Is the intelligence barrier real for occupation training?

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This post is more speculative, and an exploration into current research, than a tried and true ABA topic I usually expound on. I saw something that struck me this morning on Twitter. The claim that an individual with an IQ less than 80 could not be trained to functionally work in society. I know for a fact this is not the case, because I’ve seen and worked on it, but I wanted to get my sources down to confront this Tweet.

It was harder than I expected.

I wanted a single consensus of an answer, but unfortunately could not find one. I think I know why, and the answer does not specifically have to do with the IQ scores of the participants, it has to do with how that training is done in relation to the population. We’ll touch on the details of that below.

I have personally worked on hundreds of Applied Behavior Analytic cases, with a broad range of ages, abilities, intelligence, and skills. I have seen more success than I have plateaus. I’ve seen employment aids and training work. The challenge of the process is certainly true, but I dislike the idea of firm impossibilities. This may influence how I first took affront to that Tweet. The research is vast, but the narrative I’ve come to understand does not simply allow an IQ score to determine a cut off for functionality in the workplace. Not exactly. Let’s look at the research I was familiar with:

 

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Rusch & Hughes (1989) in the Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis-  “An Overview of Supported Employment”. They used the common term “Supported Employment” for individuals with disabilities and were focused mainly on those individuals sustaining paid work. The paid work part was fairly important to them, and I’d argue that maintaining paid employment is a reasonable counter to the claim that training is ineffective with the target populations. This study did explore the “place and train” model, which later studies found to be less than optimal, but the findings here did find a measure of success. Some individuals did benefit from these methods. That’s the important finding. They were able to sustain paid work in society. Their terminology for intelligence scoring is a little outdated in this study. We use the term Intellectual Disability these days. They used the terms “mentally retarded”- “mildly”, “moderately”, and “profoundly” specifically. Looking up the diagnostic criterion used at the time, we can see that Rusch and Hughes had the following distribution:

Out of 1,411 individuals with disabilities sustaining paid employment, 8% of these individuals fell within the “mentally retarded” category with IQ scores below 70.

  • 10% of these individuals fell within IQ score ranges of 20-25 (“profoundly mentally retarded”)
  • 45% of these individuals fell within IQ score ranges of 35-55 (“moderately mentally retarded”)
  • 38% of these individuals fell within IQ score ranges of 50-70 (“mildly mentally retarded”)
  • <8% of these individuals fell within IQ score ranges of 70-80 (“borderline mentally retarded”)

So, even with outdated “place and train” models, this study does give us some information on some level of effectiveness that supported training can meet the criterion and disprove the Tweet, and this was as of 1989 referencing successes from decades prior. There are a place for individuals with a vast range of intelligence scores in society. Problem solved, right?

Wait just a minute. There are some challenges in the training process that can not be overlooked. Challenges that might just hint at why people believe that supported training does not work. We see in Rusch and Hughes the successes of certain methods for a small amount of the population. Since then, we’ve seen some longitudinal studies that have raised more questions than they’ve given us answers, and raised more challenges than we thought were there.

 

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Conroy & Spreat (2015)- Journal of Policy and Practice in Intellectual Disabilities

Conroy and Spreat titled their study a “Longitudinal Investigation of Vocational Engagement”, and were interested in how individuals with intellectual disabilities remained employed during a 15 year period from 1999-2004.

An important point I want to bring up first is the concept of Self-Determination, which is the point which all people have to make choices about their lives. An individual, no matter their situation, can make choices about their own lives freely. That includes employment. So when we speak about supported employment, this is due to the individual wanting to work, and maintaining that employment freely.

What Conroy and Spreat were studying were vocational attendance, and quality-of-life data. They found a similar trend in individuals receiving both residential supports and day-to-day supports:

“The overall amount of vocational, prevocational, and nonvocational activities changed sharply during the 15‐year period. Vocational and prevocational activity declined, while nonvocational engagement more than doubled, both in numbers of people and hours. During the same time period, the number of employed individuals consistently declined, as did the total number of hours worked.”- (Conroy and Spreat, 2015)

So we see a trend here where worked hours decrease over time, and nonvocational engagement increased with the studied population. Why could that be? According to Conroy and Spreat, it was due to “segregated forms of vocational activity”. These individuals were not in society working side by side as we saw in the older “train and place” method with Rusch and Hughes, they were doing workshops and prevocational activities separately. Those factors, according to Conroy and Spreat, seemed to have a large effect on the downturn of worked hours.

Again, I see a theme here. The individuals themselves had no innate limitation to working those hours, but the vocational training and workshops appeared to play a role in either the disinterest in maintaining employment, or maybe it was not a good fit for those individuals for that particular skill. That system of separating out workshops and prevocational skills from inclusion with the broader population just did not seem to be effective. So, what is an alternative?

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Lattimore & Parsons (2006)- Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis article titled “Enhancing Job-Site Training of Supported Workers With Autism: Reemphasis on Simulation” was a great find. It had everything I was looking for. I wanted to seek out a (evidence based) reasonable solution that had individuals in the work place (job-site), engaging with the broader population, and had a degree of success. But, they came up with a challenge (and solution to) I had not seen before: Job-Site training alone is sometimes insufficient for quick skill acquisition. Simulation (prevocational training, like what we see used in Conroy and Spreat) added in to the job-site supports seemed to be the key to speeding that acquisition up.

“Job-site training occurred in a small publishing company during the regular work routine, and simulation training occurred in an adult education site for people with severe disabilities. Two pairs of workers received training on two job skills; one skill was trained at the job site and the other was trained using job-site plus simulation training. Results indicated that for 3 of the 4 comparisons, job-site plus simulation training resulted in a higher level of skill or more rapid skill acquisition than did job-site-only training. Results suggested that job-site training, the assumed best practice for teaching vocational skills, is likely to be more effective if supplemented with simulation training”- (Lattimore and Parsons, 2006)

In this study, adults with severe disabilities (the DSM-V IQ score for this population is 25-40) were tested in conditions where on-site community employment training and support were given. Interestingly, both were effective, but skill acquisition was much faster when simulation (off site training) was provided as well. This combination was a fascinating read for me, because it tied some of the factors that the previous two studies saw as challenges.

There is a mountain of research out there, and this just scratched the surface, but this exploration did seem to reinforce my original anecdotal belief that an IQ score alone is an insufficient barrier, and shows an ignorance to the power of effective training and applied behavioral therapy. This is a complex problem, and one I might not have been able to boil down into a single tweet, but one I am happy to see researchers coming up with solutions to every day.

 

Thoughts? Comments? Leave them below.

 

Sources:

Lattimore, L. P., Parsons, M. B., Reid, D. H., & Ahearn, W. (2006). Enhancing Job-Site Training of Supported Workers With Autism: A Reemphasis on Simulation. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 39(1), 91-102.

Rusch, F. R., & Hughes, C. (1989). Overview of supported employment. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 22(4), 351-363. doi:10.1901/jaba.1989.22-351

Spreat, S., & Conroy, J. W. (2015). Longitudinal Investigation of Vocational Engagement. Journal of Policy and Practice in Intellectual Disabilities, 12(4), 266-271. doi:10.1111/jppi.12136

 

Image Credits: http://www.pexels.com, http://www.pixabay.com

Behavioral Therapy (ABA): Beyond Ethical

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This is an opinion piece which was inspired by a few sources recently, which I believe although anecdotal, has some insight from 10+ years of doing therapy, both behavior analytic and counseling. I was reading an article that came up online, one of those anti-ABA groups that search the internet selectively, for studies that support their views on this specific type of therapy. This article in specific was called “Evidence of increased PTSD symptoms in autistics exposed to applied behavior analysis”, and it seemed independently researched and not peer reviewed, whose findings were based off of subjective surveys, with questions worded negatively suggesting inherent bias. I am not here to review it. Suffice to say, I found it unconvincing, but it did raise questions. What if there were practitioners out there that were causing harm? Subscribing to a set of ethics is not too difficult, but if you don’t know why, you might lose sight of the principle of it being there; to do the right thing.

In Applied Behavior Analysis, there are rigorous codes of ethics. Codes that have to be studied and make up a large portion of the board examination, and beyond that, ever re-certification cycle requires hours of continuing education on the topic. However, I find, that it’s still hypothetically possible to meet all of that ethical rigor, and still fall short of doing a proper job of maintaining a positive and supportive relationship with clients. Nothing inherently dangerous, or harmful, per say, but still leave a neutral or negative view of the experience down the line. I don’t think any practitioner, BCBA or not, would want something like that if they could help it.

