Getting a Behavior Analyst House-Call

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Behavior Analysis is different from other psychological therapies. First, it is considered a natural science, meaning that its interventions rely in manipulation of real world variables that can be observed. This removes some of the stereotypical therapeutic long talks on a couch for viable behavior analytic therapy, but don’t sell behavior analysis short just yet.

The best evidence based practices in applied behavior analysis can be found in the natural environment, both studying participants behavior across those environments. It looks at the patterns of either prosocial behavior that can be therapeutically reinforced , and identification and reduction of maladaptive behaviors which get in the way of a fulfilling life.

One of the founding psychologists of behavior analysis, B.F Skinner, wrote in “Science and Human Behavior” (1951) about both the experimental setting for behavior analysis, and the paramount importance of seeing behavior in the environment in which it behaves. Doing tests in a lab may be helpful to get behavior analysts some solid and clinically controlled data sets, but it could never tell them if those skills or patterns would generalize a certain way in the world outside. There’s an importance to that. One of the founding dimensions of behavioral analytic science demands that the products have Generality meaning that the effects of therapy occur across environments and time. The benefits of therapy must outlast the clinical visits. This is helpful to the clients and consumers of behavior analytic therapy (ABA) for obvious reasons; you want the therapy to work in the places you need it most.

ABA practitioners use two broad tools to shape the direction of therapy a Behavior Plan to identify maintaining factors for maladaptive behaviors, and a Skill Acquisition Plan to build up the better patterns, skills, and coping behaviors to replace them. It is all about identifying the problems fast, and implementing actionable change. To that end, they need all the information they can get. Location matters.

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When it comes to the location of services, both for client/consumers, or perhaps the children of client/consumers, age becomes a factor in where this therapy takes place. In many cases this could happen in a school setting, or clinical center setting. This is a practical and commonplace service location for clients of therapy of younger ages. The school setting does have naturalistic opportunities that the clinical setting does not, and having the opportunity to receive therapy in both has its benefits. Clinical settings can focus on the skills that can be practiced with controllable conditions and stimuli that do not have the scheduling drawbacks of an academic setting. School settings have the benefit of natural peer environments, and natural contingencies for task demands if behaviors are dependent on those factors. What is often overlooked, however, is the home setting. I practiced as a School Counselor, and although certain types of therapy worked in the school setting and helped the students, once they walked out the door, the practitioner had no idea. It was all self-report from homes, and those can be misleading.

The benefits of having a house call from a behavior analyst (BCBA), and getting ABA therapy at a residence, is that the practitioner can see the conditions outside of the clinical and academic sphere that may be relevant to either stifling patterns of prosocial behavior, or feeding into the maladaptive behaviors. Sometimes the home environment is rich in information and reinforcement history that an analyst can work with. Routines, schedules, and practice can all be built into a home visit to work on the things that need the most work. Sometimes the privacy and comfort of the home also helps with going through dry runs of new skills without the social pressure of the outside world. When a Behavior Analyst comes in through the front door they are interested in getting to the bottom of the problem behaviors, teach socially relevant alternatives, and most of all, to help. I’ve seen first hand how just a change to familiar scenery can open up dialogue and planning for therapy directions that might be uncomfortable, or even embarrassing elsewhere, so never underestimate the power of an environment change on behavior.

Some Practitioners might not be able to deliver consistent services in the home, but even one occasional house call, one single visit, could open the lens on new conceptualizations on the therapeutic framework. I’ve experienced this countless times. As a practitioner, you think you know what’s going on, and then you’re in the client’s place of residence and a big piece of the puzzle falls into place. This is advice to any behavior analytic practitioner; if you have the opportunity to make that house call, don’t wait. It could change your entire idea of what is going on and save hours on dead end functional analysis hypotheses. House calls can also get the broader family involved with services that they might have otherwise been unfamiliar with. This opens up dialogue, and questions, which could lead to greater support both inside and outside of the home. There is a well known tenant in behavior analysis called dissemination. That means, this natural science works best when people know about it and understand it. Spreading the word, and being correct in the delivery of what ABA therapy is, is important. There is no short supply of misinformation out there. A home visit with the family, willing to participate, can break down the barriers of hesitancy, and show just how effective and useful this therapy can be.

