Philosophic Doubt- When Scientific Inquiry Matters

There are important assumptions, or attitudes of science, which ground scientific study across all disciplines; Determinism, Empiricism, Experimentation, Replication, Parsimony, and Philosophic Doubt. The last one holds a key role in how we deal with the information we gain from science, and what we do with it in the future. Philosophic Doubt is the attitude of science which encourages us to continuously question and doubt the information, rules, and facts that govern our interpretation and understanding of the world (universe, etc). Philosophic Doubt is what has practitioners of science question the underpinnings of their belief, and continually do so, so that their understanding is based on consistently verifiable information. Philosophic Doubt cuts both ways- it can have a scientist test the truthfulness of what others regard as fact, but that means they also must take on the same level of scrutiny and skepticism in their own work. To some, Philosophic Doubt is a gift that has helped them expand on their ideas and shape them beyond the initial first experimental steps. To others, Philosophic Doubt is a detrimental form of skepticism clawing at information or beliefs that they hold dear. These views are not new, and in fact we can find traces of this disagreement going back to the 19th century. Here we will explore the assumption of Philosophic Doubt, including proponents and detractions both old and new.

Why do we need Philosophic Doubt anyway?

Philosophic Doubt is important to science because it has an effect on how the progression of scientific work takes place. It has scientists test their own assumptions, hypotheses, and underlying beliefs, even if those are held precious to them, against replicable evidence and new future findings. Philosophic Doubt drives experimentation, and it precedes replication as well. It is what underlies the empirical drive for seeking evidence. Without philosophic doubt, science can go wrong. A hypothesis could be formed based on inaccurate information which would never be retested. Subjective experience could entrench anecdotes in a study as a broader experience than they are. A scientist could start with what they want to find, and cherry pick only what fits their assumption. These examples are the risks of not taking Philosophic Doubt in to account. Sometimes it can simply boil down to the scientist wanting to be right, against keeping an open mind that they might not be. Holding the assumption that there is a benefit to questioning findings or previously accepted beliefs is not a slight against past experience or belief, but rather a better way of interpreting future information if it were to challenge it. Questioning is a part of science, but not everyone thought so.

“In Defence of Philosophic Doubt”

Authur James Balfour, a 19th century philosopher, debater, and scientist, took this topic head on in “In Defence of Philosophic Doubt”. Unlike today, opponents of Philosophic Doubt at the time were more interested in comparing the empirically-heavy scientific beliefs to a more open metaphysical series of alternatives- that is, they were more interested in comparing science to non-scientific belief systems as the truth of reality. When it came to psychology, there were idealists, and realists, and stoics at each others throats with concepts that could not be observed or proven. As you might already be able to see, comparing metaphysical constructs to an assumption that has them continually question their arguments and points, makes metaphysical assertions all the harder to make. Scientific points, however, make Philosophic Doubt a little easier to withstand:

Under common conditions, water freezes at 32 degrees Fahrenheit

Employing Philosophic Doubt, we can continually circle back to this assertion to test it again, and again. Pragmatically, there comes a point where we only question these basic and well founded particulars when we have reason to do so, but the doubt is always present. Sometimes for precision, sometimes to be sure that we are building off of the knowledge correctly, and others to help with the replication and experimentation assertions that grow science. Balfour was a strong proponent of natural sciences, and the use of this kind of questioning. Science founded on observation and experimentation was something truly important to him. Keep in mind, the 19th century was shaped by scientific discovery at a pace never before seen. Balfour kept an even head about this, and believed more in the assumptions of science as the path to understanding the natural world. Propositions which states laws, or which stated facts, had to be built on concrete science and not just personal belief or anecdote. Some of his points we would take as obvious today- for example, when using comparative probability, would we run an experiment or trial just once, or twice? Multiple times? If we ran something like this just once, it wouldn’t be comparative probability, but if we ran it twice and accepted this as the final answer to the question we would miss out on the further replication and experimentation on the subject. The curiosity that Philosophic Doubt embodies would keep the experiment and replication going. Without Philosophic Doubt, we fall into a trap of not questioning initial assumptions or findings.

Another interesting thing about Balfour’s work is that it came at a time where there was a great deal of belief in a mechanical universe that followed strict Newtonian laws. At the time, this was compared with more metaphysical alternatives. Balfour cautioned everyone to continually use philosophic doubt and to question both belief systems- even if the “mechanical universe” was winning by a landslide at the time. If we were to take Balfour’s points and stretch them into the future, we might see how he would have found some justification in further development in physics- quantum mechanics for example, where the Newtonian mechanical universe which was seen as sufficient to explain everything, falls a little short. Without that testing of the original tenets of physics, the use of Philosophic Doubt, we might not be where we are now. The analysis of Balfour’s work could go on for entire chapters, but I would like to top it off with an excerpt on the topic of the evolution of beliefs, and the reluctance to test our own personal beliefs:

“If any result of ‘observation and experiment’ is certain, this one is so- that many erroneous beliefs have existed, and do exist in the world; so that whatever causes there may be in operation by which true beliefs are promoted, they must be either limited in their operation, or be counteracted by other causes of an opposite tendency. Have we then any reason to suppose that fundamental beliefs are specially subject to these truth-producing influences, or specially except from causes of error? This question, I apprehend, must be answered in the negative. At first sight, indeed , it would seem as if those beliefs were specially protected from error which are the results of legitimate reasoning. But legitimate reasoning is only a protection against error if it proceeds from true premises, and it is clear that this particular protection the premises of all reasoning never can possess. Have then, then, any other? Except the tendency above mentioned, I must confess myself unable to see that they have; so that our position is this- from certain ultimate beliefs we infer than an order of things exist by which all belief, and therefore all ultimate beliefs, are produced, but according to which any particular ultimate belief must be doubtful. Now this is a position which is self-destructive.

The difficulty only arises, it may be observed, when we are considering our own beliefs. If I am considering the beliefs of some other person, there is no reason why I should regard them as anything but the result of his time and circumstances.” -Arthur James Balfour, “In Defence of Philosophic Doubt” (1879).

Back to Basics- Science and Philosophic Doubt

In “Applied Behavior Analysis ” Cooper, Heron, and Heward begin their first chapter with the basics of what science is, specifically behavioral science, and the assumptions and attitudes of science including Philosophic Doubt. Cooper, et al., consider these foundational concepts in science as a whole and relate their importance to psychology and behavioral science. In their words:

“The attitude of philosophic doubt requires the scientist to continually question the truthfulness of what is regarded as fact. Scientific knowledge must always be viewed as tentative. Scientists must constantly be willing to set aside their most cherished beliefs and findings and replace them with the knowledge derived from new discoveries.

Good scientists maintain a healthy level of skepticism. Although being skeptical of others’ research may be easy, a more difficult but critical characteristic of scientists is that they remain open to the possibility- as well as look for evidence that their own findings and expectations are wrong.” -Cooper, Heron, Heward, “Applied Behavior Analysis”, (2017).