A famous humanist psychologist named Carl Rogers came up with one of the best precepts for therapy I’ve ever heard of. He called it ; Unconditional positive regard. It is exactly as it sounds; acceptance and respect from the clinician towards the client, no matter what. It doesn’t have to be continuous genuine joy, or merriment for every second of each session, but it does require the clinician to have one thing if they want to keep this therapeutic relationship going, and expect it to work well; positive regard for that individual no matter what happens in that session. Mainly, because all therapy, even ABA, is a relationship. It requires two people, or even more, and those interactions are in a sense what we model for our clients. It’s important that they know that they are respected, and the door will be open every time for them, unconditionally, and it has to be genuine.

There are situations that can cause some friction in any therapeutic relationship. Every single therapeutic field has it. With ABA it takes on a more difficult form, I think, especially when some of our clients do not have language, or any interest in forming a rapport, or even interest in any other person at all, therapist included. Sometimes clients can get aggressive; both verbally and physically, and sometimes therapists take on both kinds of scars. It’s not easy work. Sometimes that unconditional positive regard takes some effort. Behaviorally, you could call that all of the operants in your “positive regard” repertoire. Maybe it’s how you look at the client, or how you speak, or the tone you use, or even the direction of how you present your session. If it’s not aiming for the betterment of your client, then that’s the wrong direction.

Another concept from Carl Rogers is, the client has to want to change, or engage in therapy for it to work. B.F Skinner also talks about this type of engagement in his book “Science and Human Behavior”, but from a behavioral standpoint it all comes down to the same thing: positive reinforcement. There has to be something there that the client wants, for this change to take place. Don’t punish when you can teach instead. With non-verbal clients, sometimes they might not know why they are there, or understand what exactly is going on; we can’t say. It’s unspoken, and we can’t guess at it, but what we can do is make sure that their process is one that leads them towards that independent and socially significant lifestyle without harm, interpersonal or otherwise. Behavior change is hard. The targets we introduce, even if we aim them for exactly their level of proficiency, will challenge our clients, and we can not underestimate the effort in that challenge. We have to use positive reinforcement that works, and is strong enough to make the client “happy” to keep trying. That is ethical, but more than that, is the right thing to do. In ABA we are taught to avoid “default technologies”; unnecessary punitive procedures of disciplining, or appeals to authority. I can not imagine a condition where we would need to make a target where a client does something solely “because __ says so”. Would we accept that kind of contingency without questioning it? Of course not. As practitioners, we have to look beyond the short term and away from the older forms of discipline to help individuals go as far as they can in their lives. Long term strategies kept in mind while working on the short term, and while all that is going on… unconditional positive regard, positive reinforcement, respect for our clients and respect for what we are doing.

I believe this form of therapy is a force of good, and progress, in this world. It is evidence based, and supported tirelessly by decades of researchers, for the purpose of getting it right. When we use a therapeutic technique, we back it up. Every time. And always for the betterment of the client. That’s the point of removing the guesswork and ambiguity of the techniques; so we can shape it to work for that individual. We make it applied. Practitioners are trained endlessly on single subject designs for the purpose of avoiding the rut of comparing one person to another statistically. That puts the blinders on. The individual client comes to us for their progress, not in regard to their cohort. From that perspective, every individual does deserve that level of respect and regard for their future, and their life. As a practitioner, that’s a large responsibility, and it takes going beyond just ethics. It’s not just following a guideline. It takes doing the right thing, and knowing why.

Sources:

COOPER, JOHN O.. HERON, TIMOTHY E.. HEWARD, WILLIAM L. (2018). APPLIED BEHAVIOR ANALYSIS. S.l.: PEARSON

Rogers, Carl (1995). A Way of Being. Houghton Mifflin; 1 edition (1980)

Skinner, B. F. (1953). Science And Human Behavior. Riverside: Free Press.

Image Credits:

Clark Tibbs- unsplash.com

Symbols and Notation in Behavior Analysis

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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:

SR

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.

Symbols

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!

SR+

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!

 

 

 

Sources:

COOPER, JOHN O.. HERON, TIMOTHY E.. HEWARD, WILLIAM L. (2018). APPLIED BEHAVIOR ANALYSIS. S.l.: PEARSON.

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

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

 

 

Behavior is like Dinosaurs: Behavioral Selectionism Theory

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Selectionism is a mind-blower when it comes to the conceptual and philosophical framework of behavior analysis, behaviorism, and even psychology as a whole. Like the Lawfulness of Behavior, it was also a concept B. F Skinner wrote about, but there are countless contributions from prior philosophical works that contributed to its conceptualization.

Think of it like this; Behavior is like dinosaurs. Or humans. Or rabbits. Anything alive really. It only keeps “happening” (continuing to exist) if it can adapt in its environment. It is selected either by adaptation or consequences, thus the term Selectionism.

What we are going to be drawing parallels to here is the work of Charles Darwin in evolution. Adaptation. Survival of the fittest. He introduced a concept to the world called “natural selection”, in which species were selected through random traits that served to aid them in survival. This was his theory of evolution. He describes this discovery:

“In October 1838, that is fifteen months after I had begun my systematic enquiry, I happened to read for amusement Malthus on Population and being well prepared to appreciate the struggle for existence which everywhere goes on from long-continued observation of the habits of animals and plants, it at once struck me that under these circumstances favourable variations would tend to be preserved, and unfavourable ones to be destroyed. The result of this would be the formation of new species. Here, then, I had at last got a theory by which to work.” (Darwin, 1887)

But what does that mean for behavior? These same things that apply to evolution, and continuation of species, Skinner believed also apply to how our behaviors are shaped and maintained. Our behaviors are very much like living creatures, and we can even see terminology in behavioral science that hearkens back to it. Take these examples:

Dinosaurs that survived through cataclysm and successfully reproduced are said to have adapted. This is Darwinian terminology, and is called phylogenic adaptation. It involves a species. All the little dinosaur survivors who eventually passed on their genetic traits and “became” birds.

An operant behavior, that undergoes reinforcement, is more likely to happen again under the same antecedent conditions in the future. That is to say, a behavior that “works”, is more likely to happen again. It is a foundation of learning. This is called ontogenic adaptation, and happens within a single lifetime.

Do you see the parallels? Dinosaurs that survived the cataclysm passed on their genes. A behavior that successfully achieves or gets something, happens again in the future in those same conditions, most likely.

Now this isn’t just unidirectional. It can also be stopped. For both theories, the term extinction is used.

Dinosaurs that did not adapt through cataclysm and could not pass on their genes eventually died out. Their species underwent extinction. There were no more of those dinosaurs.

An operant behavior, which does not receive reinforcement, is less likely to continue in the future and eventually becomes extinguished. It undergoes extinction. If it does not work under those antecedent conditions, repeatedly, it “dies out” in very much the same way. That behavior does not occur again in those situations.

The choice of those words were not just coincidental. When B.F Skinner was formulating his theories of human behavior that went beyond simple stimulus-response conditions, he wanted to explain how certain behaviors came about, maintained, and eventually were lost. We see this within a single individual’s lifetime, and it seems like common sense: If it doesn’t work, you just don’t keep doing it. Now this may happen at varying rates of loss, which is why the terminology of behavior focuses on a scale of reduction in probability rather than complete loss immediately, but it follows the same route of “passing on” due to “usefulness”.

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Do you remember those words phylogenic and ontogenic used above? Phylogenic regarding species, ontogenic regarding individual. This terminology can also describe behavior. You could say a phylogenic behavior, is one that all human beings have. It is a species-wide set of behaviors. The “nature” part of nature and nuture. So, blinking, for example is a phylogenic behavior. It is also a reflex, but one humans in general share. It would not take any learning to acquire or shape. Now, an ontogenic behavior, one shaped through reinforcement in a lifetime, say writing a great speech, is something that not all human beings would have from birth. It was learned through successive experiences of language being reinforced, then public speaking being reinforced, then the combining of the two to make a solid speech. Behavior shaped within a lifetime. Behavior can also take on shaping from broader aspects of contingencies in our society, or metacontingencies in culture as well. Culture, rules, laws, other people, can shape our behavior as well through these same processes.

Skinner would describe this in his book “Science and Human Nature”:

“Reflexes, conditioned or otherwise, are mainly concerned with the internal physiology of the organism. We are most often interested, however, in behavior which has some effect upon the surrounding world. Such behavior raises most of the practical problems in human affairs and is also of
particular theoretical interest because of its special characteristics. The consequences of behavior may “feed
back” into the organism. When they do so, they may change the probability that the behavior which produced them will occur again. The English language contains many words, such as “reward” and “punishment,” which refer to this effect, but we can get a clear picture of it only through experimental analysis.” (Skinner, 1953)

Behaviors, are a lot like dinosaurs. The most fit, and adaptive, survive. We often call this process learning. We learn to do things better. Behaviors, skills, what have you, continue and shape themselves because they are reinforced (rewarded), and become more successful, and continue to receive reinforcement under those right conditions. If they don’t, they undergo extinction. Just like dinosaurs.