So potential clients and consumers? If you can swing it, call for a home visit.

Behavior Analysts and ABA practitioners? Don’t be afraid of house-calls. You’ll be kicking yourself for not doing it sooner.

Questions? Comments? Thoughts? Leave them below.

Interest in ABA therapy for resources in getting services, or practicing? Feel free to email the address below.

References:

Cooper, John O, Heron Timothy E.. Heward, William L.. (2018). APPLIED BEHAVIOR ANALYSIS. S.l.: PEARSON.

Skinner, B. F., & Skinner, B. F. (1951). Science And Human Behavior. Riverside: Free Press

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“They’re Just Tired”- The Worst Scapegoat Explanation for Behavior

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Why are they acting that way? “They’re just tired.”.  It’s one of those cliches that never goes away. It’s just so easy to use. You can use it for any situation at all to explain away patterns of maladaptive or cranky behavior. Screaming? Tired. Throwing things? Tired. Hitting their siblings? Tired. It’s the explanation that’s got it all-… Except that it’s not exactly true all the time. Exhaustion does exist, sleeping poorly does affect behavior, but there’s a risk in assuming a cause without looking at the exact conditions surrounding the behavior. It’s more work to do so, but it’s worth it.

In Behavior Analysis, we call that kind of thing an “explanatory fiction”. It’s not directly untruthful, but it avoids reality through ease and circular reasoning. Why do they do that thing we don’t like? Oh! They’re tired. It’s not hard to see the practical ease in that either. Everyone in their life has been cranky or acted miserably when they’ve been stretched too thin. The problem comes from the assumption. That assumption takes away all the curiosity and the need to dig for a more sophisticated answer, and it also leads us to a bias of expectation. We’ll ask around post hoc to confirm the broad theory.  Did they sleep well last night? Oh! Well, there was that one time when ____. Anything we get that conforms to our “theory of tiredness” will close the book. Open and shut case. We miss the real reason. We miss the real point. There’s risk in that. We miss out on catching the patterns that become habits that hurt further down the line. We blind ourselves to teachable moments.

The way to avoid all of these pitfalls and to explore the real reason behind these target behaviors is to begin the search right when we spot it. It would be even better if we could give context to what happened before the behaviors occur. A great psychologist named B.F Skinner called this the Three-Term Contingency, and it is a great way to actually get an idea on the triggers, causes, and/or maintaining factors for behaviors that ought not to happen. These are broken down into three things to study: the Antecedent which occurs before the behavior (“What exactly set this off?”), the Behavior which is the exact thing we are looking at, and the Consequence which happens after the behavior occurs (“What did this behavior get or what did it let them escape?”). Now it’s not just enough to ask the questions. We should probably document it too. Write it down. Take notes. Get numbers. How many times are you seeing this specific behavior? We call that Frequency. How long does that behavior last? We call that Duration. We can use this information to inform our conceptualization on what the behavior’s function is. By finding the function, it can lead to us adapting not only the environment to aid in decreasing the behavior but also aid in helping the learner find a better way to engage for what it is they are after. Even if it is a nap.

Let’s talk Functions of behavior. In Behavior Analysis, there are 4 common categories that make it a simple framework to work with: Attention, Access (to something/someone), Escape (to get away from or avoid), or Automatic Reinforcement (which is internal/invisible and mediated by the self). A pattern of behavior that occurs again and again, regardless of how they slept the night before, might lead us in the direction of one of these. Or more than one. A behavior can also be “multiply maintained”. We can either see this as a complication or as a better truth than a simple off-hand answer. Assuming that fatigue and tiredness are the leading factors only gives us the solution of a nap. That may delay the behavior’s reoccurrence, but if you see, again and again, it’s time to take the step and look deeper. The nap is not the answer, only a temporary respite from the behavior. The contingency and history of reinforcement haven’t gone anywhere. Bottom line: It’s more complicated than that, and probably isn’t going away that easily.