Bonus! B.F Skinner
“Regard no practice as immutable. Change and be ready to change again. Accept no eternal verity. Experiment.”- B.F Skinner, 1979

The sentiment behind Philosophic Doubt and science is that of openness and humility. Not only is the scientific work we read subject to doubt, but our own as well. The latter is the most difficult part- challenging our own beliefs constantly, challenging our most cherished propositions and reasoning. To some, this is something that expands the horizon of future knowledge infinitely, to others; a hard trail to follow that is no easy task. In either case, perhaps this brought up the importance of Philosophic Doubt, and how it ties in with the other assumptions in science as a challenging but inseparable part of the process.

Comments? Thoughts? Likes? Questions? Leave them below.

References:

1. Balfour, A. J. (1921). A defence of philosophic doubt: being an essay on the foundations of belief. London: Hodder & Stoughton.

2. Cooper, J. O., Heron, T. E., & Heward, W. L. (2017). Applied behavior analysis. Hoboken, NJ: Pearson.

3. Skinner, B. F. (1953). Science and human behavior: B.F. Skinner. New York: Macmillan.

Token Economies: What Behavioral Science and Blockchain Technology Have In Common

“Token Economies”- two words springing up at Blockchain and Cryptocurrency summits and conferences with increasing regularity. Token Economies have been used by behavioral scientists and practitioners for decades, but recently they have taken off in the field of Blockchain and Cryptocurrency technologies. Both applications use the term “Token Economy” interchangeably. In technology conferences and summits, it is the original behavioral psychology definition that is used to describe the concept. The tech field is now using the original token economy concept and expanded it to apply to what some might call the future of commerce and currency. Exciting stuff. Here, I will break down the basic concepts of what a Token Economy is, and how both behavioral scientists/analysts use them, as well as the new application in the technology by Blockchain and Cryptocurrency developers.

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The Token Economy

Let’s break it all down. What is a token economy? A token economy is a system where tokens, or symbols, are used as conditioned reinforcers which can be traded in for a variety of other reinforcers later. It is not a bartering system or prize system where objects/access/services are given directly following a target behavior, but a conditioned stimulus (token) without necessarily any intrinsic value that is agreed upon to add up to exchange or buy another reinforcing item. A common example that most of us are used to is money. Paper money, specifically, can be considered a part of a token economy in that it is “traded in” towards some terminal reinforcing stimulus (or “back up reinforcer” as it is called in behavior analysis). The paper money is a conditioned reinforcer because it has no necessary intrinsic value but has conditioned value for what it can eventually be used for within the token economy.

This was taken up originally by behavioral researchers in the 1960’s, as a form of contingency management for the reinforcement of “target behaviors”- or prosocial learning, in therapy situations. Reinforcers are important psychologically because, by definition, reinforcers change the rates of behavior that they follow. They can help teach life-changing skills, or alternatives to some destructive or undesirable behavior quickly. But, reinforcers can be tricky too. People can become bored or satiated with tangible rewards, such as food, but within a token economy, reinforcement can be delivered in the form of tokens and allow for a later exchange or choice of any number of possibilities desirable to that individual. By pairing these tokens with access to “primary reinforcers” (reinforcers that are biologically important) or other “secondary reinforcers” (stimuli that have learned value), the tokens themselves become rewarding and reinforcing- thereby creating a sustainable system of reinforcement that defies the satiation and boredom variables that the researchers originally found as barriers to progress. Alan Kazdin’s work “The Token Economy” is a fantastic resource on the origins and research that began it all.

What can a token be? Nearly everything. But, it has to be agreed upon as a token (given some value for exchange) in order to serve as a token for the purpose of trading it in, or buying with it. Giving someone a high five after doing a great job at work, for example, is not a token. It is a reward, and possibly a reinforcer, but it was not conditioned to have value, and cannot be saved or exchanged. Tokens also need not necessarily be physical, or tangible. They can be symbols, or recorded ledgers, so long as that information can be used for the exchange in the corresponding token economy. This is where blockchain and cryptocurrency technologies tie in to the original behavioral science understanding of a token economy. Can data, or information, serve as a token and be used in a token economy if it is agreed upon to have value and worth exchange? If you haven’t heard of BitCoin (a Cryptocurrency), the answer is yes.

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Blockchains and Cryptocurrencies

What is Blockchain then? And what is a Cryptocurrency? Using our original definitions of tokens and token economies, for data or information to be considered tokens they have to be able to be exchanged and have value that can be traded within the token economy. Blockchain technology solves this by creating units of data called “blocks”. These blocks, simply put, are a growing list of data records that contain a “cryptographic hash” of previous blocks. These linked blocks form a ledger which is resistant to duplication and tampering. In layman’s terms, unlike most data that people can manipulate and come into contact with day to day, a “block” within this Blockchain cannot be altered or copied and maintains a faithful record of time and transactions. Resistance to copying/duplication means that it cannot be forged, and resistance to altering means that this data (the record of information) is seen as reliable. If we create a currency using this technology, then we have the means to create units, or tokens, that are individual, can be traded, and have a consistent and (for the cases of this introduction) unalterable record of transaction. Assigning value to this creates a digital currency called Cryptocurrency. Tokens. Transactions can take place using these blockchains. These transactions take place person to person (“peer to peer” or P2P), meaning that once a unit of cryptocurrency is exchanged from one person to another, it resembles very much a physical exchange of all other forms of currency. This exchange does not require any medium, such as a bank, like physical currency does in online banking for example.

Blockchain and Cryptocurrency developers, then, would be looking to create a form of token currency that can be traded within this broader token economy- that is both reliable enough to be used by enough people to catch on or become commercially viable, while still maintaining the benefits of a cryptocurrency (security, privacy, etc) over traditional currency. These cryptocurrencies, these units of data, these blocks, have no intrinsic value themselves. They are tokens in the very real sense that the original behavioral research intended. Their usage and effects, then, appear to follow in the same vein. Currency can be reinforcing, reinforcement can alter behavior, and once a token takes on value through the conditioning process; it can be truly valuable in its own right as a “generalized reinforcer”- a reinforcer that is backed up by many other types of reinforcers. A dollar, for example, as a widely used currency can be used for a nearly countless number of goods, services, and transactions. This makes it a good generalized reinforcer. The more a token can be traded for, the better a generalized reinforcer it becomes.

Will a form of cryptocurrency, like Bit Coin, gain this same traction as a currency, or token, to access other reinforcers in trade? Many people say yes. That’s where both behavioral scientists and blockchain developers can both find excitement in each new development and innovation.

Likes? Comments? Questions? Did I get it wrong ? Leave your comment below!

