Tuesday, August 31, 2010

The Good... The Bad... The Positive... the Negative - Part 1

Too often I hear the word "reinforcer" or "reinforcement" used incorrectly.

B.F. Skinner defines reinforcers according to the change in response strength rather than to more subjective criteria, such as what is pleasurable or valuable to someone.

This means we can only define something as a reinforcer if it changes behavior.

Simply said - we know a behavior has been reinforced if it keeps ocurring. No matter how we perceive the consequence, the one who is engaging in the behavior determines the reinforcer.

Stimuli, settings, and activities only fit the definition of reinforcers if the behavior that immediately precedes the potential reinforcer increases in similar situations in the future.

So, when I hear someone tell me, "My kid always mouths off to me. Everytime he does it, I yell at him and send him to his room."

That "every time" is ALREADY telling me that this behavior has been reinforced again and again and again. I know it has because it keeps occurring. Again and again. And again. EVEN if the consequence is yelling. Or getting sent away. EVEN if we perceive the consequence as "aversive"

But how can this be?

Well, we cannot argue with science. We cannot argue with other people, and convince them they SHOULD NOT find a response reinforcing. They just do. And there is nothing we can do about it right away. Usually, we need to deliver a plethora of other reinforcing responses and hopefully the scales tip more in the favor of a more appropriate reinforcer. But that does not happen right away. I always tell people that we cannot determine a reinforcer - we can only identify it. The reinfocer is in the eye of the one who finds it reinforcing.

There is a difference between a reinforcer and a reward. A reward is delivered at the end of the task. We HOPE that the reward will have an impact on the future occurrence of behavior, but there is no guarantee. We only know a reward is acting as a reinforcer the NEXT time the individual has the opportunity to respond to the environment, engage in the behavior, and gain access to the reinforcer.

Science holds no bias. The science of behavior works - for the "good" behaviors and for the "bad" behaviors. It is up to us to manipulate the environment and our responses to the behavior if we want to change it.

Look around you.

The person who dresses provocatively does so because her history of dressing provocatively has been reinforced with other's responses

The person who talks about himself excessively - this behavior has been reinforced

The person who gives up his seat on the subway for another . This behavior has been reinforced.

I could go on and on. The truth is - ALL behavior has been reinforced. We are all behavioral beings who have learned through trial and error, through a long history of reinforcement.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

People Behave in Ways that Work for Them

I have come to discover that most people - especially the difficult people that others might not like - are not really "bad", but the product of a long history of reinforcement.

I am not talking about people who kill, or abuse others (at least not today).

I am talking about people who engage in behaviors that have always worked for them. No one ever fixes what ain't broke.

I will bring up a recent interaction I had with a young man - I will call him Phillip.

Every summer, my family and I go to a folk festival. I have been volunteering there for 12 years. My husband joined me when we were dating about 6 years ago, and has been volunteering ever since. This past summer, my husband and I were made crew chiefs for the parking crew, where we scheduled and placed volunteers in the parking lot.

All of our volunteers were given shifts. We asked that everyone show up on time for their shifts, since the previous shift would need to be relieved.

On day one, Phillip, an 18 year old young man, showed up late for his shift. I reminded him for future shifts, he would need to arrive on time.

Immediately, while addressing this with him, Phillip - a very tall young man, put his hands behind his back, lowered his head, pouted, and proceeded to tell me he was very, very sorry, and he would not do it again.

I felt like I was reprimanding my 3 year old son. But I let it go, and told him the next shift, he must show up on time.

The following day, he showed up 45 minutes late. I asked him why he was late. He again "assumed the position" - hands behind the back, head down, etc. He told me he didn't know why he was late, and he was very very sorry. I asked him if he thought it was fair for the person who was waiting for him to relieve him. With his head bowed, he replied "no" and again repeated how sorry he was.

I informed him if he showed up late the following day, he would lose his volunteer bracelet, and would have to pay to be at the festival.

Sure enough, the following day, my husband walky talkied me to let me know Phillip showed up an hour late. I told him to remove his bracelet.

Phillip waited and waited and waited, without his bracelet, to talk to me. When I arrived at the parking area, Phillip stood in front of me, and again placed his hands behind his back, bowed his head, pouted, and spoke in an immature voice. He told me he doesn't understand why he wasn;t showing up on time, and how sorry he was - over and over again.

I should say that Phillip is an intelligent young man. But I watched him stand there and behave like a 3 year old child. Now... This is a good looking kid, and a charming young man. I stepped out and observed the scenario.

Here is this young man, first and foremost - engaging in avoidant behavior. Showing up late repeatedly has a function.... He clearly was escaping his volunteer job.

Phillip continued to engage in avoidant and escape behavior by "assuming the position" - the hands behind the back, bowing the head, pouting, and repeating "sorry". I am sure his history of reinforcement taught him if he stood and acted humble, he would escape further reprimands.