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Trade the Nap for some Differential Reinforcement

Now it’s time to get serious. If we’ve gotten this far, and tracked behavior observably as possible, and ruled out our original assumption of an internal factor like “tiredness”, then we need an answer we can use in the world of the awake. Thankfully, behavior is like dinosaurs, it can undergo extinction (that means go away), or it can get stronger if you feed it (reinforce it). The “bad behaviors”, the maladaptive ones that are not a help to the learner or their situation, can be extinguished by simply avoiding the thing that reinforces it. What is it after? Don’t let it get that. What is it avoiding? Don’t let it avoid that either.

Hard work, right?

But that’s not the end of it. You can’t just take away a behavior and leave a void. You need to replace it. So, when it comes to a maladaptive behavior that aims to get something, and it’s adapted to get that thing, you find a better behavior to replace it. The “bad behavior”? Doesn’t get it. The “good behavior”? That gets it. That’s differential reinforcement; reinforcing the good useful stuff and not reinforcing the other stuff that isn’t helpful or good. Here’s a handful of techniques that follow that principle:

The ol’ DRO (Differential Reinforcement of Other Behaviors): This technique is where you reinforce the “other” behaviors. Everything except the thing you want to go away. If you’re targeting a tantrum, you reinforce every other behavior that is not tantrum related. Some people even fold in some timed intervals (preplanned periods of time) and reward gaps of “other” behaviors so long as the target behavior does not occur. Can they go 5 minutes without a tantrum? Great. How about 10? Progress.

“Not that, this instead!” DRI (Differential Reinforcement of Incompatible Behaviors):  This isn’t a large net like the DRO procedure. This one is where a set of behaviors are picked because they make the target “bad behavior” impossible. Let’s say our learner plays the bagpipes too loudly and is losing friends fast. What’s a good DRI for that? Anything that makes playing the bagpipes impossible. Try the flute. Or jump rope. Or fly a kite. Hold a microphone and sing. It’s all the same just so long as it’s physically impossible to do both the replacement and the original target (bagpipes, etc) that we aim to decrease.

“The right choice” DRA (Differential Reinforcement of Alternative Behavior): This is the laser targeted, surgical precision, version of the DRI. It follows a similar principle: Get a behavior reinforced that is NOT the maladaptive one. Except for DRA, this behavior is a single target, and it’s most often one that is more effective and socially appropriate. DRI doesn’t care if the new behavior and old target behavior share a function or purpose. DRA would, in most cases. You aim an alternative better behavior to take the place of the old maladaptive one.

 

The research on all three are varied, but they are tried and true ways to get one behavior to go away while getting other better ones in their place. Some are easier to use in some situations than others. I invite you to explore the research. It’s fascinating stuff. It’s also a lot more effective long-term than assuming the explanatory fiction and hoping it goes away. Why not take action? Why not take control of real factors that could be used for real good and change?

But not right now. You should take a nap. You look tired.

 

 

Just kidding.

 

References:

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

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Behavior Analysis and Personality Psychology

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Applied Behavior Analysis and Personality Psychology at first glance have very little in common. Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) comes from the behaviorist tradition of the purely observable, and Personality Psychology features variables that are often seen within the individual and outside of direct measurement. As time moves on in the field of psychology, and the behavioral fields specifically, there is a call for greater breadth and understanding from practitioners across more than one domain. Behaviorism as a field of psychology is alive and well, but sometimes practitioners can pigeonhole themselves (pardon the pun) into the strict traditionalist ideas of the early 20th century, leaving the cognitive revolution and relevant psychological progress aside.

Few people realize, that this is not too a large gulf to bridge.

The topic of personality and temperament in individuals was touched on by B.F Skinner himself in “Science and Human Behavior” (1951) and “Beyond Freedom and Dignity” (1971), but as many would suspect, the meaning of the word personality was operationalized to a series of observable concepts such as “response tendencies”. These tendencies of responding were used to explain how individuals varied in their sensitivity to stimuli. It stands to reason that everyone in their life has come across another individual who was not impacted by a stimulus in the same way as themselves. This is a basic part of humanity. This is the reason we need to clinically perform preference assessments. Individual differences occur regardless of standardized stimuli. No matter how precisely we form a potential reinforcer, no matter how accurate the degree of the amount, or intensity, or even how carefully a schedule is arranged; one person may respond differently to it than another. And that is not including motivating operation factors like deprivation and satiation. Sometimes people are affected by different things in different ways, and they respond to different things in different ways.