References:

  1. Alan, K. (n.d.). The Token Economy: A Review and Evaluation. New York, NY 1977: Springer. doi:10.1007/978-1-4613-4121-5
  2. Blockchain. (2019, January 13). Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blockchain
  3. COOPER, JOHN O. HERON, TIMOTHY E. HEWARD, WILLIAM L. (2018). APPLIED BEHAVIOR ANALYSIS. Place of publication not identified: PEARSON.
  4. What is Simple Token (OST) [Audio blog post]. (2018, August 22). OST Live Podcast

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Why I Leave My Political Hat At Home

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Opinion piece time. I leave my political hat at home. Or, at least I try to. I leave my belief systems about policy and voting to conversations with friends, Twitter (if I can’t help myself), and the local networking events where local politicians from town hang out- that way it’s just contextual. I’m friends with the local school board. I’m on a first name basis with the mayor of my town. I catch up and chat with the local councilmembers. I have a political life which is just as strong as my professional life. It’s not easy to split the two. More often than not, me deliberating on a choice at work does hit on several pieces of what makes my moral compass orient the way it does. I believe in compassion. I am a behavior analyst- it’s from the behaviorist tradition. It is observational, data-driven, research-based. I don’t allow personal opinion impact what happens with decisions with clients. Thankfully, data does that for me. Is this effective? Yes or no. Why? Well, the data suggests…

I can’t just put up a phase change line on a client’s progress graph because my opinion about a far-reaching political event somehow relates. It’s unfair. It’s my lens getting shifted which impacts more than me if it’s not reined in. The clients are individuals, deserving of individual care. Outside of that, it also means that I have people working with that client which report to me- RBT’s (Registered Behavior Technicians). They worked hard to get that credential. They’ve passed their tests and went through their supervised hours. They are professionals. Would it be fair for me to walk into work with a political or ideological idea in my head and try to bring it up to them? Of course not. That’s not their job. Their responsibility is to the client, based on the real world observable responses and data they see and collect. They depend on my unclouded experience and judgment. Even if they were to be outspoken about a political view (which happens), I can’t let that color my opinion of them or how I treat their judgment. It could. It easily could. But that’s my professional line drawn in the sand.

Here’s a common counter I’ve heard: Things are getting bad here. We need to speak out. We need to take a political stance in our personal and professional lives.

If it involves the vaccine pseudoscience? I’ll bite. I can justify that because the evidence is there and it relates to my work.

But here’s the pickle. The people who bring up that counter argument assume something. They assume that just because we share a job title, and do the same thing, and care about the same pursuits that we have the same political opinion, and I’d be an addition to their circle. Now, when those political views have already been expressed, I can be pretty sure whether I agree or not- and it’s a mixed bag, but surprisingly to some- I don’t share the expected viewpoints. Were they looking for differing viewpoints? I can’t be sure, but it doesn’t feel like it. Is it worth turning a workplace contentious? Is the workplace the place, and the time, to deal with these issues?

“But Chris, surely you don’t support _____.”
“You work with kids though. How could you ____?”
“If you’re not ____ then you’re ____.”
“_____ did something terrible. You can’t support ____ could you?”

I have nuanced viewpoints. They don’t follow a single ideology, or politician. That potentially makes it even worse. My political stance might not align with anyone who is unipolar in their support or views. The world is a big place. The United States is a big place. Pennsylvania is a big place. There are a lot of different people with valid but different views. In my personal life, I can vote with my conscience. I can even refuse to vote if it aligns with my conscience. I can protest who I want to protest. I can talk to local politicians from both parties. I can talk with local third-party candidates. I’m outspoken on education in these settings and with these people. But they don’t report to me. They aren’t my professional peers either. It’s the context that makes sense to me. If I meet someone from work, off the clock, and they want to talk about these issues; then I would be perfectly fine putting my thoughts out there. Discuss. Change my mind. Sure. I’d have to draw a line somewhere though. It can’t get heated. Even the small stuff would have to be calm and rational and most importantly; wouldn’t be evident at work the next day.

In my profession as a Board Certified Behavior Analyst, the board (BACB) that governs how supervisors treat supervisees are pretty clear in many respects. Dual relationships, abuses of power, conflicts of interest- they all have some clear delineation. Politics isn’t mentioned specifically, but imagine a case where there was an outspoken supervisor who did espouse their views and acted on perceived implications of those views at work. Would that affect the people directly reporting to them? How sure could we be that it wasn’t? I stepped into work on November 9th, 2016. I felt it. Whatever it was, it was there. Putting that into the supervisory relationship is a dangerous game, in my opinion. I’m not saying other people can’t do it, but it’s not something I’d feel comfortable with given the potential to go bitter.

I believe that if something needs changing, it can be done with every opportunity that a citizen has. That goes for maintaining a high held value or traditional ideal. People are free to do both. Bringing that explicitly to the workplace, with a position of influence and supervision responsibility, has risks. I’d much prefer to leave that particular hat at home.

 

References:
Just me.

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

Tabletop Roleplaying with a Behavior Analyst

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There are a vast array of opinions on role playing games. The stereotypes about them are prevalent in the popular culture of movies and televisions shows- mainly depicting the socially inept cliches rolling dice and spouting an incomprehensible language of their own. That type of depiction does get laughs, but it also is unlike anything I’ve seen in reality. I was influenced by those caricatures of role players too. For a long time I did not understand the appeal of piling up in a dark basement, playing a game about pretend people where nothing really mattered and there were so many rules to learn. Where’s the fun in that? It was the wrong outlook, but the right question. There was fun in it. It just took the experience to actually try it out and find it for myself.

Tabletop Role Playing is just a form of collective story telling. If you’ve ever seen a fictional movie and been engrossed in it, or had an idea for a novel, these are the same types of precursor behaviors to putting yourself in someone else’s shoes. There’s a fun to that. Taking on a different personality for a moment, and seeing a viewpoint unlike our own. If we want to get psychological about it, there might be some aspects of Adlerian play theory, or Bandura’s social learning through vicarious reinforcement in there. The gist of it is; one person sets the stage of the story and determines the rules of how the game is played, and the players take on a role and navigate that world for a collective goal (most of the time).

If you’re the type of person who likes making materials like token boards, graphs, or craft projects- this is right in your wheelhouse too.

It’s best to start off as a player before deciding to run your own game. You get to understand group dynamics and how collective story telling works. I was in my 20s when I first started this type of role playing. I started late. I tried a little of everything I could get invited to. Some people like settings with dragons and elves, but that’s not my type of thing exactly. I gravitated towards more realistic settings where interpersonal relationships and psychology was more grounded in humanity. Fictional worlds not too different or fantastic from our own. What I learned quickly is that these games work on Skinnerian principles- many things do, but role playing had a specific feel of reinforcement schedules that was familiar to me. The person who runs the game, sometimes called a referee, sometimes called a DM, sets the scale of what actions are reinforced and what are not.

Sometimes these are fixed reinforcement schedules based on experience: points that are rewarded that can be applied to the characters skills and attributes to make them more proficient, or more hardy to tackle the adventures. A measure of how much the character grows.

Sometimes these reinforcement schedules are variable ratio items: like in-game money, armor for your character, and tools that they can use to tackle different obstacles. A measure of what the character has, or can spend.

The players themselves run into variability by natural consequence; every action they decide to have their character make, if it is a specific skill or difficulty, comes with rolling a die to see if they succeed or fail.

These can be run like any other Skinner box. Compound schedules appear to be the most interesting to players. A fixed ratio that can be expected- perhaps collecting something important for one of the protagonists in a decided location. Or maybe a variable ratio- deciding what foes give up what item or monetary reward for being bested. Some people run their games with combat in mind; every situation is a nail to be beaten down by a well armed adventurer’s hammer. There’s a thrill to that kind of gameplay, but I find that it isn’t compelling enough for me. I prefer to create stories that have the opportunity for danger, but the risk of engaging in combat is sparsely reinforcing and has a greater opportunity for punishment. A live by the sword, die by the sword style of reinforcement schedule. There may be rewards to a quick and brutal choice, but a player can lose their character just as easily. I like using social stories in therapy to develop more adaptive skills. I use that same mindset when designing a game too- why resort to violence when you can talk your way out of trouble?

