult, the hermitic, the magical-those mysteries which have held so important a position in the history of human thought. It is the appeal of an apparently inexplicable power, in a world which seems to lie beyond the senses and the reach of reason.”- B.F Skinner (1974). [2]

The concern is clear, as to what might happen if we fall in to traps of circular reasoning and the invention of non-existent causes of behavior and conditions of an individual based on constructs that might not exist. Especially if their definition is circular enough to “explain” itself. But what about the constructs that do exist? What about the biological structures of the brain? What about hormones and neurotransmitters? What about advancements in medicine that has shown viable benefits to mental health? Research has come a long way, and you would be hard pressed in my opinion to find a Behaviorist (Methodological, Radical, or otherwise) that would fully ignore these advancements. [1,3,6]

In light of this, it would be a good time to introduce some more modern concepts and theories in Behavioral psychology, Applied Behavior Analysis, and the Experimental Analysis of Behavior. These are by no means exhaustive, but are rather a few insights in to what Behaviorism is today, and what concepts are used in practice and in the field, beyond stimulus-relations and the ignoring the organism and focusing on the behavior.  There have been vast advancements, many outside of the pop-psychological lime light. It would take entire books to describe each of these concepts to their fullest, so I invite you to research them further to your satisfaction.  Here, are a few of my favorites that might stun old Behaviorists, and shock new Cognitivists alike.


Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA): This is a strictly behavioral (observable, measurable) approach to treatment, but it goes far beyond pigeons in boxes pecking at levers. This approach has shown great empirical and clinical effect with non-verbal and intellectually disabled individuals, as well as a broad scope of learning disorders in children. Not to mention effectiveness in treatment of anxiety disorders and some personality disorders. Focusing on behavioral topics such as reinforcement, shaping, prompting, and motivating/establishing operations, it does have the feel of older behavioral approaches with due regard for medical/physiological processes, and advancements in mental health. [1]

Suggested Reading: 

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

Relational Frame Theory (RFT): You might have heard of B.F Skinner’s “Verbal Behavior” (whose theoretical framework is still used in Applied Behavior Analysis practice), and perhaps the cutting response by Noam Chomsky. Relational Frame Theory was the Behaviorist response to that, decades later. Where Skinner’s approach may not have satisfied Chomsky’s insights in to the human generativity of language, RFT tackles it from a different angle: verbal behavior as a special type of operant behavior; derived relational responding. It bridges a gap in cognitive aspects of the original operant-behavior theory of language, and has growing empirical evidence behind it. [4]

Suggested Reading:

  1. Blackledge, J.T. (2003). “An Introduction to Relational Frame Theory: Basics and Applications”. The Behavior Analyst Today.
  2. Hayes, S. C. (2010). Relational frame theory: a post-Skinnerian account of human language and cognition. New York: Kluwer Acad., Plenum Publ.

Organizational Behavior Management (OBM): This is a growing field where Behavioral theory is extended to the business and larger molar views of behavior, and meta-contingencies across larger groups of people working together. It takes an Applied Behavior Analytic approach to many problems that businesses face, and functional alternatives to success based on observable outcomes. [7]

Suggested Reading:

  1. Geller, E. S. (2003). Organizational Behavior Management and Industrial/Organizational Psychology. Journal of Organizational Behavior Management.
  2. Journal of Organizational Behavior Management. (2006). Journal of Organizational Behavior Management


Questions? Comments? Leave them below!


  1. Cooper, J. O., Heron, T. E., & Heward, W. L. (1987). Applied behavior analysis. Columbus: Merrill Pub. Co.
  2. Skinner, B. F (1945). The operational analysis of psychological terms. Psychological Review, 270-277.
  3. Baum, W. M. (n.d.). Behaviorism, Private Events, and the Molar View of Behavior(Vol. 34, The Behavior Analyst).
  4. Blackledge, J.T. (2003). “An Introduction to Relational Frame Theory: Basics and Applications”. The Behavior Analyst Today.
  5. L. Brink (2008) Psychology: A Student Friendly Approach
  6. Shettleworth, Sara J.(2010)Cognition, Evolution, and Behavior (2nd edn) Oxford Univ. Press
  7. Journal of Organizational Behavior Management. (2006). Journal of Organizational Behavior Management

Image Credits:, Getty Images


Ghostbusters and Behavior Reinforcement

Ready for some Pop Psych?


Let’s take a look at Reinforcement and Ghostbusters, and by Ghostbusters, I mean the 1984 film written by Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis. In the start of the film we are introduced to the character Dr. Peter Venkman (played by Bill Murray) in the process of a humorous experiment with two subjects in which he says the phrase: “I’m studying the effect of negative reinforcement on ESP ability.” This is a scene shown in more than a few Psych 101 courses, where it is lambasted for scientific inaccuracy and ethical violation, but there is actually a great deal we could learn about foundational concepts from it.