Questions? Comments? Thoughts? Give them to me.

Sources:

COOPER, JOHN O.. HERON, TIMOTHY E.. HEWARD, WILLIAM L. (2018). APPLIED BEHAVIOR ANALYSIS. S.l.: PEARSON.
Darwin, C. (1958). The autobiography of Charles Darwin (N. Barlow, Ed.). New York: Norton. (Original work published 1887)

Skinner, B. F., & Skinner, B. F. (2012). Science And Human Behavior. Riverside: Free Press.

Image Credits:

http://www.pixabay.com Stock Photos

The Lawfulness of Behavior

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This is one of the big concept pieces seen in Applied Behavior Analysis, and Behaviorism in general. The Lawfulness of Behavior. What does that mean, exactly?

Let’s pick the concept apart. To be lawful, something has to follow some kind of order.

It comes from the philosophy of Determinism in which behavior, like any other natural phenomena, is affected and caused by external events, including its history; and that behavior is something that can be studied, just like other natural phenomena. Behavior follows rules, and can impact and be impacted by other phenomena that we can observe and track. The Lawfulness of Behavior is a foundational precept of behavioral science, and has roots in one of B.F Skinner’s earlier and seminal works “Science and Human Behavior” where he states:

“Science is more than the mere description of events as they occur. It
is an attempt to discover order, to show that certain events stand in
lawful relations to other events. No practical technology can be
based upon science until such relations have been discovered. But
order is not only a possible end product; it is a working assumption
which must be adopted at the very start. We cannot apply the methods
of science to a subject matter which is assumed to move about
capriciously. Science not only describes, it predicts. It deals not only
with the past but with the future…If we are to use the methods
of science in the field of human affairs, we must assume that behavior
is lawful and determined. We must expect to discover that what a
man does is the result of specifiable conditions and that once these
conditions have been discovered, we can anticipate and to some
extent determine his actions.” (Skinner, 1951).

That was just in the first ten pages of the book too. Imagine, if you are not already, reading that concept for the first time. It is a strong statement to make about humanity. The same scientific method and principles which can reasonably predict an object falling to gravity, can understand and predict human behavior as well. That is, behavior, is lawful. Science itself has been known to have three main purposes; Description, Prediction, and Control. It’s a process. It’s how we test and replicate our hypotheses about the world.

For this to work, the universe has to be a lawful, orderly place where everything occurs as a result of other events. Events occur because they have had factors leading up to them that contribute to a change, or action (or inaction). The universe around us, then, is not completely random. It is not a bed of chaos where anything and everything can happen at any minute without order. In science, the scientist assumes lawfulness first and then moves on to find the lawful relations between variables. This process, according to Skinner, can be applied exactly the same way in behavior.

With enough understanding: Behavior can be described. Behavior can be predicted. Behavior can be controlled.

The idea of the Lawfulness of Behavior has, and has had, some critics. When taking this principle and thinking about the free will of human beings, we can begin to see some discrepancies between the two. If behavior is subjected to the same laws as anything else, is determined by cause and effect, and it can be described, predicted, and controlled; what might that mean for the place of true independent choice and personal agency? What about something that can not be observed, like a thought, or a dream.

Take a thought, for example. Can an external observer describe a thought in someone else’s head? No. Then how could they predict something like a thought? Control something like a thought? It sounds impossible.

Behaviorist philosophies, such as methodological behaviorism, and radical behaviorism, both see ideas and thoughts as what are called “private events”. Methodological behavioral philosophy refuses to tackle these as legitimate phenomenon, as they are seen as tangential to external causes of behavior which are much more reliable at prediction. Radical behavioral philosophy, coined by B.F Skinner, do not deny “private events” specifically in scientific exploration, but they consider them behavior that can not be seen by outside observers. They exist, have impact, just as any behavior, but can not be studied as reliably as an event that can have multiple observers. Also, as a behavior, ideas and thoughts can come under the same lawfulness and order as any other phenomena, just more difficult to objectively observe.

What do you think?

Sources:

COOPER, JOHN O.. HERON, TIMOTHY E.. HEWARD, WILLIAM L. (2018). APPLIED BEHAVIOR ANALYSIS. S.l.: PEARSON.

Skinner, B. F., & Skinner, B. F. (2012). Science And Human Behavior. Riverside: Free Press.

Extra Life Case Study: Massed vs. Spaced Trials in the Acquisition of Skilled Motor (Video Game) Tasks

For this article, we have a special purpose; to bring awareness to a fantastic non-profit organization called Extra Life, whose goal is to raise donations for the Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals, which gives much needed funding to families who need it. (Donation links at the bottom of the page!)

Today, the topic is video games; which is the main focus of Extra Life’s audience. To bring some psychological expertise, and applied behavior analytic focus to this topic, we had two volunteers come up to test their mettle on (arguably) one of the most difficult video games to master and beat: “I Wanna Be The Boshy”. On the surface, a very simple looking game. Move a character with a keyboard or analog stick, along treacherous environments without touching obstacles, enemies, or projectiles. That is, until you realize how impressive the reaction time needs to be in order to progress through the levels; upwards of 2-5 responses per second. Each mistake, has a punishing restart to the beginning of the level or section, relying on the player’s skill to not only learn the pattern of motor responses to complete each section, but enter them reliably with perfect timing and order.

5
I WANNA BE THE BOSHY!

In many cases, this game requires months to beat (rare cases excluded). With this time frame, we were able to watch recordings of our two players (etanPSI & LonestarF1) via a streaming service named Twitch, which provided the video of game-play that could be reliably studied and analyzed for the target behavior skills necessary to master and beat this game.

For this particular study, we chose the target behavior of successive correct responses, and used frequency data as our metric to gauge progress through the levels. For example, one correct response may navigate a particular jump, a second may require maneuvering for a landing, and a third for another jump to a moving obstacle, all within 1.5 seconds, totaling 3 successive correct responses for that particular challenge. On average, during our tracked trials, a particular level or challenge requires a minimum of 43 successive correct responses in one minute of play, order to continue.

3
Analyzing the Players Behavior

If we want to understand the game from a behavior analytic, and psychological point of view, we need to discuss some terms:

Reinforcement: Think of reinforcement as a rewarding stimuli, that has the benefit of increasing the target behavior in the future. A reward which is successful in making a response (game playing, etc) happen more often, is called a reinforcer.

  • In this specific case, success following a trial serves as a conditioned reinforcer for the player, where beating a section, or a boss, is reported as the goal and achievement to be earned.

Responses: This is what the person does. Any behavior that follows a specific target stimulus, is considered a response.

Punishment: These are the opposites of reinforcement. They are consequences that decrease the likelihood of a behavior of occurring in the future.

Frequency (and Rate): Frequency and rate respond to behavior that occurs over a set amount of time. For example, if our general target is 43 correct responses in 1 minute of time, then we would want our rate of successive correct responses to near that amount to give us the greatest chance of success.

Discrete Trials: A discrete trial is often used in a clinical condition where a discriminative stimulus (SD) precedes a response, which is then reinforced when that response is the target behavior. The good thing about video games, is that each level, or screen, can be considered a discrete trial; as correct responses are reinforced with continuing the game, while failures (and punishing stimuli) cause it to be repeated.

Massed Trials: Massed trials refers to the use of discrete trials in close proximity after each other, so that no interrupting behavior occurs between them. In other words, repetition. For our gaming example, this would be restarting immediately after each failure to continue to the original starting point of the previously failed trial.

Spaced Trials: Spaced trials refer to a training condition where each discrete trial is separated by a pause, where various behaviors and stimuli unrelated to the next discrete trial may be engaged with. Think of this like a break condition. The player can take a breather, talk to the fans, take a drink of water. All of these things occur between trials, so that there is a gap between them.

2
The Experiment

Our friendly experiment required our players, etanPSI and LonestarF1 to attempt to engage in 30 trials in both conditions. The first condition would be Massed Trial, which involved 30 complete repeats without any interruption between trials. Successes could continue on to the next section, but repeats would require the trial to begin again without any (controllable) pause or break. The second condition would be Spaced Trials, where our players would be required to take at least a few seconds between trials, to chat, breathe, take a drink of water, or any other free-operant behavior in that gap. We did not limit our players to a specific time limit on these, but on average, they ranged between 10-30 seconds. We would then compare the two to see which appeared to give the players the best improvement benefit.