Say there is a dark concrete room, dim lights, seven enemies outnumber and surround a poorly armed player group. If they choose combat- they would most likely lose. It might work. I would allow it. Let the dice roll and see if they succeed. But more often than not, a clever player can decide to roll their die in a very different way; persuasion. I set the mark much lower for that if they have the right pitch. They make a deal even the most brutal enemy couldn’t refuse. The die is rolled- they win. Now there is one enemy less, and one more temporary friend to the adventure. The other enemies aren’t just going to stick to their hostility- maybe they overheard that, maybe they’re swayed too, maybe this causes division in the enemy group. The player group capitalizes. They play bluff roles. They play intimidation rolls. They play oratory rolls to back their fellow players up with a rousing speech. The tables turn, and now they’re on the side with higher numbers and that piece of the game is won.

That situation is harder to pull off for players. It takes more thought. More coordination. Turn taking. A minute or two to step away from the game, collect their ideas, then bring it back. I’m not trying to run a stressful table here- thinking is allowed. They devise a plan that works better than pulling a sword and pulling a trigger. I reinforce. Experience for “defeating” an entire room. They did after all. “Tangible reinforcers” in game for the characters. They get a bartered deal that they’d never get anywhere else if they’d been violent to these bad guys. Negative reinforcement- they avoid the aversive harm that is revealed to them when they now know- after persuading their enemies- that the enemies outmatched them in hidden weapons. The players used teamwork, not just some haphazard dice throwing about blood and guts. Group bonus. More experience for everyone. Why not? They played the game their way and they played it smart. These were not just four people sitting around a table doing their own random guesses for a quick and easy win, they came together with ideas that I would never have thought up for the story and won it themselves. They changed the story. Now it’s my turn to adjust my ideas to their new role played reality.

Now…It doesn’t always play out that way. Variable reinforcement is a necessity in a game of rolling dice. So is variable punishment. Sometimes the dice roll, and there’s a failure. Or worse- a critical failure! Not only is the prize not won, or the intended action not completed; it was actually a detriment to even try. Players have crashed a car. Blown up a usually harmless household item. Set a pacifist character in the game into a fit of rage and spoiled a whole quest line. That bank vault actually had a skunk in it. It happens. It’s something like a gamble, but when the reinforcement flows heavier than the punishment, it’s all worth it. It evens out. It takes a strong story, it takes a coherent direction and narrative, but the players do all the heavy lifting. They think. They plan. They roll the dice. Everyone has a great time.

You get to see patterns in that. Make it more challenging the next time. More engaging. Take the next story point in a way that you’d never have thought of before.

Let’s not forget that even when the game is done, there’s a friendship there now. People got to know each other a little better. They got to see people they talk to in a different light, more creative to one another, more inventive. Sometimes some playful rivalries come out of it. There’s also a community out there with shared experiences that goes beyond individual play groups and tables. Thousands of other people playing the same game their way. I personally love the community. I have ideas about how to run the game, and run it by others who play the same game but have done it better than me. I adapt. I improve. Sometimes, I even have an idea about how psychosis works in this imaginary world, and reach out to the internet with an interpretation on new rules-….and the creator of the game itself (Maximum Mike Pondsmith) replies.

mm

Talk about fun. Talk about reinforcement. I’ve learned never to underestimate what a good table top roleplaying game can be, or what it can bring to an otherwise ordinary afternoon. If you’ve never tried one? It’s never too late. Groups are out there with every age, every time commitment, and every skill level. Give it a shot. You might just like it.

 

Questions? Comments? Likes? Leave them below.

 

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Remembering the Pre-Aversive Stimulus

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There are some terms and concepts from behavioral psychology’s past that have found themselves buried in time. Tucked away in a journal here or there but largely forgotten. The older research that tracked rates of behavior following “noxious stimuli”, for example- A phrase we don’t use anymore.  Time has also changed the fascination with respondent conditioning and effects that just two (or more) paired stimuli somewhere along the line could change responding for a lifetime. Powerful principles, which with progress now seem so mundane. Somewhere in there, we have the pre-aversive stimulus.

The pre-aversive stimulus had a great role in early behavioral science animal research to describe responding patterns, but the concept easily applies to humans as well. A pre-aversive stimulus, simply put, is the stimulus that reliably precedes an aversive stimulus. Have you ever heard the term avoidance responding? Some people may call that “escape-maintained behavior” in the field but it is effectively just that- engaging in behavior (responding) to avoid a stimulus that was aversive in the past. Running away. Getting away. Dodging it. What signals that, then? The pre-aversive stimulus. It goes even further. Just through respondent conditioning, the pre-aversive stimulus can take on features of the aversive stimulus and become a conditioned aversive stimulus itself. Then there’s another pre-aversive stimulus that could reliably precede that, and with enough second-order conditioning, you could get messy (over)generalization and find all sorts of related stimuli as aversive. Generalized Anxiety Disorder theoretically works on this same principle. It’s not hard to see how this kind of thing can tangle up a person’s life- whether they are able to realize it and vocalize it or not.

 

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Wait! Isn’t a pre-aversive stimulus just a kind of SD?

Let’s not jump to any conclusions and mistake a pre-aversive stimulus for an SD just yet. They have some things in common. They’re both stimuli (but so is almost everything else). They can both be considered antecedent stimuli when we look at the framework of the avoidance responding that sometimes follows them. They signal something. All good comparisons- but here’s a big distinction if you don’t remember: A discriminative stimulus (SD) signals reinforcer availability for a specific type of response.

The per-aversive stimulus does not necessarily have to.

In some situations, you could conceptualize a case for negatively reinforced behavior, but that might muddy the definitions of both terms being used concurrently. They speak to different phenomena even though they could describe one particular stimulus. The big difference is that the cue for available reinforcement is not necessary for a pre-aversive stimulus. It is simply a stimulus that has commonly preceded something aversive, or bad.

Example: An individual has been stung by a wasp before. Maybe several times if they were unlucky. Prior to the stinging, they heard the buzzing around a wasp nest.

That buzzing could likely become a pre-aversive stimulus, and through respondent conditioning, a conditioned aversive stimulus itself in the future.

In the research, pre-aversive stimuli tended to evoke “anxiety” in respondents- which was quasi-operationalized to the term conditioned emotional response (CER), also called conditioned suppression. That’s an important distinction to keep in mind. Here, a pre-aversive stimulus appears to suppress or decrease responding- not signal reinforcement for a response like an SD would.

Like freezing near a wasp nest when buzzing is heard. The usual comfortable walking pace (response) is suppressed in the presence of the buzzing sound (pre-aversive antecedent stimulus).

 

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Anxiety! Conditioned Emotional Responses! Conditioned Suppression!

Respondent conditioning research has some fascinating lessons that are just as relevant today as they were decades ago. Sometimes in the day to day practice of behavior analysis- things get oversimplified for the sake of ease of practice.

Behavior goes up? Reinforcement is at work.

Behavior goes down? Punishment is at work.