In the starting scene, Dr. Venkman holds up cards to both individuals, and they are asked to guess what the symbol hidden on the other side might be. When the male subject responds incorrectly, he is given a mild electric shock, and becomes more and more irritated and averse to the experiment. The other female subject, named Jennifer, is never shown the cards true symbols. She giggles, laughs, and gives her best guess and is reported to be correct by Dr. Venkman five times in a row (even though she is not), thus avoiding the shock, and given copious attention and praise for it. The key term here we are going to look at is called Negative Reinforcement, and in the context of the electric shock, is used incorrectly. However, the audience is clearly aware of Dr. Venkman’s true aims, and deception to the subjects, which is where the humor comes in. [1,2]

So what does negative reinforcement mean? A common misconception is that “negative” means painful or averse, when in fact the term relates more to the removal of a stimulus. Let’s compare it to positive reinforcement. [1,2]

Positive Reinforcement: Adding a stimulus, which increases the probability that the behavior it follows will increase in the future. Think of this like a reward. You work a full shift, and you get a paycheck. You’re more likely to work a full shift again. [1,2]

Negative Reinforcement: This is the removal of a stimulus, which increases the probability that the behavior it follows will increase in the future. Think of this like avoidance. If you ask for no onions on your burger, and you’re given a burger without onions, you have avoided the aversive stimulus. You’re more likely to ask for no onions again.  [1,2]

Both positive and negative reinforcement aim to increase the behavior that they follow. Reinforcement is an effect that strengthens behavior. Think of it this way: “Positive” means add a stimulus or stimuli. “Negative” means subtract or remove a stimulus or stimuli. [1,2]


Returning to our example, Dr. Venkman is not interested in demonstrating the effect of negative reinforcement on ESP. He is not accurately tracking any real variables associated with “ESP”, but he is using Negative Reinforcement to some degree. [2]

Remember Jennifer? What behavior might she be exhibiting to avoid the electric shock? Clearly, the target behavior is not guessing the symbol correctly.  Instead, Jennifer is engaging socially with Dr. Venkman, she is giggling, guessing confidently, displaying attention to him, and responding eagerly to his comments and expressions. She avoids electric shock in each of those conditions, so it could be said that her attention is the true target of the experiment. Negative Reinforcement is, in a sense, in effect for the shocks for Jennifer, but so is Positive Reinforcement; her attention, giggling, and eager guesses are reinforced by Dr. Venkman’s added encouragement to continue the experiment. [1,2]

Let’s circle back to his other subject, the male who is being shocked repeatedly following incorrect guesses. Dr. Venkman gives him false encouragement by telling him “you have only 75 more to go!”, following the complaints and visible increase in irritation. Here, Dr. Venkman is using what is called Positive Punishment, which is the addition of a stimulus, the electric shock, following the incorrect guess. It could be said from this limited experiment, that using Positive Punishment was the actual independent variable controlled by Dr.Venkman, and that it’s effect was used to fluster the male subject into leaving. The subject’s attention and responses were punished, leading to a decrease in that behavior and the male subject leaving the experiment early. [1,2]

Ethically, very dubious experiment, but its comedic effects do demonstrate some actual psychological (and behavioral) phenomena.


Questions? Comments? Leave them below.



  1. Cooper, J. O., Heron, T. E., & Heward, W. L. (1987). Applied behavior analysis. Columbus: Merrill Pub. Co.
  2. Murray B., Aykroyd, D., Weaver S., Ramis H., Moranis R., Columbia Pictures Industries (Film). (1984). Ghostbusters. Burbank, CA. RCA/Columbia Pictures Home Video.

Photo Credits:

Behavioral Extinction and Extinction Bursts

There a few interesting phenomena we study in behavioral psychology when it comes to the reduction of maladaptive (“bad”) behaviors by their consequences. The process by which a behavior is reduced or eliminated by removing the factors that maintain or reinforce it, is called extinction. That is the end goal. Sometimes it works quickly, and other times it doesn’t. The challenging part is figuring out why.

Where it all starts is in a framework called functionalism. In this framework, we see certain types of behaviors as “operants”; meaning that they operate on their environment in order to accomplish something. They are a response with a purpose. What functionalism does is to take these behaviors, in whatever form they are in, and use the context of the situation or repeated situations, to hypothesize why they may be exhibited by the person. In other words, to find the function of the behavior.



The process of extinction is necessitated by knowing the function of the behavior. Extinction works by removing that reinforcement- those maintaining factors of the maladaptive behavior; the thing it is functioning to get, in order to make it useless. Behaviors that do not achieve their function, decrease, and are replaced by more adaptive or useful learned behaviors. This is a basic concept in behavioral science. It’s useful to note that the function of a behavior might not always be apparent, or easy to discern. Sometimes it takes several instances of the same behavior in similar situations to see what the function of that behavior is.

Let’s preface examples with the 4 most common functions of learned (operant) behavior: Escape, Access (Items/Activities), Attention, and Sensory. Most behaviors are governed by these either individually, or in combination. “Control” over specifics of these functions are also theorized to be included in the exact conditions that are preferable to the individual.


Now for some examples:

A child in a grocery store wails and grabs for candy bars on the shelves every time they go to the store.

What’s the maladaptive behavior? Wailing and grabbing.