Our players reported themselves to be motivated to beat the game, and the challenge of proceeding through the game served as conditioned reinforcers. This free-operant preference assessment appeared to have some validity, as these players put themselves through over 60-270 trials per recorded play period, well above our 30 (60 with both conditions) trial requirement for the experiment. The players were free to agree to the conditions of the experiment, or deny them as they felt appropriate. Tracked periods that did not meet the criterion for the experiment were discarded, and the next session which did was counted. We called it “Science Mode”, when the players were agreeing to the experiment terms. Over all, 80% of Massed Trials tracked fit the experimental criterion, and 62% of Spaced Trials tracked fit the criterion. This provided us with a breadth of data to work with in getting a general idea of the factors which may be in play which attribute to their specific learning styles and abilities in completing the game itself. By the end of the tracked periods, both players had successfully completed the game, and beaten the final boss.

During this period, both players went through high rates of failure conditions, where successive conditions of failure within 10 responses were common when they impacted enemy projectiles, environmental hazards, or incorrect landings. This was a common function of the game’s difficulty, which had a degree of punishment effect on responding. In more cases than not, these conditions did not cause either etanPSI or LonestarFI to quit the game completely, but instead lead to a naturally chosen pause between situations to either breathe, react with a verbalization, or take a moment to process. In the conditions where Massed Trials were being tracked, these series of 30 responses were discarded, but when Spaced Trials were being tracked, these series were kept if they held to the same spaced pattern for following responses.

Our target goal for this experiment was to see how they remained within the average number of successive responses (43) per minute, that had been tracked from successful win conditions previously. Our range for their responses were tracked between 20 and 60, on a Standard Celeration Chart. By tracking the average of 30 tracked responses, (some as low as 1, others as high as 77 per minute), we were able to place the average within these intervals on to a chart and compare them to same, or close-proximity day responses from both conditions.

Previous research by Fadler, et al., and others they referenced (Foos, et al (1974), Rea et al, (1987), suggests that Spaced Trial is the superior method of skill acquisition, but it was noticed during etanPSI and LonestarFI‘s play styles that Massed Trials were preferred. Cursory investigations of other players showed the same. Faster restarts appeared to give higher rates of reinforcement, which in turn lead to success within a single day’s time that might not have been possible if play had been delayed or discontinued. It did appear that during this period, higher rates of repetition of these pattern based motor behaviors, did effect the end result of success.

In their article “The acquisition of skilled motor performance: Fast and slow experience-driven changes in primary motor cortex” Karni, et al (1998), suggests that there are different types of learning stages, and that experience driven changes to the brain effect two different types of learners in different ways; “We propose that skilled motor performance is acquired in several stages: “fast” learning, an initial, within-session improvement phase, followed by a period of consolidation of several hours duration, and then “slow” learning, consisting of delayed, incremental gains in performance emerging after continued practice. This time course may reflect basic mechanisms of neuronal plasticity in the adult brain that subserve the acquisition and retention of many different skills.” which they demonstrated in their study as well. We will not go too deeply in to biological factors in this article (since we did no MRI’s on our players), but if you have interest the article is cited below. However, this “fast learning” does appear to coincide with our conceptual Massed Trial format of learning, and the within-session improvement phase may be a factor in what we are seeing in the results of etanPSI and LonestarF1.

7
The Results

The results from our experiment was astounding. We found a clear favor in both the player’s preferred style of trial, and the ability for their skills to improve with it. Both players ranged in similar failure (0-1) and win (~43) successful responses per minute, and both in cases leading to successes against particularly difficult bosses exceeded these by going over 70 successive correct responses per minute!

With etanPSI we were also able to see some situations where both spaced and massed trials, interspersed, had a greater degree of success than when they were split by 30 consecutive trials each. When he was able to engage in repetitive environment/platform based difficulties, Massed Trial was more successful, but when dealing with alternating projectile challenges from game bosses, Spaced Trials were useful to mitigate the punishing effects of failure conditions. Higher volume vocalizations, high intensity percussive maintenance to gaming instruments, and broader vocabulary, appeared to lend a restorative effect to attentiveness and responding rates to the following massed trial conditions.

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A Dpmin-11EC Standard Celeration Chart from our experiment.

In both conditions, we were able to see consistent Acceleration of gained successive correct responses per minute, from Massed Trials, which may have also been in part to the increase in difficulty as the players progressed, requiring higher outputs of responses. Nevertheless, the players did rise to the occasion and appear to hold to improvement in responding and pattern recognition & responding, over the course of 30+ trials per day. Where many had failed and given up, these two players had not only succeeded, but excelled at an incredibly difficult game.

4
The Fun!

Now that you know the story of our fun experiment, here’s where you can donate and thank our amazing players for their time and skill, as well as help the lives of countless children receiving medical services through a hospital on the Children’s Miracle Hospital Network! 100% of all donations go directly to charity, and are tax deductible! Help our player’s team to exceed their goal and change lives!

Donate to our amazing experiment volunteers!

etanPSI’s Extra Life Page

LonestarFI’s Extra Life Page

Like the science? Donate to the behaviorist!

Chris S’s Extra Life Page

References:

  1. Karni, A., Meyer, G., Rey-Hipolito, C., Jezzard, P., Adams, M. M., Turner, R., & Ungerleider, L. G. (1998). The acquisition of skilled motor performance: Fast and slow experience-driven changes in primary motor cortex. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 95(3)
  2. Wimmer, G. E., & Poldrack, R. A. (2017). Reinforcement learning over time: spaced versus massed training establishes stronger value associations
  3. The Precision Teaching Learning Center.- http://www.precisiontlc.com/ridiculus-lorem/

Photo Credits: etanPSI & Lonestar F1 http://www.twitch.tv

Illusory Superiority Bias- Is everyone else actually a “sheep” or “asleep”?

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As surprising as this may seem, research has shown that people tend to have a high opinion of themselves and their own intelligence when comparing themselves to others. You may have heard phrases like:

  • I’m actually smarter than most people.
  • Everyone else can’t understand this like I do.
  • I know so much more more about this than that group.
  • Everyone is brainwashed but me and a few others.
  • My group is always smarter and better at making decisions than the other one.
  • Those people are asleep! They need to get “woke” like me.

This type of interpretation is called a “bias”, and more specifically, an “Illusory Superiority Bias”, coined in 1991 by Van Yperen and Buunk. You may see these types of biases come in to play when an individual looks out on the broader group, and perceives them as less intelligent or less able to comprehend a specific point or idea that is familiar or important to the individual. This effect even applies between broader groups of people where an “in-group” is comparing themselves favorably to a supposedly ignorant “out-group”.  The problem is- a bias is an interpretation, a cognitive lens for viewing information which distorts it to fit a self-serving narrative. It is self-affirming, and to some people that superiority is very desirable and reinforcing.

The Illusory Superiorty Bias is not a person’s representation of other people, or other groups based on information, but rather a “a self-other asymmetry effect”, a substantial shift in how positive and negative factors are attributed to themselves and others. It is a cognitive filter for information, a prejudice, and distorts the interpretation of information that does not fit the narrative. Why do people exhibit it? We will dive in to some research that can help us explain this outspoken phenomenon. [1][4][5]

 

Two factors; Egocentrism and Focalism

To look at this bias (or biases) for what they are; researchers Windschitl et al. have devised a series of scenarios, level playing fields, in order to gauge the phenomena of people over-estimating their intelligence and ability compared to others. Given a “Shared Circumstance”; Person A and the “Others” having the exact same information or exact difficult situation, how likely would Person A expect themselves to deserve or perform better?

What Windschitl et al, predicted, and showed evidence of, were two different factors that effected these perceptions; Egocentrism, and Focalism. 

They described Egocentrism as “the notion that the self figures more prominently in decision making than do others“, in other words, decision making is decided more on factors being related to the person themselves. If Person A experiences _____, then it has a larger impact on their decisions than if they see Group B experiencing ____. [2][5]

Windschitl et al, described Focalism as “the tendency of people to focus on information relevant to one outcome and fail to adequately consider evidence or consequences relevant to other possible outcomes”. If Person A is dealing with _____ in relation to an objective, they focus much more heavily on those factors than external factors that may be playing a role with others relating to that same objective. [2][5]

Let’s run with some hypothetical examples of these to show just how an Illusory Superiority bias might look under these influences:

Egocentric-Influenced Superiority Bias“Why am I on hold? My issue is so frustrating. They should answer me first!”

Focalism-Influenced Superiority Bias“I’m actually the one that is going to get this job over the other 100 people, because my resume has this accomplishment, and I did this too.”