To a degree, those definitions work. Even with our wasp nest example earlier, those initial stings could absolutely punish some future walking behavior. But we can’t forget about the little things- the little preceding stimuli that have so much to do with the actual phenomenon. The buzzing didn’t punish the walking. Don’t forget the antecedents. Don’t forget the respondent conditioning. Taking the time to examine just one more step explains the process so much more clearly.

What conditioned pre-aversive stimuli appear to evoke conditioned emotional responses in your day to day life? Do you see conditioned suppression of behavior, as a result, that would have otherwise been there? What pre-aversive stimuli could be “tagging on” to the effects of an aversive stimulus you’re aware of? Does it evoke any avoidance behavior?

Too simple? Laurence Miller ‘s (1969) work on compounding pre-aversive stimuli might whet your broader research appetite. Citation below.

Thoughts? Comment! Question! Like!

 

References:

Coleman, D. A., Hemmes, N. S., & Brown, B. L. (1986). Relative durations of conditioned stimulus and intertrial interval in conditioned suppression. Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior,46(1), 51-66. doi:10.1901/jeab.1986.46-51
COOPER, JOHN O.. HERON, TIMOTHY E.. HEWARD, WILLIAM L. (2018). APPLIED BEHAVIOR ANALYSIS. S.l.: PEARSON.
Miller, L. (1969). Compounding of pre-aversive stimuli1. Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior,12(2), 293-299. doi:10.1901/jeab.1969.12-293
Ormrod, J. E. (2016). Human learning. Harlow, Essex, England: Pearson.
Image Credits:
http://www.pexels.com, photographer Hubert Mousseign

How I Designed An Effective RBT Training Program

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When the BACB introduced the Registered Behavior Technician (RBT) credential, I remember reading the email all the way back in 2013 and having my brain race over just how credentialing the entry-level ABA practitioner might work. It was in a sense revolutionary- how many people in psychology or education undergraduate programs would believe that they could work full time in a field related to their study before graduation, and be credentialed for it? I knew that eventually it would be my role to design an effective and efficient RBT training protocol to give the new ABA practitioners a solid education in the basics of ABA and therapy implementation. I started as a therapist myself. I went through the process that eventually lead to my BCBA graduate studies and certification. The question now was, if I were starting all over what would I have wanted to set me up for the greatest chance of success?

The BACB Standards

The RBT Task List and the training guidelines are essential. These are necessary for counting towards the credential. There are certain things you can expound on, and present in variations of practicality, but everyone passing the 40 hour training essentially has to learn the exact same thing as it’s listed by the BACB. Think of this as you would an approved course sequence for BCBA classes. I think it has the best current structure to the material necessary for this level of service, so even if you are thinking of using training that does not necessarily require the RBT credential, this is a great “ABA style” guideline for the necessary skills.

I like to think of it this way: You don’t want to train staff for just the challenges they face right now for clients, you want them to be prepared for all the appropriate behavior-analytic necessities down the line too.

When I designed my first RBT training protocol in 2015, I stuck to the RBT Task List and BACB standards for RBT training to the letter (I still do, but added and improved upon it). My picks for what would be used as the source material to fill out this training were: B.F Skinners collected works, the Baer, Wolf, and Risley article, and my favorite, “Applied Behavior Analysis” by Cooper et al. For my first run at this, I broke it down into modules with discussion board posts, quizzes, and “chapter exams” for each section. While this material was being run, I also preferred to apply these to real-world client situations so that what they saw on the pages could be implemented. Every trainee would meet a real client, see how the material relates, and practice shadowing/running some of the techniques.

Some of the trainings I was seeing online were just Q&A material presentation with quizzes, but no actual practice. That gave me pause because I knew the next step required by the BACB was the competency assessment and that requires actual in vivo clinical skill usage for most sections.

Training to meet the standards of the Competency Assessment and the RBT Exam

My initial 40-hour training program was built from the ground up based on the framework that the BACB set out. It was not until the actual trainee feedback came back from both the competency exams (in clinical skills judged by a BCBA), and the results of the RBT Exam (a Pearson computer testing center exam) that I was able to get the correct amount of information to expand on the areas where most were finding the difficulty. If you’ve taken the BCBA exam, the RBT exam is very similar in style. It’s tough, but has a smaller and more appropriate task list for the job. Multiple choice, but best answer. None of that easy 3 answers are wrong, 1 answer is right. My second training, which I created at the tail end of 2015 and revised twice into 2016 aimed to treat a common difficulty that was arising from my experience with the gaps between the Competency Exam and the RBT Exam. The RBT competency exam was a breeze for people who could use the language and run the data collection, graphing, and skill acquisition skills with clients in the real clinical setting, but when it came to the Pearson exam; using the terms to answer the questions was much tougher. Familiarity with terms was good enough to pass clinical muster, but that RBT Exam was a tough nut to crack.

I adjusted my training to fill this skill gap I was seeing with some of the applicants by testing the terminology during the competency assessment during the option interview section. The BACB has a great sheet they included onto the RBT Competency checklist, which has a series of opened ended topics that the applicant discusses with the testing BCBA. I took those, and adapted some of the tougher relations- People could tell me what frequency data was, but they couldn’t explain what continuous measurement was used for. People could tell me when we used partial and whole intervals, but couldn’t describe why discontinuous measurement was appropriate for a situation. People could use prompting during a discrimination training program, but couldn’t always figure out how to stimulus fade if they saw improvement. Could a 40 hour training really condense all of this down to meet the rigor of the exam? The competency was a breeze for most applicants after the training, but the test required some considerable additional studying if they had never practiced ABA clinical work before. So, I kept going with it, tweaking my training to give some obvious terminology repetition, gain some fluency with the practical in-person time during the 40 hour training. Pass rates went up. Not to 100%, but higher than the first version.

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Competency Exam as Feedback

The Competency exam step was really something interesting. It was where we saw the independent clinical skills of the RBT, therapeutically, with real clients, and measurable results. It had interobserver agreement (IOA) built into it. It hit on every topic of the task list, but on the other hand, an applicant could potentially display 1/4 skills and still pass a section which had its own challenges. But we got great feedback from the applicants during the process, how they saw the training, how comfortable and proficient they felt they were, how proficient they actually were.

The competency exam did allow for some limited roleplay where the in-vivo skills were impractical for the situation, but we used those sparingly. The real situations often challenged the applicants in ways that we the observers could not have thought up. There were teachable moments, there were even sometimes failures of the competency, but the next week they were back to try again.

We all learned a lot.

The trouble was that the competency exam was technically separate from the 40 hour training. Someone could come to apply for a position, require a competency exam, but already have a 40-hour certificate from an online training site. More often than not, when it came to skills like discrete trial training (DTT), or other skill acquisition routines that required more than objective maladaptive behavior measurement; these applicants would simply struggle. The prompting techniques were sloppy. “Least to most” was not in their vocabulary. “What is chaining?”– we’d hear. Orientation for the position was not enough, even with a legitimate online 40-hour training. This was also feedback. Was our training process over teaching? Was it too difficult or complex for what the RBT role was designed for? Were we demanding too much from our applicants during the RBT process? If so- how were we to measure that? And how exactly were these materials we were training with, and competency testing with, serving us so well with the applicant results on the RBT Exam through Pearson. Did these outside trainings have the same post-training measures? Did they use feedback? It would be impossible to survey them all. The answers came from somewhere else. The people who actually trained and tested with us the entire way through. Our first year RBTs. They did my training, they passed the competency, they passed the RBT Exam, and they were still working under qualified BCBAs directly in therapy every single day.