What might be the hypothesized function of that behavior? Access (to the candybars).

It might be that somewhere along the line, that behavior was reinforced by that candybar being given to quiet the crying, or even that candy bars are a common reinforcer to crying behaviors. The history is useful to know, but not the most important feature in decreasing this behavior; the function is.

What we could do to stop the crying and grabbing is to give the candy bar. This is not extinction. Extinction is when a behavior is weakened and is unlikely to happen again. Giving the candy bar is actually going to satisfy the behavior and reinforce it (strengthen it), by what’s called reinforcement and satiation. It’s satisfying it, making that function stronger. The crying stops, this time, but next time it will be back because it was useful.

So what would an extinction procedure looks like? That would be denying or depriving the function. The crying and wailing would NOT receive the candy bar. Not this time, or every time after. As the crying and grabbing would no longer achieve the candy bar goal, it would decrease, giving the opportunity to teach a replacement behavior that could receive a candy bar (asking nicely, etc).

Here’s another.

An adolescent does a great job when it comes to completing their Math, English, and History homework, but every Tuesday when they’re given Music homework on their clarinet, they tantrum and throw their bookbag.

What is the maladaptive behavior? The tantrum and throwing of their book bag.

What might be the hypothesized function? Escaping the Music homework is most likely. (Remember: Don’t jump to the “Attention” guess too quickly unless you see a beneficial social effect from other people in the situation).

It might be, that when the adolescent screams, yells, and throws their bag, they get a stern talking to, but never actually have to do that music homework afterwards. (This is also a situation where Time-Outs often fail). The screaming stops, the throwing stops, but this is not extinction. Again, it’s reinforcement and satiation. The music homework never gets done, so it’s been effectively escaped. The function of escape is satisfied. Next Tuesday, you would probably see this behavior occur again when the new fresh homework is assigned.

So what would an extinction procedure looks like? Again, denying or depriving the function. The screaming and throwing of the bag would not receive that out from the homework. Guardians or parents might continue to present the homework option, or a variation including help, but that total escape would not occur. In the following situations, those screaming and throwing behaviors would again be met with a consistent presentation of the homework demand (modified or otherwise), and would decrease the screaming and throwing because they do not work, or achieve their function. Here, skills such as taking a small break, breaking the homework down into manageable steps, or even requesting help would be feasible options for replacement behavior.


It just made it worse!…Not really. That is an Extinction Burst.

In an ideal world, that pattern would happen every single time. This is for the most part true, but there is a phenomenon called an Extinction Burst, which throws a wrench into the extinction process, as a treatment. An Extinction Burst is related very closely to the function of the behavior. When the function of the behavior is not achieved, sometimes the behavior increases in intensity and frequency in order to regain that pattern the person was used to. The behaviors actually become worse than before.

This is where teachers, guardians, parents, and even behavioral professionals, want to give up. Why try something that is making it worse? As an old adage goes, sometimes things get worse before they get better. An Extinction Burst is actually a sign of functional weakening. It is a last push of that function’s expression through that behavior. The last vestige of that behavioral pattern being the “fittest” of its repertoire to succeed. If the extinction continues, the burst ends, and that is when a replacement behavior is most likely to be able to be taught.

So what would an extinction burst look like in our previous scenarios?

In scenario #1, with the child and the candy bar. Parents/Guardians might refuse the candy bar and then see the Extinction burst. Grabbing becomes more aggressive, screaming becomes wailing, gasping, sobbing, and lasts longer.

In scenario #2, the adolescent with the music homework might scream louder, use harsher language, throw property harder, and exhibit longer durations or frequency of the destructive behaviors.

Giving in to the behaviors here, satisfying their function, would be easy for most guardians/parents. Unfortunately, it is exactly the purpose of those behaviors and the burst. Extinction Bursts are an effective adaptation. Maybe not prosocial, or useful in the longer term to the individual, but the increase in intensity pays off, from an evolutionary or phylogenic perspective.

The Extinction Burst would end if it is deprived and replaced, and very quickly if there is a replacement behavior that is effective to a degree that would be useful across the lifetime and society. Behaviors that have been useful for longer periods take longer to extinguish, and often have their extinction bursts. It is not an easy process for entrenched maladaptive behaviors with longer histories of success with their function. Certain behaviors (“Please!”/ “Thank You!”, “I need a break from this”), may have less stark effects than their maladaptive counterparts at first glance, but the fact they are useful across almost all situations in the person’s life makes them more likely to be reinforced by consequences in more settings and across a longer span of time.

Comments? Questions? Write them below!


  1. Cooper, J. O., Heron, T. E., & Heward, W. L. (1987). Applied behavior analysis. Columbus: Merrill Pub. Co.
  2. Lerman, D. C., & Iwata, B. A. (1995). Prevalence of the extinction burst and its attenuation during treatment. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 28 (1), 93-94.
  3. Ducharme, JM, Van Houten R. Operant extinction in the treatment of severe maladaptive behavior: adapting research to practice. Behav Modif. 1994 Apr;18(2):139–170

Photo Credits: (users: martakoton, AxxLC, geralt).

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:

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!