How Behaviour Works -

The Behavioural Contingency



Every behaviour has a story: a beginning, a middle, and an end. It’s this story that helps us to understand why behaviours occur, and it’s this story that we are going to go through in this article. In behavioural terms, we call this story a behavioural contingency, a ‘four-term behavioural contingency’ to be exact. The four terms are different parts of this story. These are motivation, antecedents, behaviours, and consequences.

Motivation (Motivating Operations, or Setting Events)

This is the first part of the story, or the four-term behavioural contingency, and often sets the stage for behaviours to occur, which is why they’re often called setting events. These things don’t necessarily trigger behaviours, per se, but they do make behaviours more likely to occur. These are also called ‘establishing operations’.

For example, hunger is likely to make food seeking behaviours more likely to occur. A lack of sleep is likely to make many of us less patient, or crankier, and makes it more likely for us to engage in snappy verbal comebacks or crying (don’t judge me…).

There are also things that can make us less likely to engage in behaviours, known as ‘abolishing operations’. For example, feeling warm makes us less likely to put a fan on, and having just eaten makes us less likely to engage in food seeking behaviours.

Many of these establishing or abolishing operations are innate or automatic. They happen without the need to train, or condition, them to become establishing or abolishing operations. There are, however, some things that can become establishing or abolishing operations over time, through association. For example, if you receive a lot of negative feedback from a supervisor, over time, you may associate the office or workplace with this supervisor and begin to avoid the place as well as the supervisor. Or, if someone puts a lock on the fridge, this increases the value of the key when you are hungry. Or when you order fries, the value of ketchup can increase at that time, however when you finish the fries, you then may no longer want the ketchup.


Now the stage has been set, lets move forward to right before the behaviour occurs. As covered on the page ‘What is Behaviour Analysis?’, there are two types of behaviour: reflexive behaviours elicited from the environment, or operant behaviours. Both of these behaviours have antecedents, but they act differently.

With reflexive behaviours, the antecedent is the environmental stimuli that triggers the behaviour. For example, with Pavlov, the antecedent of the food or the metronome is what triggers the dog to salivate. With Little Albert, the white rat triggers the fear response, and leads to the child crying. These triggering stimuli can be unconditioned (i.e. naturally occurring, has never been conditioned or taught), or conditioned (i.e. stimuli that has been associated with an unconditioned stimulus through the classical conditioning process). These are called reflexive for a good reason; they immediately trigger a behaviour. If you touch a hot surface, you immediately pull your arm back. If you see or smell sushi, the very thing that made you violently sick the last time you ate it, you begin to feel nauseous and avoid it.

The other type of behaviour, operant behaviour, the antecedent is the environmental stimuli that signifies that either reinforcement or punishment is available. In Skinner’s experiments with rats and pigeons, he would often use green and red lights to signify that pressing a level will result in either food or an electric shock respectively. These lights are the antecedents.

In day-to-day life, these stimuli are everywhere. The red traffic light indicates that you should stop, or you may get into a car accident, or receive a fine. The police car you drive by results in you slowing down in case you get a speeding ticket. The smell of freshly made cookies signifies that delicious food is available somewhere.


The behaviour part of the story is the most obvious. Its what the person actually does. This may be behaviour that society deems to be appropriate, or inappropriate. When we think about young people with autism or intellectual disabilities, the inappropriate behaviour, or behaviours of concern, can include the verbal or physical aggression, the running away from the situation, the eating of inedible objects…

But behaviour also includes the behaviours we want to see more of. The tapping of the shoulder of the teacher, instead of screaming their name for hours, asking for a break or for an activity to finish instead of running away. Both of these behaviours have their own story or contingencies, and it’s important to consider both of them when thinking about behaviours and why they occur.


And finally, something always happens after the behaviour occurs. This either reinforces the behaviour and leads to the behaviour being more likely to occur again in the future or punishes the behaviour and leads to the behaviour being less likely to occur again in the future.

For example, if we have a headache and take a painkiller, which leads to the pain going away after a short period of time, we are more likely to take the same painkiller again next time we have a headache. If it doesn’t, then we probably won’t waste our time doing it. Or say every time you put a pound coin into the vending machine and press a button, it gives you a nice cool beverage. If you’re thirsty and want a drink, what are you going to do? But say suddenly, this stops. You may try again, then if it does work, start trying other things, like kicking the machine. This sudden increase and variability in behaviour is known as an extinction burst, and often occurs when implementing behavioural change interventions. After awhile, however, you won’t keep wasting your time and money on the machine, realising it’s broken. Your behaviour has changed because the consequence to your behaviour has changed. This is one of the primary considerations when analysing why behaviour occurs, as well as designing and implementing behaviour change strategies, and why this part of the story if usually the most important!

And that’s how behaviours work. Each behaviour has this beginning, middle and end, as well as events that set the stage for the story to happen in the first place. It’s this story that we look at when we begin behavioural assessments and are trying to find out why behaviour is occurring. The ‘why’ is always something to do with the antecedents and/or the consequences.

If you would like to discuss why behaviours may be occurring for your child or relative, please contact us to arrange a chat, to discuss how we can help you understand the behaviour better through behavioural assessment, and how that can lead to designing and implementing behavioural change strategies and interventions.

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