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Registered Behavior Technicians as Models in the RBT Training Process

If I were to say one thing that gave the greatest leap in how well we could get new applicants through the process, pass the material, retain the material, and pass both the competency exam (which was a little subjective based on BCBA), and the RBT Exam (which was the be-all objective computer test)- it was the inclusion of practiced Registered Behavior Techs in the 40-hour initial training process itself. They had the viewpoint that a veteran BCBA might not. They went through the most recent RBT Task List updates. They passed their renewal competencies. They knew what these new applicants would have to know not only to pass the competency, but the RBT exam, and prospective employment under a BCBA. They knew it all.  It was late 2017. We had feedback from applicants, we had feedback from post-exam takers, and now we had feedback from the VIP RBTs that were involved in training the new staff.

We had the process down to a well oiled machine. Sometimes we had people slip through the cracks. Sometime we had no calls and no shows. Sometimes people just had test anxiety and had to retake. But the actual practice and feedback from all pieces and perspectives at all levels helped shape it to the form I currently use today. It kept it fresh. I cut out some of the useless parts that didn’t seem to help as well as hands on practice- the discussion board posts. I added more hours into the 40 that were hands on. More terminology usage. More skill transfer checks. Same RBT Task List. Same BACB framework, but with a multi-level feedback and checks and balance system. Everybody had a part to play in the training of the applicants now, and those applicants held on to the things that they would teach to the next applicants that came through once they were RBTs.  Then those RBTs wanted to be BCBAs. Tens. Maybe close to a hundred now.

Three years. Enough time for a graduate program. Enough time for 1500 hours of supervision. Enough time for a BCBA exam cycle. I saw the next generation grow up with ABA right before my eyes.

I love it.

 

Questions? Comments? Leave them below.

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

The Playground Apology

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Let’s paint a common picture. There’s a playground full of children ranging anywhere from 2-6 years of age running across various obstacles and equipment and playing all kinds of games. Then something happens. Maybe it’s physical aggression, or a verbal exchange, but now there is an offended and upset individual. This calls for an apology.

In many cases these are initially mediated by adults, be it parents, teaching staff, or therapy staff. The ability to determine an apology as appropriate is a skill that some children do not necessarily have yet in their repertoires. The adult usually comes over to smooth out the situation by pausing the actions of both children, and prompting the offending child to apologize, or repeat an apology to the other upset child. This is anecdotally seen as a teaching moment to model appropriate skills and teach compassionate and soothing interactions, but also vocalize some responsibility and culpability in some cases. From a behavioral analytic standpoint, we would want to dig a little deeper and look at this as a very specific type of verbal exchange, some kind of operant, that occurs under distinct conditions, for a specialized function. That’s exactly what Toney and Hayes (2017) looked at in their work, which we’ll apply to a situation below.

I was observing a client at a summer camp, and it followed the same recreational activities that most do, like free play outside. The interesting thing here was that this was the start of the camp. A new environment to many of these children, and new peers that they have never met before. Many ranged around two years old to around six years old, and there was diversity in social and play skills. One individual had a game where they would run around, collide with a peer, and then keep going. The camp counselor would come over, have them echo an apology, and then move on. Ten minutes later, this would happen again twice. Similar conditions, same echoic prompted consequence. This was not my client, so interaction and the application of data collection or a functional behavior analysis was out of the question, but based on cursory observation these echoed apologies were only marginally effective at soothing the injured party. It begged the question: Was “sorry” enough?

What do we take from with this model of intervention? Was echoing the camp counselors apology working? If the intention was to have the child decrease their colliding behavior, we did not see any immediate useful effect. If the intention was to teach independent apologies, that was also not very effective from what we saw of these two prompted conditions which followed. It seemed to me to be a momentary pause to the running and colliding activity that had no obvious or immediate punishing, or reinforcing evidence. This is where I remembered Toney and Hayes’ research in the Journal of Behavior and Social Issues (2017) and their interpretation as apologies which are not only under the control of the behavior which preceded them, but also the response of the person who was impacted. In this situation, the children who were impacted (literally), were in various states of being upset, but the child who was apologizing did not seem to have their responses under any control of those stimuli directly. It was not a child to child interaction, there was mediation there that might have actually impeded with those connections. Toney and Hayes explain:

“Perhaps one of the most important understandings provided by a behavioral analysis that contrasts with traditional views is that of the source of control for apologetic responses. It is said that people apologize for what they did and it is believed that one apologizes as a result of his or her aversive behavior. However, at the point of apologizing, the aversive behavior is in the past and therefore cannot exclusively exert control over present behavior (see related discussion in Hayes, 1992, 1998). Instead, it is the victim’s offended response that exerts control over the apologetic response. Given the history of the aversive behavior, the offended response and other stimuli present at the time of conflict now exert control over particular forms of the offender’s verbal behavior that are related to past events. Therefore, the relation that exists between the apology and the aversive behavior is that the apology is the response to the victim’s consequence to the aversive behavior.”- Toney and Hayes (2017)

There are many other factors that Hayes and Toney raise that impact the “victim’s response” including; situational variables, physical pain, nonverbal and paralinguistic features, relationship specific contingencies, behavioral deficits, and frequency. These are all important factors to keep in mind so that we do not oversimplify, but when we frame a situation to be a teaching moment for a child, in hopes that they take on an important skill that will inevitably be useful later in life, why do we focus so much on the words themselves that the “offender” is saying and not the responses and condition of the person effected? Is “sorry” actually enough? Probably not from this behavioral analytic interpretation. Here, the person who was impacted has a role to play. Not just as a background figure who has to be defended by the adult, but as a direct contributor to the contingency.

Perhaps a more comprehensive intervention to teach these skills would have three parts, if we are dealing with school age children or younger who can not resolve these situations themselves:

  1. The Mediator’s Role: A parent, guardian, teacher, staff, therapist, or other responsible individual who is structuring the interaction between the child who was impacted, and the child who engaged in the offending action. Their goal is to facilitate appropriate responses between the two individuals in a way where both can express and learn effectively based on the situational factors above, and the incident.
  2. The Victim’s Role: Facilitated by the mediator to the degree that is necessary for the situation, so that they can express their own response to the action in a meaningful way to the offender. Behaviorally speaking, these should be clear and observable to the offender.
  3. The Offender’s Role: Facilitated by the mediator as well to the degree which is necessary, but one that also includes time for processing the situation, taking in the response(s) of the victim, and then following up with a socially appropriate apology.

Maybe even let those more natural contingencies play out. Let some screaming happen. Let some tears flow. It would not have to be a laboratory setting to get the results that have the lasting effects.

We might infer correctly that “saying sorry” by parroting an adult may not have the same value as an exchange like the one above. It could just be a prompted echoic response that hangs in the air. An S-delta with no effect on future behavior. The other, which weighs heavily on the interaction itself, leads to an actual follow up interaction between the children that may have a greater, or more lasting impact. Now, the offender might not entirely mean it, and the victim may not entirely accept it. Most complex social situations are not cut and dry, but I would argue that we have a better shot at more effective resolution short term, and stronger heuristic outcomes long term than a contrived echoic intervention alone.