Personality Psychology concerns itself with these individual differences. It is a field that is interested in the unique differences of the thinking, behaving, and feeling of individuals. Personality Psychology studies traits or factors based on the similarities and differences of individuals. Some feature traits such as Extraversion, Neuroticism, and Psychoticism (Eysenck Personality Inventory), Openness, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness, and Neuroticism (The Big Five). Others add in the traits of Honesty and Humility (HEXACO). Although there are many different theories on how these personality traits are formed, are measured, and are predictive; they still aim to explain something that strict observation of antecedent or consequence stimuli appears to miss. Behaviorists and practitioners of Applied Behavior Analysis may look at these things and pump their brakes. After all, it seems like a challenge to align the methods found in Personality Psychology to the dimensions of behavior analysis that Baer, et al. constructed in 1968. How does personality fit into a strictly behavioral framework? What about making personality framework conceptually systematic? Or could an experimenter even demonstrate control in a way to be analytic? Baer, Wolf, and Risley themselves said that a self-reported verbal behavior could not be accepted as measurable unless it was substantiated independently. How do we do it, then?

First, we may want to take a step back and work on defining what we are looking at. Behaviorists and ABA practitioners are used to a functional analytic approach which aims to identify exactly that; functional relationships between the environment and clinically targeted behaviors. Personality Psychology, on the other hand, is a little more topographical in how traits are defined. They look at classifying traits by what they present as, how they appear, and reports of how people act, and think, with less emphasis on that environment link. One of the great researchers to bridge these two ways of studying personalities, tendencies, and behavior, was Jeffrey Gray who looked at the personality inventories and questionnaires of Hans Jürgen Eysenck, and developed a theoretical model which related these personality and temperament factors to behavioral inhibition (behaviors likely to be inhibited where cues of punishment or lack of reinforcement are found), and behavioral activation (behaviors likely to be activated in the presence of possible reinforcement or cues of no punishment). Here, personality traits of extraversion and introversion, for example, were related to dimensions of anxiety or impulsivity which could be easier to define and study behaviorally. Gray (1981) was interested in how these traits could explain “sensitivity” (higher responding) or “hypo-responsiveness” (lower responding) to punishment and reinforcement stimuli.

Would someone who was rated higher in extraversion/low-anxiety respond a certain way to social positive reinforcement?

Would someone who was rated higher in introversion/high-anxiety respond a certain way to social negative reinforcement?

These are some questions that might pique the interest on both sides of the fence, both Behavior Analytic, and Personality Psychology. Take any one of those personality traits above, and you may find similar ways to study it behaviorally. The literature on this type of work is impressive. Gray’s work which began in the 1970s, went on for over 30 years. There is a wealth of literature on the topic of his theoretical models, and the topics of the Behavioral Inhibition System (BIS) which relates factors that impact a reduction of responding, and Behavioral Activation System (BAS) which relates factors that impact an increase in response activation, from Gray’s work in 1981. In 2000, Gray & McNaughton presented a third theoretical system called FFFS (fight-flight-freeze system) to explain responses to unconditioned aversive stimuli in which emotionally regulated states of “fear and panic” play a role in defensive aggression or avoidance behaviors. These took into account neuropsychology and went even further to suggest links to conflict avoidance in humans in day to day life. The literature on this is absolutely fascinating in how it finds a way to bring behavioral analytic concepts to a new arena.

Could it be possible for one day to see Personality Psychologists talking about reinforcement and punishment sensitivity? How about Behavior Analysts talking about traits when considering consequence strategies? At the very least, it’s a conversation that neither field might have had without knowing. We can only hope to gain from stepping outside of traditional boundaries and broaden our intellectual horizons.

Comments? Questions? Thoughts? Leave them below!

References:

Baer, D. M., Wolf, M. M., & Risley, T. R. (1968). Some
current dimensions of applied behavior anlysis. Journal of
applied behavior analysis, 1(1), 91-97.

