ABA - Where did it come from and what do we believe?

Behaviorism is the belief that a science of behavior is possible. In framing behaviorism as a science, we can describe why people behave in a certain way based on observable and measurable factors, rather than needing to resort to assumptions. Much like the concept of gravity replaced ancient Greek beliefs that movements of planets and stars were controlled by gods, the scientific study of behavior has replaced mentalism. Mentalism is the notion that people act in certain ways due to unobservable psychological phenomena, such as feelings. For example, after observing a child throw a tantrum in a grocery store, a parent following a mentalistic approach may state, “He’s doing that because he is mad.” A behaviorist, however, would not find this explanation useful because we cannot directly observe emotions. There are likely many observable behaviors that occur when a child is mad. The behaviorist would instead seek to observe the behavior and surrounding events in an objective manner.

We can observe the behaviors that are related to ‘being mad’ and can evaluate what is occurring in the child’s environment when those behaviors occur. Let’s break the previously mentioned scenario down with a behaviorist approach:

  1. The environment and behavior have a bi-directional relationship- the environment and behavior have a cause and effect relation to one another. In other words, the environment affects behavior and in turn behavior creates changes in the environment. In the example above, yes, the child may be upset, but if we look into the circumstances that happened at the time of the tantrum, we likely can find clues from the environment that led to these feelings. These factors in the environment are responsible for the behavior.

  2. The environment leads to behavior- There are two factors that need to be present prior to behavior occurring: motivation and what behavior analysts call discriminative variables. When thinking about motivation, we can think about how much somebody is willing to work for a certain thing, or in simple terms, how much they want something. Motivation is what drives us to behave.

Discriminative variables refer to something present in the environment, which make other things are more likely to occur when we act a certain way. In the example above, the child’s parents may give him an item that he wants so that he calms down for their shopping trip. The combination of his parents being present (discriminative variable) and not getting an item that he wants (motivation) may have led to the tantrum.

  1. Behavior leads to changes in the environment- everything we do results in some sort of change to the environment. For example, a child’s tantrum may embarrass his parents and lead to them rewarding his behavior by providing him with an item he wants. This teaches him that having a tantrum in the grocery store leads to things he wants. Since this led to a positive outcome for him, he will likely do this in the future. In contrast, his parents could bring him outside of the store to calm down, which would teach him that having tantrums does not lead to things he wants. This would make the child less likely to have a tantrum in the store in the future.

In our upcoming posts, we will talk about the cause-and-effect relationship between the environment and behavior. We call any change to the environment that occurs before a behavior an antecedent. When we look at antecedents, we can see what is motivating the behavior and what context the behavior occurs in. Changes to the environment that occur after a behavior are called consequences. Consequences are what determine whether a behavior will occur more or less often in the future. Behavior analysts look at antecedents and consequences to develop methods to change behavior in any living organism. This means that the science of behavior can be applied to your child, spouse, friends, or even your pets.

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