What do you think? Thoughts? Comments? Leave them below!

And seriously. Read Toney and Hayes article. It’s fascinating.

References:

Toney, D., & Hayes, L. (2017). A Behavioral Analysis of Apologies, Forgiveness, and Interpersonal Conflict. Behavior and Social Issues, 26, 128.

Image Credits:

http://www.canva.com

A Dad’s Role in ABA Therapy

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Don’t let the title fool you into thinking about this as a division. A father’s role in therapy is the same as a mother’s role in therapy, or any guardian in therapy. Responsibility, respect, love, and contribution. That should be a given. But sometimes it’s not always treated that way.

A recent intake for a client stuck with me. In this intake we were discussing prior ABA services for the child, and how parent training was done, how programs were generalized, and what seemed to fit best with their prior therapy experiences. It’s good to get an idea of these things. Parent participation is important in therapy. Incalculably important. In this particular one, the father mentioned their prior BCBA tended to discard his suggestions on targets, or socially relevant behavior goals. This caused a second or two of an awkward pause where the mother jumped in with a humorous aside about how the BCBA got along much better with her. The thing is, you could see that the way the professional handled that situation limited the father’s future enthusiasm to engage with the process. Some people could often mistake that as the “Dad being distant” cliche, and everything continues as these expectations play out. The problem is, we had a parent interested in a process, who had a voice, and that voice was silenced (ignored) and guided to a false consensus.

There are sometimes these unspoken things, or expectations, in parent roles. Some are traditional things that stick around, some are just artifacts of a bygone era that do more harm than good. Rooting those kinds of things out and making more functional alternatives tend to help the whole process along, relationship wise, responsibility wise, and makes people all together wiser about how they’re behaving and what the expectations are for how therapy will work. Parenting is sometimes rule governed after all. In therapy, professionals, like BCBAs, can sometimes make unspoken rules with unintended consequences. Inferences here. Ignoring something there. The feeling I was getting from this situation above was that there was not an equal input in the last experience with ABA therapy. So, with a little back-stepping to basics, I wrote down all the suggestions both parents had for goals, and funny thing was, Dad said more, and the Mom was surprised. We all learned something. It sounds like a small thing, but imagine what a trend like this could have been long term.

I suggest some very simple ground rules, which should be very obvious:

A client’s mother can have great ideas about therapy goals.

A client’s father can have great ideas about therapy goals.

Any other suitable guardian can have great ideas about therapy goals.

The client themselves can have great ideas about therapy goals.

 

Sometimes these suggestions don’t make sense to us as professionals, sometimes they aren’t age appropriate, sometimes they don’t fit current skill levels, but we don’t just ignore them and silence the people who are invested in the client’s well-being and growth. The whole point here is that there should not be this great distinction between what the Mom can contribute, and what the Dad can contribute. Once we assume one has better ideas, or more time, or more commitment, we do a disservice. Situations may play a role in what happens in actual practice, but those are going to be based on actualities, and not preconceptions. Preconceptions acted on as though they are obervations are not behavior analytic.

Now, there also may be things that we notice between male parents and female parents that are a little different. Sometimes these things are stereotypical. Sometimes the interests follow expectations that we see generalities of in our daily life. We need to make sure we don’t assume too much with these. Treat every situation as though you will be proven wrong. Treat every situation as though you will learn something. Assuming too much is where we always get it wrong. Overlooking things is not scientific.

Data Point of One (Personal Experience Talking)-  On a case, I had a father once who had a different view point on some social goals. There are some situations where the current social goals put the client in what the father called a “weak position” to their peers, based on some peer interactions that had gone a bad route.  At face value, we could either say “NO! The client is expressing themselves! That’s good! What happened wasn’t their fault! Get out of here with that victim blaming!” or, we could take a minute and understand the meaning and sentiment of that worry. The client could be taken advantage of. Social hierarchies exist. Kids take advantage of other kids. Kids hurt other kids. The specific operant behaviors we were teaching here might actually be reinforcing peer aggressive/hurtful verbal behavior. It’s possible. We should probably take a look. Behavior does not occur in a vacuum. It ended up being more complicated than that, but the analysis was warranted. It helped.

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Both parents can contribute. No matter the gender, no matter the outlook, most of the time if you find a parent who cares about their child enough to attend meetings, put the time into the trainings, and are enthusiastic about transferring and generalizing skills, you’ll find someone who can make a contribution to the growth and progress that can not be underestimated. The more hands on deck to getting the client the skills the better. We want more people on our team. We want more people showing love to the client to get them where they can thrive. A large support structure that loves and cares for an individual can make all the difference. We as professionals don’t get to decide who gets a voice and who doesn’t. That’s the lesson.

 

Comments? Questions? Thoughts? Leave them below.

 

Photos: http://www.pexels.com

Beer and Behavior Analysis

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There’s been a shift in culture towards beer recently. Twenty years ago, if you saw the title “Beer and Behavior” you would absolutely expect a scathing speech of the abuses of the drink. This is not going to be that. I assume everyone reading this to be responsible. I’m interested in modern context. The beer industry has grown, become more varied, and those varieties have become more available. Craft brewing has taken off to previously unforeseen heights and different styles and personal recipes of beer are becoming available to the public like never before. It’s amazing. People are demanding more beer, and craft brewers are making it.

Now when there’s socially significant behavior out there, it can be studied. When people engage with their environment, their society, over something they want and will pay for it’s worth knowing how that works. I wanted to see how we could apply some of the concepts we use in Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) to get an idea of it. Behaviors as the consumers, and behaviors as the provider. That’s where Midnight Oil Brewing Company came in to provide the setting for studying and some insights on what the process is like on both sides of the bar. That night, in particular, they had nine of their craft beers on tap and full-house of people engaging in operant behaviors to gain access to them.

Now let’s talk behavior.

Beer can be a Reinforcer. Think of a reinforcer as a type of stimulus that resembles a reward. What makes a reinforcer special is that it maintains or increases the likelihood of the behavior that precedes it. Think of it like this-

A person walks up to the bar and asks for a beer, maybe a Serenity session ale, the bartender pours that beer and hands it to them.

Assuming that the beer is what they like, and they find it reinforcing, the consumer would be likely to return to that same bar and order again. That’s reinforcement. To break it down further- The consumer’s behavior (requesting) operates on the environment for access to that beer. Access to the beer is socially mediated by talking to the bartender and the eventual exchange of money, but if they get access to the beer and like it, the reinforcement acts on that requesting behavior’s presentation in the future. The requesting behavior happens again or might even happen more often. There was a big if in there though. The beer had to be enjoyable, or reinforcing, to the individual for it to work. People have different tastes, and as you may be aware, not all people like all types of beer.

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Beer Flights can be a Preference Assessment for Reinforcers. A preference assessment is a tool used to figure out which stimuli are reinforcing at a given time. This is done by a presentation of a varied set of stimuli to an individual, which they have access to and engage with, and eventually, you get a hierarchy from that. By looking at what gets chosen more, you can tell which stimulus a person likes best at that given moment. Preferred stimuli make for great reinforcers for behavior. Now at a taproom or bar, we can use these preference assessments to determine our own hierarchies of the types of beer we enjoy. This can help us weed out the types we do not like, which help us not select them in the future, from the types we do like.