Big Five personality traits. (2018, April 19). Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Big_Five_personality_traits
Farmer, R. F. (2005). Temperament, reward and punishment sensitivity, and clinical disorders: Implications for behavioral case formulation and therapy. International Journal of Behavioral Consultation and Therapy,1(1), 56-76. doi:10.1037/h0100735
Gray, J. A. (1981). A Critique of Eysenck’s Theory of Personality. A Model for Personality,246-276. doi:10.1007/978-3-642-67783-0_8
Gray, J. A., & McNaughton, N. (2000). The neuropsychology of anxiety: An enquiry into the functions of the septo-hippocampal system. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Hans Eysenck. (2018, April 14). Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hans_Eysenck

HEXACO model of personality structure. (2018, April 22). Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/HEXACO_model_of_personality_structure

Skinner, B. F. (1953). Science and human behavior. New York: Macmillan.
Skinner, B. F. (1971). Beyond freedom and dignity. New York: Knopf.
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Beyond Good, Evil, Freedom, and Dignity

BF.NA comparison of concepts from B.F Skinner’s “Beyond Freedom and Dignity” and Friedrich Nietzsche’s “Beyond Good and Evil”.

 

There was something about these two books that piqued my interest, and it was not until reading them again, together, that I saw that the similarities went beyond the titles. For those who have not been introduced to these individuals and their contributions; Friedrich Nietzsche was a 19th-century philosopher known for dealing with topics of existentialism and nihilism, and Burrhus Frederic (B.F) Skinner was a 20th-century psychologist and behaviorist interested in the natural science of behavior. Aside from the similarities in their names, and the names of the titles of their two works, few parallels have been drawn between these figures. I think there is a great deal of overlap, conceptually, between these two books, and although the conclusions of both authors diverge quite differently, the path and observations on the world and history are strikingly alike.

When it comes to B.F Skinner, I have been interested in the academic and philosophic lineage of his work, and existentialist philosophers have never been a reference or topic I’ve noticed before. Pragmatism, yes, and Roy A. Moxley (2004) did an amazing piece on the influences of Charles Sanders Pierce & John Dewey on Skinner’s conceptualization of the three-term contingency and broader behavioral selectionist theory. No Nietzsche. Not even once as far as I could tell. It raises some questions with me, then, in how these two books are so similarly constructed. Both seem to tackle a very similar topic, broad as it is, the actions of people, and their morality (which comes very close to dignity, in Skinner’s usage, in my estimation). They start with Western history and philosophy and even reference the same ancient Greek precepts as foundations to build their arguments and points from. Both appear to lead up to their current history and take into account their contemporary issues when presenting their philosophical conclusions. I am not a professional book reviewer or a literary scholar, so this process of literature exploration is outside of my wheelhouse, but I would like to lay out some pieces from both of these works to open the door comparatively. Both of these authors picked the right word “Beyond”. Both works present a series of presuppositions in their contemporary times and aim to progress past them rationally.

Skinner and Nietzsche: The Problems of Their Times

Context is important when reading and interpreting both of these authors. They were both big thinkers. Brilliant. Both wildly controversial. That tends to mean they had opinions, unpopular ones, but ones that they put out into the world rigorously supported by the assertions in their work.

Nietzsche was born in 1844, in Germany, and served in the Franco-Prussian war where he received grievous injuries that he never recovered from. “Beyond Good and Evil” was written after that. After the war, he wrote on the contemporary topics that he believed were essential to human progress and critiqued entrenched falsehoods that he believed were subverting people’s potential and lives. Morality was a big subject for him. Unlike other existentialist philosophers of his time, he was not so backseat and uncertain about it. He proposed that morality was separate from the Western religious belief systems and structures that were entrenched in society, and believed that willpower had the power to transcend these societal limitations. Traditional morality (societal and religious), to him, was making people weak. They needed to improve themselves, with their own morality and their own will, to be strong. In “Beyond Good and Evil” (1886), Nietzsche suggests that the words “Good” and “Evil” were malleable concepts that change over time, and were not fixed. Fear was a motivator for morality, he proposed, and that there was a mistake in believing that “mass morality” or the moral beliefs of the groups/society had any higher importance than an individual’s personal morality. Hold onto that thought.