In both scenarios, the phone call for help, and the job interview; those situations were equally relevant to others going through the same thing, but these biases interpreted the situations, and the outcomes of those situations, favoring the individual. The individual’s perspective is what is deeming “importance” to themselves over others, and not a quantifiable factor. It is also important to note that in both of these  situations of biases; looking at the issue or situation from the other people’s perspective was not considered a first option. [2][5]

Let’s apply this to situations where this bias could have an impact on engaging with others on broader or social issues. If an individual viewing the world through the lens of illusory superiority, dialogue depending on seeing another’s view point is already off the table. Cognitively speaking, an egocentric influence would make seeing this issue from the other side as less important, and a focalism influence would only see the point through a non-objective evaluation on the self’s relation to the topic. The danger here would be getting entrenched in a view point where no others would be considered, because they would instantly be of less value to the individual.

 

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Group Dynamics; it’s not just an individual.

It may not just be situations where a person perceives themselves as superior over others; there is also evidence that a hierarchy based on similar view-points and “in-groups” can emerge from this bias. The person may perceive themselves as highly favorable in a positive trait (like intelligence, or ironically empathy), and others that agree with them also are perceived as higher in these positive attributes. The “out-groups” and people who do not agree, however, are seen as lesser in these qualities, regardless of any actual measure. It is a prejudice. This kind of hierarchy looks something like this:

Person A- “I am very very intelligent and important”

In-Group Agreeing with Person A- “We are very intelligent and important”

Out-Group Disagreeing with Person A- “These people are unintelligent and not worth my time.”

Horsney, et al. showed with their piece of research on the topic that superiority bias also plays a role in interpersonal groups and inter-group domains. When this bias was exhibited, people tended to evaluate themselves with higher positive traits than others, but also gave similarly evaluated positive traits to people within their familiar group. This effect tends to explain how the Egocentric bias view stated above can be extended to other people that the person is familiar with or is associated with. [3]

In the author’s words; “that self-concept consists of not only one’s personal self but also the social groups to which one belongs and that people are motivated to view both levels of self in a relatively positive fashion. When evaluating the self relative to others, people demonstrate a wide range of self-serving biases. People consider themselves to be less likely than others to experience negative events in the future. People believe themselves to be less influenced than others by negative media messages but more influenced by pro-social messages . Finally, people attribute positive personality traits more to themselves than to other people in general.  Illusory superiority exists on dimensions as diverse as honesty, attractiveness, persistence, independence, and sincerity, and the bias gets larger as the trait is seen to be more desirable.” [3]

In other words, this bias can take place in groups as well, and the more favorable or desirable that trait is, the more the bias can take place. A person, or people, exhibiting this bias feels that they are not susceptible to misinformation, they are more honest, aware, hard-working, genuine, truthful, than others. Think of a positive trait. They would feel more likely to have it than the others outside of their group. That is what a bias is capable of, and how it can shape someone’s decision making. [3][5]

 

Breaking the Bias

The Illusory Superiority bias is a hindrance to the person or persons exhibiting it. It cuts them off from others, and paints “out-groups” as lesser than themselves. That judgement interferes with both learning and dialogue. The first step to breaking a bias, is of course, knowing it exists. Recognition of those biases taking place in the mind can lead a person to take steps to break them. Identifying those thoughts that perceive others as lesser, and challenging them.

Questions? Comments? Leave them below.

References:

  1. Hoorens, V. (1995) . Self-Favoring Biases, Self-Presentation, and the Self-Other Asymmetry in Social Comparison. Journal of Personality, 63, 793-812.
  2. Windschitl, P. D., Kruger, J., & Simms, E. (2003). The Influence of Egocentrism and Focalism on People’s Optimism in Competitions: When What Affects Us Equally Affects Me More. Journal of Attitudes and Social Cognition.
  3. Hornsey, M. J. (2003). Linking Superiority Bias in the Interpersonal and Intergroup Domains. The Journal of Social Psychology, 143(4), 479-491.
  4. Hoorens, V. , & Buunk, B. P. (1993). Social comparison of health risks: Locus of control, the person-positivity bias, and unrealistic optimism. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 23, 291302
  5. Austin, W. G., & Worchel, S. (1986). Psychology of intergroup relations. Chicago: Nelson-Hall.

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

The Subtle Cues of Flirting Behavior

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Flirting is interesting, complicated, exciting, and has had almost everyone guessing at one point in their lives. It’s used to spark interest in new acquaintances, keep flames going in long-term relationships, and has its own unique language. We have touched on some of the body language of attraction before in Love, Psychologically , but here we will go deeper. Looked at from an evolutionary psychology standpoint, researchers Alberts and Trost in 2006 could not find a universal behavior that contained all of the “signals of attraction”  used by every group of peoples, every where on Earth. No one thing contains how everyone does it, but there are patterns to be seen. There seem to be collections of behaviors that seem to aggregate in certain “styles” of flirting when people are attracted and interested. In 2014 two researchers, Hall and Xing, narrowed these down to 5 specific types of “Flirting Styles”. [1], [2]

Hall and Xing were able to compile a list of behavioral indicators of flirting we can look at below. Each style of flirting takes from these indicators on the list and presents them in very unique ways. Here are the common indicators they they had found:

Behavioral Indicators What they look like
Affirmation (nodding) Nodding yes during partner’s interactions.
Arms open An “open posture”:
Asking questions Asking questions about the partner.
Breast presentation Lifting or expanding the presentation of the chest during interactions.
Complimenting Giving compliments to the partner.
Conversational fluency Smooth conversation which is not choppy, short, or overlapping. (1-5 scale).
Disclosure Presenting information about oneself.
Expressiveness Animated or expressive tone or facial movements.
Falling into the chair Leaning or falling back in to the chair during interactions.
Flirtatious glances Eyebrow flashing, half smiles/lowered eyes, winking, sideways looks/smiles during interactions.
Gazing (direct/away) Looking steadily or intently at the other person (1-5 scale).
Joyful smiling/laughter Animated smiling or laughter in response to partner’s interactions.
Leaning forward/back Leaning forward in proximity to the partner, or away.
Leg crossing Legs either open in posture, or crossed (on thigh, at ankle, or at knee).
Lips- self bite, self licking Bringing the lips into the mouth, biting one of the lips, or licking of the lips.
Moving closer Closing proximity to the partner during interactions.
Palming Revealing the inside of the palm and wrist (instinctive vulnerability).
Pitch Raising or lowering of the voice’s pitch during interactions (1-5 scale)
Playing with objects Playing with objects in hand during interactions with partner (1-5 scale)
Self-depreciating comments Presenting information about oneself in self-depreciating way.
Self-touching Running fingers though their own hair, touching of the cheeks/face/neck, during interactions.
Shoulder shrugging Lifting of the shoulders in a shrug during interactions with their partner.
Teasing tone A tone of voice that is teasing or playful during interactions.

Do any of these seem familiar? Many of these were tracked by “count”; the more the behaviors occurred, the more likely they showed a style of active flirtation. You may have also noticed that a few of these behavioral indicators were tracked on a 1-5 scale by the researchers. These were studied within a range of how much of the behavior was exhibited, versus the opposite (leaning in vs. leaning away, etc). To further the example; leaning in may be a sign of attraction, while leaning away may be a sign of disapproval. Playing with an object in hand may be a sign of nervousness or shyness at lower rates, but a sign of disinterest and distraction at higher rates. Almost all flirting styles used the collection of these behaviors. We are going to focus on the differences between these styles below.[2]

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The Five Styles:

The five styles of flirting that Hall and Xing discovered were: The Physical Flirt style, the Traditional Flirt style, the Sincere Flirt style, the Polite Flirt style, and the Playful Flirt style. They discovered that while these styles are good predictors for what behavioral indicators are used together, these styles are not entrenched in stone. A person may use more than one style depending on context. Playful might work in a public situation, while Sincere might work in private. Context, sex, and even culture, matters. Men tended to rely on different behavioral indicators than their female partners during experiments. People, overall, tend to rely on a single style for the most part, but are able to exhibit more than one style when context demands it. Each participant studied reported high physical attraction to the partner prior to interactions. Here is an overview and summary of what they found out about each style. [2]

 

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The Physical Flirts-

The Physical Flirts use their body language to present their “solicitation signals” and attraction to their partner. They let their body do the talking. They rely on physical closeness and touching to get their points across and are more likely to engage in physical touching and closing proximity during interactions. Both males and females had a higher level of conversational fluency with their partners than other styles, and asked fewer questions to their partners during the interactions. Females  used affirmative nods more often at the start of interactions, used breast presentation higher in the beginning and ends of interactions, and exposed their palms more throughout. Males tended to move closer to their partners, complimented their partners less than other Flirt Styles, and used flirtatious glances less than other styles. [2]

