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]

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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]

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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).

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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)

 

How the Media uses Motivating Operations on Viewers

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

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

 

Value Altering Effects and Behavior Altering Effects

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

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

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

 

 

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

 

The story is eventually delivered to the respondent.

 

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

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

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

 

Creating the Need and Sating It

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The information removes a potential aversive stimulus.

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

Not Just Once, but a Chain of Motivating Operations

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

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

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

 

Questions? Comments? Leave them below!

*Footnote:

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

References:

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

Photo Credits:

  1. pexels.com Pexels Stock Photos (Kaboompics // Karolina)

Click-Bait Psychology- How To Beat Misinformation

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

 

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What Psychology is, and what it is not.

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

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

Example Time!

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

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

 

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

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

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“Pop-Psych Platitudes” and Title Hooks:

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

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

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

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

 

Startup Stock Photos

The Risks of Being Misinformed

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

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

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

 

Questions? Comments? Reply Below!

 

References:

  1. Wood, S. E., Wood, E. R., & Wood, E. R. (1996). The world of psychology. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.
  2. Cooper, J. O., Heron, T. E., & Heward, W. L. (1987). Applied behavior analysis. Columbus: Merrill Pub. Co.
  3. NIMH » Home. (n.d.).  https://www.nimh.nih.gov/index.shtml

Photo Credits:

  1. pexels.com Pexels Stock Photos

 

The Modern Behaviorism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Suggested Reading: 

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

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

Suggested Reading:

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

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

Suggested Reading:

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

 

Questions? Comments? Leave them below!

References:

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

Image Credits: http://www.pixabay.com, Getty Images

 

Ghostbusters and Behavior Reinforcement

Ready for some Pop Psych?

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

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

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

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

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

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

gbjennifer

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

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

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

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

 

Questions? Comments? Leave them below.

 

References:

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

Photo Credits: http://ghostbusters.wikia.com

Behavioral Extinction and Extinction Bursts

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

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

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Extinction

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

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

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Now for some examples:

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

What’s the maladaptive behavior? Wailing and grabbing.

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

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

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

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

Here’s another.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Comments? Questions? Write them below!

References:

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

Photo Credits: http://www.pixabay.com (users: martakoton, AxxLC, geralt).

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

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Self Report Studies:

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

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

Sample!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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Types of Questions:

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

That’s Mean! (Median, and Mode):

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

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

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

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

  • Scores: 1, 3, 3, 5, 8. Median= 3.

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

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

 

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

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Oh no! Response Bias:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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Get it Valid and Reliable:

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Questions? Comments?

 

References:

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

Photo Credits: https://stock.adobe.com, http://www.unsplash.com (Luis Llerena, Kate Serbin)

Psych Terms: Stimulus Pairing

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

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Classical Conditioning

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

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

Review of Pavlov’s experiment:

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

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Stimuli (and Responses) in Stimulus Pairing

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

Example Time!

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

Comments? Questions? Write them below!

 

References:

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

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