By playing on another's sympathy - saying he can't understand WHY he isn't showing up on time, and promising he will try much harder - may get him some attention. Typically, the other party might try to console him, or comfort him by saying "I understand. You are doing the best you can"

These behaviors might also get him to access something tangible. He gets to keep his job, or get something else he wants with this behavior.

I am going to hazard to guess the above behaviors worked like a charm with his mom.

However, Phillip did not realize he was barking up the wrong tree.

I let him know that he was done with my crew. I informed him of the multiple reminders and the last chance I gave him.

Then, an interesting behavioral phenomenon occurred. Extinction, and the extinction burst.

Extinction occurs when a behavior that was previously reinforced no longer gets reinforced. As a result, the behavior occurs at a greater intensity and frequency with the hope for reinforcement. The increased intensity and frequency is called the "extinction burst"

I have included a link to my favorite example of an extinction burst EVER!


In Phillip's case, he proceeded to get angry. His demeanor changed. He no longer "assumed the position". As a matter of fact, he stood up tall, looked me in the eye, and asked me what my problem was. That he was "just trying to help out" and I wasn't letting him. He realized that the behaviors that were previously reinforced for God knows how long, were no longer being reinforced, and he was at a loss. He did not know what to do next.

He had no money to purchase a festival ticket, and "assumed the position" to the volunteer coordinator. I warned her that he would sucker her in, and she was - only slightly.

He wound up getting on a new crew. Garbage detail. I was told they worked his butt off.

I am sure Phillip will continue to use those behaviors until he discovers they won't work anymore. The bad news is - enough people will reinforce him for a while to keep it going.

Monday, August 2, 2010

My big, Fat, Behavior Intro

OK…. So before I get too deep into all the details of behavior and how it relates to us, I want to make sure we are all have working definition of behavior.

Behavior is anything observable. Anything we do and say that can be observed is behavior. Behavior is communication.

The act of speaking is behavior – but so is the act of walking, pushing, hitting, etc.

All animals – and human beings fall under that category – have their reasons for behaving the way they do. As complex as we would like to believe we are, when it comes to surviving on this planet – we are all simple.

The need to survive is the great equalizer.

B.F. Skinner is the father of behaviorism. Behaviorism seeks to understand behavior as a function of environmental histories of reinforcing consequences.

That means that everything that is around us affects our behavior.

Everything we have come in to contact with in some way has affected our behavior, and how we behave in the future.

The focus of my blog will be to make this concept easy to understand!

The acronym that is used in behavior land is MEATS.

M = Medical
E = Escape/Avoidance
A = Attention
T = Tangible
S= Sensory

We can categorize ALL behavior under the above functions of behavior. There can be more than one function, but they will always fall under these categories.

Medical - We ALWAYS look at medical first. We always want to rule out a medical reason for behavior. If you are sick, you will behave very differently than when you are not sick. My son, when he was a baby, never engaged in the behavior of tugging on his ear unless he had an ear infection. If I were to go right for the other functions of behavior, I would not be treating him correctly.

Once it is ruled out that an individual is healthy, the other functions of behavior are looked at.

Escape/Avoidance – Any behaviors that get you out of a situation. Think when you are at a cocktail party, and someone is talking your ear off. You can engage in a number of escape behaviors. You can excuse yourself to get a drink, use the restroom, tell the person you see someone you want to catch up with. Those can all be categorized under “escape”. Once you leave that person, you may engage in avoidant behavior for the rest of the evening to steer clear of the person.

When I go to the mall, I engage in avoidant behavior by putting my cell phone to my ear every time I pass a kiosk where someone wants to “ask me a question.” Of course, I can just tell these people I am not interested, but I don’t….

Attention – Whether it is “good” attention or “bad” attention – attention is any response to behavior mediated by another individual. Sometimes it is not just the attention that someone is seeking, but a consistent and predictable response. We tell someone “I love you” not just to bare our souls, but to receive that predictable response back of “I love you too.” That is attention seeking behavior. We engage in a behavior to get a behavior back in return.

Tangible – Everyone behaves in various ways to get access to things that they want. If the end product is that the item is in our hot little hands, we have engaged in a behavior with a tangible function.

Sensory – We ALL have behaviors we engage in simply because they feel good. Touching, eating, smoking, drinking, etc – all can fall under that category.

As I mentioned above, there can be more than one function to a behavior. We can go out to a bar, and the function can be all of the above – to escape a task at home, engage in attention seeking behavior with friends, and feel good.

I will continuously be referring to these functions throughout my blog. It would be impossible to write a behavior blog without beating these functions to the ground.

Hopefully, out of all my entries, this will be the most boring. I am obliged to start this blog explaining these functions so that the rest will make more sense, and it can be fleshed out well!