 

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The Traditional Flirts-

The Traditional Flirts tend to follow cultural gender roles for romantic interactions to a high degree. They rely more on male lead presentations of attractions, and female receptiveness to those interactions. These flirts tend to follow a “cultural script” and both have expectations of how the “solicitation signals” and signs of attraction are supposed to take place. Both males and females engaged high rates of affirmation nodding during the start of interactions, and are more likely to expose their palms and hands during the end of the interaction. Females were more likely to expose their palms and hands throughout the entire interaction, and more likely to tease in the beginning of the interaction. Males leaned forward more often for the full duration of their interactions, and raised their voice pitch higher during the first half of their interactions. Males also engaged in higher rates of crossing their legs during the interaction. [2]

sincere-flirt

The Sincere Flirts-

The Sincere Flirts are looking to build an emotional connection first and foremost. Unlike “Physical Flirts”, sexual chemistry through touch is not their first objective. Both males and females were less likely to tease during interactions (especially during the end), and self-touch (hair flip, touching their own face). Their hands were nearer to their partner but were not touching. They also engaged in higher rates of flirtatious gazing than other styles. Females were more likely to exhibit flirtatious gazing across the entire interaction, and exposed their palms and wrists through the entire interaction. Males used a higher pitched voice throughout their interaction and crossed their arms and legs more often. Males also leaned in towards their partners during the end of their interactions. [2]

polite-flirt

The Polite Flirts-

Polite Flirts adhere to strict social and cultural rules during interactions, but unlike Traditional Flirts, these are not strictly sex/gender based. Modesty and manners are held in high regard during exchanges. They appear to be slower to interact during the beginning of interactions, but showed strong conversational fluency throughout. Both males and females engage in less self-touching for the entire interaction, and use lower pitched voices. They also ask fewer questions of their partner in the first half of their interactions. Males used affirmative nodding during the middle of interactions more, and also moved closer during the middle of interactions. They also tended to fall into their chairs, and play with items (briefly) during interactions. Females followed similar patterns, and tended to tease less during the end of interactions. [2]

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The Playful Flirts-

Playful Flirts tend to not seek out interactions for the sake of relationships, but report their interactions are more for self-interest (self esteem boosts, etc), and the fun of it. Both males and females tend to protrude or present their chests during the initial parts of interacting, self-touch less, and both tease and compliment higher during the start of interacting. Females tend to ask fewer questions, but use more flirtatious gazing during the first half of their interactions. Females also shrugged more throughout. Males tended to use an open leg posture (opposite of crossing legs) during interactions. [2]

 

Examining the Flirting Styles and Behavioral Profiles.

What do you think? Do you fall into one of these categories? Have you used any of these behavioral indicators yourself? Hall and Xing (2014) had some more to say on the profiles of the types of people who used each style.

They observed that the people who used the Physical Flirt style were more willing to flirt, had greater abilities in getting their flirting noticed, and showed higher confidence while flirting. They did note some areas that were “conceptually inconsistent” with this behavioral profile. Mainly, why did they compliment and flirtatiously gaze less? It’s a question for further research. [2]

They observed that the people who used the Traditional Flirt style were heavily influenced by a “sexual script”. Men were to be the aggressors, and women should be more passive during the interactions. Opening palms and wrists by females appeared to show greater interest during the interactions and signaled an invitation for courtship that could not be expressed verbally without breaking the social contract that both partners adhered to. [2]

The Sincere Flirt style users tended to focus on genuine interests, high self-discloser on both sides, and judged their interaction based on focused attention from their partners. This was a strong feature of their interactions. They appeared to use one behavioral indicator throughout interactions and stick to it as a sign of interest in their partner. [2]

The Polite Flirt style users were more rule-governed in how they conducted their interactions. Time played a role in how they engaged. They were slow during the start of interactions, used behavioral indicators more during the middle, and less as the interaction was closing. Affirmative nodding was a common behavior for both males and females. Both appear “distant” or “reserved” during their interactions, but they reported high attraction to each other afterwards on disclosure forms. [2]

The Playful Flirt style users often used both direct and indirect behavioral indicators throughout. Both males and females frequently presented their chests and used subtle coy gazes throughout, and contrasted each other during interactions when two Playful Flirts would engage. It was speculated by Hall and Xing that a Playful flirt would start coy to attract another Playful flirt before the more overt behavior indicators were exhibited. [2]

Do these profiles remind you of anything you might have experienced before? Leave questions and comments below!

 

References:

  1. Trost, M. R., & Alberts, J. K. (2006). How men and women communicate attraction: An evolutionary view. In K. Dindia & D. J. Canary (Eds.), Sex differences and similarities in communication (2nd ed., pp. 317–336). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.
  2. Hall, J. A., & Xing, C. (2014). The Verbal and Nonverbal Correlates of the Five Flirting Styles. Journal of Nonverbal Behavior, 39(1)

 

Image Credits: Stokpic.com, Leah Kelley Photography, Inna Lesyk Photography,  Pixabay.com

 

 

Love, Psychologically

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There are some things that are just fun to study because of their vast importance. Love is one of them. There are as many theories about love as there are grains of sand on a shore, but if you’re a scientist, especially a behavioral scientist; you want to focus on the aspects that can be studied; things that we can at least see, hear, or touch, so that we can come to some kind of agreement on their existence. So it might not be so much an invisible force called “Love” we’re using terminology on, but rather “loving”. The romantic relationship, the affiliation between people; what they do, how they do it, how it maintains. What makes loving, and being loved, a unique experience and one that people tend to pursue for years (while others, sometimes, much shorter).

As humans in general, we cannot see any invisible qualia of romantic “love”, but we can see how people respond to one another, how they draw selective attention, how that attention strengthens and becomes a bond, and how they share in that exchange of the affiliation, that relationship. If we think about “love” as magical, and inexplicable, then that makes it very hard to study, doesn’t it? But if we look at what it “looks like”, what people “do” or “exhibit”, then we get somewhere. Love. It happens so much that there surely have to be some common features, and since we are all human, after all, we must share aspects and patterns that over-arch large groups of us. Even entire populations must share some feature, some pattern, that we can call “loving”. How else would there be so much advice out there?

There has been psychological research on this. An abundance of it. Dorothy Tennov’s work on “Love and Limerence”, Keith Davis’ “Relationship Rating”, Beverly Fehr’s “Love and Commitment”, and even Marshall Dermer’s behavioral account of “Romantic Loving”. There are just a few (there are thousands) of many, that will be used to explore some theoretical frameworks for what makes a working relationship work, what the features are, and the appeal of specific patterns of behavior that make up a “loving” affiliation.

We have to assume a little with this. Everyone is different, so specifics are where we would lose this account’s effectiveness of loving. If we assume everyone likes brightly colored eyes, when in fact many find darker color eyes reinforcing (rewarding/appealing), then we’ve assumed too much. If we, on the other hand, assume that every human on earth is subjectively polyamorous, and can come to no conclusions, then we assume too little. We have to find a middle ground that might not explain everything but explains enough.  We want an account of “loving” that is stable, desired, and explains a fully functioning relationship.

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What is Love & Loving? (and what’s not?)

Let’s let out some ground rules for our interpretation of this framework. To best interpret this research, and create something that we can actually put into real testable practice, we need to make sure we keep it in the realm of reality. So when we talk about “Love” going forward, we are going to talk about events/behaviors from ourselves and others. Some may be private (inside our head), some may be public (an action we engage in with another person), but all of these things can be more or less concretely defined. Let’s call the process of experiencing and doing these things “loving”. You can engage in love with another person, and they can engage in loving events/behaviors with you. Sounds fun. Now that we have an operational definition to work with; what might that exclude? Let’s talk about Limerence.

Dorothy Tennov developed this concept in 1979 to explain the experience of being “head over heels” with someone. It’s intense. It’s all consuming. Even a little obsessive. As she, and another researcher Lynn Willmott, describe it;  “an involuntary potentially inspiring state of adoration and attachment to a limerent object (the target of infatuation) involving intrusive and obsessive thoughts, feelings and behaviors from euphoria to despair, contingent on perceived emotional reciprocation”.  Let’s break this down and make it a little more “behavioral”. So limerence, is like love, except people exhibit:

  • Intrusive and obsessive thoughts about the person (Private Events).
  • Attachment to a Limerent Object (the person they are obsessed with). Thoughts and interactions with this individual become highly reinforcing, and behaviors seeking them are thus highly reinforced.
  • Reciprocity determines “euphoria” or “despair”. If that Limerent Object ( the person who is being obsessed over) gives a specific type of perceived behavior; it can either be incredibly reinforcing (rewarding), or incredibly aversive. These are two very extreme states.