Skinner’s work in “Beyond Freedom and Dignity” (1972) came from a very different time historically. In the 1970’s, the Cold War raised probabilities of worldwide escalation and catastrophe. In the first chapter alone, Skinner broached the topics of overpopulation, global starvation, nuclear war, and disease. Skinner did some philosophical work himself, but his main focus was as a psychologist and behaviorist interested in focusing on psychology as a natural science, to see human behavior as measurable and observable, and aim scientific pursuit as a “technology of behavior” to solve the problems of our time. In many ways, it was a utopian idea, and he expands on that vision in his fictional work “Walden Two”. Engineering society with this science was within humanity’s grasp. Skinner looked broadly at the ills of the world, and believed that there were some pieces of cultural and societal misunderstanding that was holding it back. Like Nietzsche, his observations strayed away from metaphysical interpretation. Skinner believed that natural sciences like physics and biology had made the leaps that psychology had not. People were still hung up on antiquated interpretations of human behavior. To Skinner, it was the environment and history of reinforcement/punishment that could be used to describe human action. He believed that mentalistic concepts such as “inner capacities” were circular, and lead to no useful distinction of a phenomenon or process that could benefit scientific discovery. Human behavior could be shaped by environment, and act on the environment as an operant. His work aimed to remove the ideas of absolute human freedom, and dignity in the sense of viewing the human being as the “fully autonomous man”; these were not practical representations of human behavior to Skinner. Full autonomy, free choice, with no input from the environment was nonsensical, which begged the question as to how free will was actually free when it was under the control of environmental stimuli, to begin with. Conceptualizing human behavior under the contingencies that Skinner proposed, including reinforcement and punishment, removes those antiquated and pre-scientific distinctions, and by removing them, people would no longer be under any false illusions and could take control of their behavior.

 

Where They Come Together, and Where They Differ

Both Nietzsche and Skinner’s line of thought come from a disagreement with the broader idea of humanity by contemporary society. For Nietzsche, it was a societal and religious misunderstanding of morality. For Skinner, it was a societal and historical pre-scientific misunderstanding of human behavior. Both “Beyond Good and Evil” and “Beyond Freedom and Dignity” do touch on similar points by their end: human behavior and morality. Both authors hit the same nail in two very different ways, both using historical context to do so and their own interpretation and findings from their own work and lives. There are some interesting divergences too, mainly on the topic of science and empirical materialism. B.F Skinner was very much interested in the material world and observable findings, which nearly 100 years prior, Nietzsche also had to deal with. In Nietzsche’s time, the late 19th century, these concepts were still budding, but rational observation of the world and the field of psychology was relatively recent in the form of psychoanalysis. He describes some of his ideas on the topic of science and the metaphysical soul in “Beyond Good and Evil”:

“Between ourselves, it is not at all necessary to get rid of “the soul” thereby, and thus renounce one of the oldest and most venerated hypotheses—as happens frequently to the clumsiness of naturalists, who can hardly touch on the soul without immediately losing it. But the way is open for new acceptations and refinements of the soul-hypothesis; and such conceptions as “mortal soul,” and “soul of subjective multiplicity,” and “soul as social structure of the instincts and passions,” want henceforth to have legitimate rights in science. In that the NEW psychologist is about to put an end to the superstitions which have hitherto flourished with almost tropical luxuriance around the idea of the soul, he is really, as it were, thrusting himself into a new desert and a new distrust—it is possible that the older psychologists had a merrier and more comfortable time of it; eventually, however, he finds that precisely thereby he is also condemned to INVENT—and, who knows? perhaps to DISCOVER the new.

Psychologists should bethink themselves before putting down the instinct of self-preservation as the cardinal instinct of an organic being. A living thing seeks above all to DISCHARGE its strength—life itself is WILL TO POWER; self-preservation is only one of the indirect and most frequent RESULTS thereof. “- Nietzsche (1886)

You can see here that Nietzsche is still strongly proposing that even in the area of science, psychology, and the soul, that willpower is an overlooked and undeniably important factor. I do find an interesting subpoint in there, in the process of invention and discovery by new psychologists, which nearly a century later would include Skinner himself. Although Nietzsche was strongly against the idea of science reducing everything to material reality, and I believe would take strong opposition to Skinner’s ideas on mentalistic representations of “soul” and morality, there is a great deal they share in their ways of tackling broader problems of their time, and interpretations of humanity as open to the future and unfixed. Humanity, to them, was not something that is and always will be the same. For very different reasons, Skinner and Nietzsche had a strange optimism of humanity in the wide and open possibility that either willpower, for Nietzsche, or contingencies for Skinner, could do for humanity as a whole.