A person has a flight of 9 beers in front of them. They try all nine, but only like and continue to drink the Stouts, Porters, and Saisons.

On the other side of the bar, a bartender can observe a person with a flight of beers, and use the information from watching what beers were selected and consumed at higher amounts, to make better suggestions for that person’s next choice to order. A little rapport building goes a long way. (I know that I tend to order more of the suggestions of a bartender that understands my preferences. Personal opinion-data point of one.). On the business side of things, having consumers choose a selection of beers they enjoy repeatedly can have long-term reinforcing tendencies on their return and future consumption. Imagine an example of a person mistakenly trying a few beers in a row of a style they dislike. This could punish beer seeking and buying behavior- the opposite of reinforcement. Knowing where to guide a consumer is useful information. The trend of behavior can go in both directions, and a preference assessment could be key in making the experience enjoyable for everyone.

Taprooms can employ J.R Kantor’s Setting Events to create an environment to facilitate engagement from consumers not only as paying customers but prosocially with one another. Some people call this ambiance. Some people call this the “feel” of a place. In early behavior analytic research, behaviorists like J.R Kantor were interested in antecedent stimuli, “things” in the environment that could either prime behavior, or discriminate (select) specific behaviors to occur. These are stimuli, variables in the environment, that may influence certain behaviors to occur over others.

Larger spaces with a higher number of tables could lead to a higher retention of served consumers, more bartenders responding to requests could lead to higher rates of (responsible) beer requests, larger tables could lead to groups forming, televisions playing a specific program could retain specific like-interested individuals, and play-oriented items like boardgames could provide alternative sources of reinforcement and retain consumers on the premises for longer.

The potential is endless, and many of these examples would have to be fine-tuned and tested for practicality, but these are all things that could be set in place before someone even steps foot in the door. Antecedents are powerful things. But Setting Events aren’t the only concepts out there that explore them- there are also Motivating Operations. We’ve talked about Reinforcers, and even Punishers. These are stimuli that have an effect on future behavior, but there was a great researcher named Jack Michael that noticed that there are factors that can momentarily affect the value of those stimuli, and the behaviors seeking them.

Thirst and Hunger can be Unconditioned Motivating Operations. When you see the word Motivating Operation, take the common well-known word of “Motivation” to guide your understanding of it. Unconditioned just means that it is something innate, or not learned. Unconditioned Motivating Operations (UMOs) are often based on natural biological drives, and in taprooms and bars, the most common ones we see are based on deprivation and satiation. Thirst is a great example of a UMO.

If a person is thirsty, a beer is more likely to be a strong reinforcer, and their behavior to seek it out is more likely. The same with hunger, as a UMO for food-seeking behavior, and food as a reinforcer.

The same, however, can go for satiation. If someone is full, that satiation acts as a UMO and abolishes the seeking behaviors and reinforcement value of food or drink.

Beer can involve Conditioned Motivating Operations too. Conditioned Motivating Operations (CMOs) are just like Unconditioned Motivating Operations; they momentarily alter the value of a reinforcer- like beer. The only difference is that these are conditioned, or learned. The research on these has been back and forth. Some say their effects are noteworthy, and others say these theories don’t hold much water. I think they can make a great way of conceptualizing how preferences, or reinforcement values, can be affected by a person’s learned history. To that end, I’m going to try and make a taproom, or beer example, for each type of CMO.

Surrogate Conditioned Motivating Operation (CMO-S)- A surrogate CMO is something that alters the value of a reinforcer because it has been paired with an Unconditioned Motivating Operation, and takes on its effects. Here’s a craft beer example:

Unconditioned Motivating Operation- Deprivation. The value of beer is going to be higher.

Surrogate Conditioned Motivating Operation- “Last Call”. The value of beer is going to be higher due to a paired deprivation scenario (UMO) in the past.

In these conditions, we can speculate that it would have a behavior-altering effect in the same way deprivation does, and a value-altering effect on the beer as a reinforcer for requesting right before time runs out. A deprivation (UMO) has been paired with the “Last Call” stimulus enough that it takes on some of that effect.

Reflexive Conditioned Motivating Operation (CMO-R)- A reflexive CMO alters the value of its own removal. Behaviorally, this is called “discriminated avoidance”. Learned avoidance to a specific thing. Basically- a person is presented with something, they’ve experienced it in the past as something aversive or bad, and they want to get away from it. Just the presentation is enough to cue behaviors to avoid it. Here is a personal Beer CMO-R I’ve experienced.

Conditioned Stimulus- A saison in the middle of a beer flight, which ruins the flavors of otherwise amazing beers tasted afterward.

Reflexive Conditioned Motivation Operation- Seeing the word Saison on a beer flight list. All behaviors that can get the bartender to NOT include it are altered (more likely).

Saisons (NS) are okay types of beers on their own, but again, personal data point of one, ruin the palate for the tastes that follow it when they are in a beer flight (CMO-R). The presentation of a saison in a beer flight is enough for someone (me) to engage in behavior for its removal.

Transitive Conditioned Motivating Operation (CMO-T)- A transitive CMO is something a little broader, and looser, conceptually. It involves an alteration of the value of another stimulus. Generally, through improvement. Like the other CMOs, this is also based on a persons learned history. Some traditional examples like to go for the blocking of a behavior chain, leading to another stimulus to solve it becoming more valuable. I much prefer the “My Friend Has That Beer And Now I Want It Too” transitive conditioned motivating operation conceptualization. For this to work, it requires a learned history of a friend that often selects delicious beer. This delicious beer paired history also has a discriminative quality of “being better” than the persons first choice before. Their friend just picks the better beer every time. It’s not fair. Let’s play it out like this.

Person’s Requesting Behavior: “I’d like an Insomnia Stout”.

Friend’s Order Afterwards: “I’d like you to layer this Doc Brown Ale with the Dark Matter Stout on top.”

Transitive Conditioned Motivating Operation- This value altering condition (Friend’s Order) may not have physically blocked the first response (Person’s First Request), but it is a stimulus presentation with a value altering effect strong enough create the need for a stimulus change.

Person’s Second Requesting Behavior: “NO WAIT! Cancel that first one. I also want that Doc Brown Ale with the Dark Matter Stout on top.”

What do you think? Has that happened to you before? Could it be explained by the transitive conditioned motivating operation? I think it just might.

So we’ve gone through some Behavior Analysis, and we’ve gone through some Beer. Do you have any other examples of common human behavior that could be explained by these terms, or others, behavior analytically?

Questions? Comments? Arguments? Leave them below!

References:

COOPER, JOHN O.. HERON, TIMOTHY E.. HEWARD, WILLIAM L. (2018). APPLIED BEHAVIOR ANALYSIS. S.l.: PEARSON.
Wahler, R. G., & Fox, J. J. (1981). Setting events in applied behavior analysis: Toward a conceptual and methodological expansion. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis,14(3), 327-338. doi:10.1901/jaba.1981.14-327
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“They’re Just Tired”- The Worst Scapegoat Explanation for Behavior

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

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

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

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

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Trade the Nap for some Differential Reinforcement

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

Hard work, right?

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

 

Just kidding.

 

References:

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

Image Credits:

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