According to Tennov, this is the type of “loving” we would hope to turn into a relationship or affiliation of “loving” behaviors between two people, but it could not maintain itself as it is. It’s not stable. It’s intense, a flash, but is based on perceptions and obsession (highly repeated private events or “thoughts” about that person). These behaviors do not operate in a healthy way to create or build a relationship. They seem to seek out the other person intensely, but you might notice, they do not seem to hold that person in a regard where a relationship could flourish. This type of limerence is what Tennov found to be dangerous.

It’s not a feeling so much as it is a pattern, and she found 3 ways that it subsides.

Consummation, where the feelings are reciprocated, and ideally, the limerence becomes a more healthy form of attachment. This is the best case scenario.

Starvation, or as behaviorists call it “Extinction”, where the behaviors of obsession/seeking are not reinforced; the other person doesn’t respond. The seeker gets nothing of what they were seeking, so the seeking undergoes behavioral extinction because it no longer serves its function. This is a painful process, the “despair” Tennov spoke of.

Then there’s Transference where the limerence stays, but the limerent object changes. The person they are focusing on gets replaced with another person, and the cycle of intense emotion, intrusive thoughts, etc continues in another direction. In behavioral terms, the response class remains, but the target of those behaviors changes. This type of seeking also seems incredibly unhealthy and hard to sustain a balanced life around.

According to our original operational definition of “loving”, this limerence is not going to work, conventionally. We cannot apply these patterns to a broad population and hope for good outcomes. This is where we need to turn to Keith Davis’ research and Marshall Dermer’s behavioral account of loving to help us out. These researchers took features of “loving” relationships and broke them down into components that most people tend to exhibit. On top of that, they also came up with strategies that might maintain them. Having a loving relationship is good, but maintaining it is also something worth looking into. You might have seen the word reinforcer or reinforcing used a few times. Humans rely on patterns. It’s a big part of how we operate. Think of reinforcers as “things” that keep a pattern going, and reinforcement as the process of strengthening that pattern. Let’s talk “loving” reinforcement and these components of caring.

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Features of “Loving” and Reinforcing (Maintaining) Them

They (Davis, Todd, as well as Dermer) break down “loving” into three classes of features; Caring, Passion, and Friendship. These are behaviors and traits exhibited in regular patterns and are consistent. They are a common part of the functioning relationship or affiliation with one another. I’ll present a few words from the researchers, and follow up with some actual behaviors that represent examples that a person might engage in.

Features of Caring:

  1. The person “gives their utmost” to the other. Behaviorally speaking, we mean that the effort put in to engage with the other person, and acting for their benefit, is high. Some might say foregoing one’s own reinforcers (rewards) so that the other are reinforced (rewarded).  Here are some examples.
      • Engaging regularly.
      • Being present and focused during engaging.
      • Potentially putting maximum effort for that individual.
      • Potentially sacrificing their own rewarding opportunities, for the sake of the opportunities of the other.

     

  2. The person “championing and advocating” for the other. This is not a quid pro quo situation based on measuring out little bits of effort and support, this is committing to the betterment of that person. It involves social reinforcement.
      • Socially praising that person for actions.
      • Socially praising and supporting efforts of that person.
      • Putting forward resources and social effort for the successes, or approximate successes of that other person.

     

Features of Passion:

  1. “Fascinating” about the other. By fascinating, they mean engaging in thinking or imagining about the other person even when that person is absent. (Think of this as a tempered version of the limerence we spoke about above). These events are what behavioral psychologists call “private events”. They are not observable to anyone else but the respondent.
      • Thinking about the other person regularly.
      • Imagining the other person regularly.

     

  2. Mutual “desiring and experiencing sexual intimacy”. This one is the more obvious “passion” feature. These are both overt and covert (private) behaviors, but most importantly, this behavior is shared between both simultaneously. The reinforcement (rewarding) from one to another is mutual or shared.
      • Engaging and reinforcing “desiring” behaviors between one another.
      • Engaging and reinforcing “sexual intimacy” behaviors between one another.

     

  3. “Desiring mutual exclusivity” with the other person. This is where behaviors are used specifically with one another. One person presents specific, and unique, behavior towards the other and do not engage in these specific behaviors broadly with others outside of the relationship.
      • Unique thoughts or feelings about the other.
      • Unique ways of speaking or responding to one another.
      • Unique patterns of daily behavior with one another.

     

Features of Friendship:

  1. “Enjoying one’s company”. At a very basic level, being around someone should be enjoyable if a relationship is to maintain. This enjoyment could come from;
      • Enjoyment gained from a shared history and specific important events.
      • Enjoyment gained from a conditioning, shared desirable features that have become attributed to one another.
      • Enjoying the repertoire of social behaviors, or activities that person engages in regularly.

     

  2. “Being able to confide” in the individual. Sharing information that has the risk of being exploited, or showing vulnerability. Being able to express specific thoughts or intents with the other person and not expecting a reprisal or betrayal on the part of the other.
      • Sharing secrets, hopes, dreams, aspirations that represent vulnerability.
      • Being able to speak frankly and honestly on topics.

     

  3. “Behaving spontaneously”. With strangers, predictability is the best bet at cooperation and interaction so that no one is put off. This feature represents a tolerance for spontaneity and surprise where there is the potential for the unexpected, and in a sense, a chance of the unknown or risk.
      • Engaging in behaviors that are novel towards the other, with the other in mind.
      • Engaging in novel activities with the other.

     

  4. “Understanding” the other. The verbal behavior (spoken words) make sense to the other and are not misinterpreted.
      • Shared meanings of certain histories or features.
      • A shared understanding of tone of voice.
      • A shared understanding of facial expressions or other predictors others might not pick up on.

     

  5. “Respecting the other”. This is where the judgment, intents, and meaning of the other person are held in a regard that is not distrustful, or disingenuous.
      • Allowing one person to engage in an activity and having faith in that other person’s ability.
      • Engaging socially in terms that promote dignity and value the other.

     

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Reinforcing the Relationship

These are a lot to juggle at one time. If all of these features are important for both people to engage in while in that state of loving, and the relationship is to maintain for long periods, there must be some way for people to have the time and ability to do so, right? This is where we discuss how and when we can use those features above as practical behaviors, and making those practical behaviors reinforcers (rewards). Reinforcers aren’t just prizes or tangible objects; they can be ANY behavior or change in a stimulus that strengthens another behavior. It’s not just one direction either. One person can reinforce another’s behavior, and have that person reinforce theirs right back. It becomes a cycle, it becomes an interaction where both sides are engaging in these loving features, those romantic behaviors, and being strengthened by one another’s. Here are some suggestions from the research.

Reinforcing a Relationship with Generic and Abundant Reinforcers-

Don’t let the words generic scare you off. This does not mean boring or unoriginal. This means using the common stuff and using it often to strengthen the romantic/loving behaviors in the other person. These are things you have a lot of, or behaviors that are low cost to you, that you can use repeatedly and consistently. This sort of behavioral framework is good for maintaining a relationship.

Given the opportunity, how many Friendship, Caring, and Passion behaviors could you exhibit abundantly an hour? How about per day? Or month? Try looking at these.

  • Smiling
  • Laughing
  • Engaging in a positive tone.
  • Taking the time to understand a point of view.
  • Physical closeness.
  • “Checking in”- frequent social interaction.

Just to name a few. These are easy, quick, require little effort, and can maintain a relationship, or series of interactions through those quick and abundant psychological reinforcement effects. Remember; A big surprise is great, but if you get absolutely nothing from the individual, not a smile, not a word, in between, big surprises aren’t strong enough. The relationship gets frayed, thin. That’s why you use “generic and abundant” social reinforcers from your assumedly impressive romantic repertoire of skills.

Reinforcing a Relationship with Scarce and Idiosyncratic Reinforcers

Now the big surprises come in. These can’t maintain a long and complex relationship by themselves. They, by definition, are scarce, therefore very interesting. These are things you can not provide to another person very often, and they are varied enough that the other person probably would not be able to expect them. These are the high shock-value interactions or rewards, the things that provide a revitalization.  Remember the spontaneity feature? This is where it comes in. These come in when the generic and abundant reinforcers lose efficacy. Sometimes when a thing is too common, people adapt, so you need to throw a little “strange” out there to mix up the predictable delivery of these romantic reinforcers. You can’t expect the scarce big reinforcers to maintain a relationship, but without them, the generic and abundant undergo habituation. Sometimes when something is too predictable and common it loses its reinforcing features. You need to change it up. The mixture of both is where the long-term maintaining of romantic behaviors on both sides meets a good equilibrium.