B.F Skinner took a look at human morality himself in “Beyond Freedom and Dignity” when exploring the concept of cultural control, or behavioral control from the contingencies of a broader group, which included cultural, or rule-governed behavior and walked the line of evolution in both cultural and biological aspects both effecting one another to form a morality that was also “created” in a sense by evolution and sensitivity to cultural factors of control. Biological evolution making us sensitive to the evolution of cultural contingency. It’s a point that packs a punch.

“The practical question, which we have already considered, is how remote consequences can be made effective. Without help a person acquires very little moral or ethical behaviour under either natural or social contingencies. The group supplies supporting contingencies when it describes its practices in codes or rules which tell the individual how to behave and when it enforces those rules with supplementary contingencies. Maxims, proverbs, and other forms of folk wisdom give a person reasons for obeying rules. Governments and religions formulate the contingencies they maintain somewhat more explicitly, and education imparts rules which make it possible to satisfy both natural and social contingencies without being directly exposed to them.

This is all part of the social environment called a culture, and the main effect, as we have seen, is to bring the individual under the control of the remoter consequences of his behaviour. The effect has had survival value in the process of cultural evolution, since practices evolve because those who practise them are as a result better off. There is a kind of natural morality in both biological and cultural evolution. Biological evolution has made the human species more sensitive to its environment and more skilful in dealing with it. Cultural evolution was made possible by biological evolution, and it has brought the human organism under a much more sweeping control of the environment.”-Skinner (1972)

Two very different views, both denying a common cultural interpretation or framework for psychology, human behavior, and morality, but leaving a wide berth for future change, that in a sense is within humanity’s realm of control. I found those two shades of interpretation to be incredibly interesting, especially in morality. Remember that Nietzsche was well aware of the impact of “group morality”, and advised against its importance over the individual’s morality. Skinner also makes a nod to group forms of morality and seems to believe we are uniquely and biologically sensitive to it. I would love to have heard a conversation between the two of them on that. This is just the tip of the iceberg too. I suggest anyone who found their interest piqued to read both works and come to conclusions of your own.

By Christian Sawyer, M.Ed., BCBA

Thoughts? Comments? Questions? Leave them below!

 

References:

Moxley, R. A. (2004). Pragmatic selectionism: The philosophy of behavior analysis. The Behavior Analyst Today, 5(1), 108-125.

Nietzsche, F. N. (2007). Beyond good and evil. Place of publication not identified: Filiquarian Pub.

Ozmon, H. (2012). Philosophical foundations of education. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson.

Skinner, B. F. (1971). Beyond freedom and dignity. New York: Knopf.

 

Image Credits: Wikipedia

Overcoming the Fear of Failure

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This is a topic I see very often in clinical practice. Not only that, but it affects everyone at one point in their lives. When I am working on skills with my clients who are able to vocalize and express these fears, I see a pattern inherent to everyone who has ever encountered something new. In Applied Behavior Analytic research, sometimes we like to operationalize this phenomenon as “aversion”, or “presentation of an aversive novel stimulus”. Whatever we call it, it is the same thing. Engaging in something new and uncomfortable in a goal directed way is a challenge that we have to confront. Clinically, I prefer to have the individual guide their own process and become aware of their own specific aversions and behaviors. It makes the practice of confronting these stimuli as self-initiated, and self-guided as possible.