What about these? Are there any scarce or idiosyncratic reinforcers you could think up from the Caring, Friendship and Passion categories? Can you think of a few specific reinforcers you enjoy? Can you think of a few specific ones that another person might? Try them out and see if they work, or engage in some confiding features to request them. You might just learn something!

Comments? Questions? Leave them below!

References:

  1. Cooper, J. O., Heron, T. E., & Heward, W. L. (1987). Applied behavior analysis. Columbus: Merrill Pub. Co.
  2. Willmott, L., & Bentley, E. (2014). Love and limerence: harness the limbic brain. United States: Lathbury House Limited.
  3. Tennov, D. (1999). Love and limerence the experience of being in love. Lanham, MD: Scarborough House.
  4. Davis, K. E. (1999). What Attachment Styles and Love Styles Add to the Understanding of Relationship Commitment and Stability. Handbook of Interpersonal Commitment and Relationship Stability, 221-237. doi:10.1007/978-1-4615-4773-0_13
  5. Davis, K. E., & Todd, M. J. (1982). Friendship and love relationships. In K. E. Davis, and T. O. Mitchell (Eds.), Advances in descriptive psychology (Vol. 2, p. 79-112)
  6. Dermer, M. L. (2006). Towards understanding the meaning of affectionate verbal behavior; towards creating romantic loving. The Behavior Analyst Today, 7(4), 452-480.

 

Image Credits: http://www.pixabay.com

“Natural Selection” and Human Behavior

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Let’s talk about evolution. Or better yet, let’s talk about human behavior, and how our understanding of it was influenced by evolutionary theory. For context, we will want to mention B.F Skinner, a researcher at Harvard in the 1950’s, who had far reaching impacts in the field of psychology, and an emerging practice of it called behaviorism, especially in its terminology and future usage. Most of his work is still held in great regard today, and although not taken as holy writ, has been the foundation of future research and adaptations of the original work. Skinner viewed behavior in a novel way, one influenced by Darwin’s evolutionary theory.

“Reflexes are intimately concerned with the well-being of the organism. Reflex behavior which involves the external environment is important in the same way. If a dog’s foot is injured when it steps on a sharp object, it is important that the leg should be flexed rapidly so that the foot is withdrawn… Such biological advantages “explain” reflexes in an evolutionary sense: individuals who are most likely to behave in these ways are presumably most likely to survive and pass on the adaptive characteristics to their offspring.” (Skinner, 1953).

His work on conditioning was different than that of Ivan Pavlov’s. While Pavlov worked with reflexes and stimulus pairing, specifically,  Skinner worked with learned (or operant) behavior and used the philosophical lenses of adaptation to do so.

“The process of conditioning also has a survival value. Since the environment changes from generation to generation, particularly the external rather than the internal, appropriate reflex responses cannot always develop as inherited mechanisms… Since nature cannot foresee, so to speak, that an object with a particular appearance will be edible, the evolutionary process can only provide a mechanism by which the individual will acquire responses to particular features of a given environment after they have been encountered. Where inherited behavior leaves off, the inherited modifiability of the process of conditioning takes over.” (Skinner, 1953).

B.F._Skinner_at_Harvard_circa_1950

Selection by Consequences

In Skinner’s theoretical framework for the analysis of behavior, he sets reflexes apart from behaviors omitted as a modifiable response to reoccurring conditions. Operant behavior that had been altered in some way by past consequences. Or, in layman’s terms; experience.

A behavior which occurs following an event with similar conditions to one experienced before, would either have taken on adaptive features to better access/avoid that stimulus, or, if the original behavior failed, would not be likely to omit again in those similar conditions. This is the foundation of behavioral learning theory, and what Skinner called “selection by consequences”.  This form of selection focuses on the consequences of their behavior in order to predict and describe the rate by which they occur in the future. Behaviors, in this sense, can either be strengthened or weakened via selection. We can see this in some of the terminology still used in behavioral science today:

Reinforcement- Responses from the environment that increase the probability of a behavior being repeated. (ie. When a behavior is “rewarded”, it happens more often).

Punishment- Responses from the environment that decrease the likelihood of a behavior being repeated (ie. When a behavior is “punished”, it happens less often).

Extinction- When a conditioned stimulus is no longer paired with an unconditioned stimulus. Or, if the learned (operant) behavior is no longer reinforced; leading to a decrease in future usage of that behavior. (ie. When there is no more “reward”, the behavior has no purpose to reoccur).

 

In each of these terms above we can see the impact of environmental conditions, and the usefulness of behavior, to describe and predict how it is used, and why. This had vast philosophical repercussions for psychology at the time. Viewing learning and experience in an evolutionary sense had wide reaching advantages in the field of psychology. During this period (1950’s), psychoanalysis was still the mainstay of many professionals, but had glaring weaknesses in treating habitual disorders, or even features within disorders. The Freudian “talking-cure” was adept at having individuals speak about their internal events, their past, and conceptualizing the Id, Ego, and Superego as explanatory factors for their behaviors and interpretations on their dreams and thoughts; but there was no direct observable translation to healthy action following this treatment. It also gave many professionals with similar training, wild variation in interpreting.

 

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The Unconscious Mind vs. Selection By Consequences

One psychoanalyst might attribute excessive smoking to a childhood event, while another might attribute it to a symbol of the cigarette/flame itself. The explanation did not come from the event, or any clue from the environment around the individual; it was all estimation of events that could not be seen. When the past was used as a descriptor, it was often speaking of formative childhood and adolescent experiences, not the direct past or future. In a strict behavioral sense; these are explanatory fictions. Circular definitions that cannot be proven or disproven.

Comparing this to Skinner’s fledgling analysis of behavior, you can see the drastic differences in a hypothetical example of cigarette smoking:

Freudian- Psychoanalytic Interpretation (“The Unconscious Mind”) The unconscious mind acts as a repository, a cauldron, of primitive wishes and impulses… The making of a fire and everything connected therewith is filled through and through with sex symbolism. (Freud,  A General Introduction to Psychoanalysis.  1935)
Skinnerian- Behavior Analytic Interpretation (“Selection by Consequences”) The first time a cigarette was lit and smoked, that behavior was reinforced by the consequence (reinforcement). The probability of future smoking behavior was increased by which ever stimulus acted as a reinforcer (taste, chemical interaction, social, etc).

 

You will notice under the behavior analytic interpretation; the behavior is adaptive. If smoking that cigarette was pleasing to the individual, they would seek it more in the future. If it was aversive, they would be more likely to avoid it. It is adaptation within the lifetime of the individual. It requires no intergenerational passing of information or traits. It adapts because it serves a function.

Applications of the classifying of behaviors by function, complex social phenomena, and even verbal behavior itself have been conducted using this evolutionary-minded theory of why behaviors occur, and asking the question “for what reason?”. But this is not limited to direct experience. With this explanation, a behavior would not even need direct influence from a specific condition. This is where “rule-governed” behavior is explained. Let’s take a look at a rule governed behavior that might effect the smoking behavior above:

  • SURGEON GENERAL WARNING: Tobacco Smoke Increases The Risk Of Lung Cancer And Heart Disease, Even In Nonsmokers.

According to Skinner, the “rule” serves as a contingency specifying stimulus. Humans are able to learn from the experiences of others, and can adapt our behavior based on observation and instruction. Those stimuli serve as the consequences that either reinforce, or punish, behavior which in turn effects future probability of those behaviors being omitted.

One could either smoke a cigarette and find it displeasing, or they could be given a warning. Supposing that the cigarette, and the instruction, carried enough punishing value, the smoking behavior would decrease. Both are viable consequence events that can effect rates of future behavior.

This topic focused specifically on changes of behavior of an individual, but can also be used in much broader scope as well (especially with rule-governed behaviors). There is growing interest in the field researching was is called meta-contingencies. This theoretical framework does not exclude “thoughts” either, and labels them as “private events”, behaviors in their own right. While we may not touch on that today, keep these theories in mind. They might be adaptive for you.

 

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. Skinner, B. (1960). Science and human behavior. New York: Mc Millan Company.
  4. Darwin, C. (1872). The origin of species. New York: D. Appleton.
  5. Freud, S. (1935). A general introduction to psychoanalysis. New York: Washington Square Press.

 

Image Credits: http://www.pixabay.com, Getty Images, North American Energy Advisory (2017)