I prefer the word confront because it has a better ring to it than “desensitization”. When it comes to coming face to face with a stimulus or situation where we have to either perform or adapt, confront just seems to carry the operant theme more than the passive “desensitizing”. Failure is a scary and aversive thing.  We can define it as a condition where our operant behaviors are unsuccessful. Efforts which are not reinforced. It’s perfectly natural to want to avoid a contingency with no reinforcement. When we face something we are afraid of, or a new situation where we might not be sure we can succeed; we are facing that fear of failure. Maybe it is a fear of not being able to complete a required activity of success, or putting yourself out there socially and being received amiably. There is something universally human to that kind of hesitation. In ABA we call that an “escape-maintained” behavior, and when the behavior serves no real purpose to protect us, it tends to hold us back. When failure is that fear, then we tend not to even try.

In clinical practice, be it Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) or any other Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT) the advice is all the same; it takes presentation (and sometimes repeated presentation) of that stimulus in a controlled situation until that aversive situation becomes neutral. This is called controlled exposure. That is where the real progress happens. When someone meets that situation, faces it, and can come through the other side fearing it less (or finding it less aversive), it is a step in the right direction. You may also hear the term “graduated exposure”, which denotes the concept of fading in stimuli or related stimuli in from least to most in order to acclimate in steps. A common example is if someone is scared of spiders or animals, they would be shown a picture first across the room, and gradually get closer to the picture before moving on to any examples of the real deal. Habituation is the term commonly used for becoming used to something, to the point where the stimulus becomes tolerable, if not neutral.

These same principles can be used when actively trying to overcome a fear of failure too. Generally, we come across things that are new to us. These can be either unconditioned stimuli (things we are “naturally” fearful of) and conditioned stimuli (things we have learned to be fearful of). Public speaking in front of large groups is an example of an unconditioned stimulus (for some, but it can be conditioned for others) while taking tests is a common example of a conditioned stimulus. Both present a challenge that we have to act on (engage in operant behavior) in order to be reinforced. Be it someone you are helping in clinical practice, or yourself, you can use these same foundational principles of graduated exposure. If the situation is not reinforcing in itself, keep in mind that you can always improvise your own reinforcement (reward) in order to make adapting easier. Using reinforcement alongside challenging situations can make them less aversive through a process called conditioning. The act of practicing this process on yourself is called self-management.

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Consider these steps when trying to formulate your own graduated exposure:

  1. Find the situation which you feel is important to engage in or achieve (Target).
  2. Break it down into it’s smallest components (Task Analysis). 
  3. Pinpoint which part, exactly, is causing the most aversion or fear (Aversive Stimulus). 
  4. Document, to the best of your ability, the behaviors you engage in along the way (Data Recording/Self-Monitoring). Do these behaviors help, or do they hinder? 
  5. Practice engaging with a facsimile or similar situation where the stimulus or stakes are not so high (ie. If public speaking is the target try practicing a speech in front of 1 person first). 
  6. Reinforce (reward) any toleration or approximation of success! This is the most important step. 
  7. Gradually shape these practice simulations to simulate the “real” objective as closely as possible. 
  8. Do not rush it. Challenge yourself, but be mindful that this is a process, not a race.

Take it slow. Document everything you can. Learn. Improve. The process is where the fear of failure is overcome. Often it takes more than one contact with the situation to get accustomed. I’ve used this process on myself more times than I can count. As a person who has found large exams, public speaking to crowds, public competition, and even engagement in new and unfamiliar situations; the end-goal is all the same. It is something that is worth facing because the outcome is a socially important, or beneficial to us. The aversion, or fear, is not helpful or adaptive. Facing these situations and designing the process oneself is empowering.

Self-Management is one of the greatest strategies in ABA. If someone can find a way to manage their own behavior successfully then it is the ideal situation. Self-monitoring and self-management also have the unique bonus of being able to handle what Behaviorists call “covert behaviors” (thoughts, etc). Covert behaviors are things that are not visible to outside observers but are still able to be tracked and recorded by the person experiencing them. Accuracy and specificity is important here, and can vastly improve a personal insight into their own patterns of behavior. This doesn’t have to be a single person job either! Even though someone can monitor their own behavior, they can also bring trusted friends/family/cooperators into the process of reinforcement and help to keep them on track.

Independence, and knowledge about yourself, while overcoming a challenge.

What could be better?

 

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. Wood, S. E., Wood, E. R., & Wood, E. R. (1996). The world of psychology. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

Photo Credits:

  1. pexels.com Pexels Stock Photos

 

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.