What is Behaviour Analysis?



Behaviour analysis is the scientific and empirical study of behaviour. The basis of the science is that behaviour is the product of an individual’s environment, and how we behave today is based on the interaction between us and the environment throughout our history.

The foundations of this science of behaviour are two ground-breaking theories of behaviour: classical/respondent conditioning and operant conditioning.

Classical Conditioning

In 1902, Ivan Pavlov carried out an infamous study with dogs. He observed that there are certain responses that are hard-wired into dogs, and almost all living organisms. For example, if you present a dog with their favourite treat, they salivate. In behaviourist terms, the food is therefore an unconditioned stimulus, and the salivation in this circumstance would be an unconditioned response. These responses do not require any training or teaching, they just happen. The same is true for startle or suckling responses of baby. You do not need to teach these.

In his study, however, he introduced a neutral stimulus, in this case a metronome, alongside the unconditioned stimulus. A neutral stimulus is anything that doesn’t at elicit a response at present. During the study, he was able to condition, or teach, the dog to associate the metronome with the unconditioned stimulus (food), so that after several presentations, he was able to elicit the response of salivating by presenting only the metronome, even when food was not present. This is now a conditioned response, with the metronome being a conditioned stimulus.

In short, Pavlov realised that different environmental stimuli can be associated with each other, and previously neutral stimuli can begin to elicit the responses of the stimuli it is associated with. Have you ever seen heard your phone buzz and new that you had a text message before you even looked at your phone? That’s classical conditioning. That otherwise random buzz has been associated with receiving a text. Or have you ever had food poisoning and felt sick whenever you see or smell the food you eat before throwing up?

Classical conditioning can also explain how phobias can develop, as Watson and Raynor were able to demonstrate in their ‘Little Albert’ study. At first, they presented a young boy called Albert with a white rat, and he showed no fear. They then began to present the rat with a loud bang, which elicited a startle and fear response and made Little Albert cry. After several presentations, Albert would cry when only presented with the rat, even without the loud bang. This same rat that Albert was fine with prior to the conditioning. Not only this, Albert also cried when stimuli that looked or felt similar to the rat was presented, including cotton wool and a father Christmas mask.

Operant Conditioning

Classical conditioning can go a long way to explain many behaviours, but it doesn’t explain all behaviours. This is where BF Skinner’s theory of operant conditioning comes in. Operant conditioning states that behaviour is strengthened or weakened by what happens directly after the behaviour occurs, also known as the consequence of behaviour. In behavioural terms, this strengthened is known as ‘reinforcement’ and the weakening is known as ‘punishment’.

In his studies, BF Skinner studies animals, including rats and pigeons, and showed that when the behaviour of pulling a level resulted in the delivery of a food pellet, it led to the animal doing this more frequently going forward, yet when it resulted in a small electric shock, they did it far less going forward.

Reinforcement and punishment can be described as positive and negative. Positive does not mean that it is good, but that it adds something to the environment. For example, a positive reinforcement can be verbal praise or a reward, whereas a positive punishment can be a reprimand or a fine. Negative means that something is removed from the environment. Negative reinforcement may be removal of pain or something else aversive, and negative punishment can be timeout (where attention is removed) or removal of privileges.

Not only was Skinner able to demonstrate how consequences influenced behaviours, but he was also able to create associations between different stimuli, so that when a green light showed, this indicated that ‘reinforcement’ was available, and the rat or pigeon would engage in the behaviour at a high rate. On the other hand, when a red light showed, this indicated that punishment was available when engaging in the behaviour, and the animal would engage in the behaviour at a far less frequency. These indicators of whether reinforcement or punishment is available are called antecedent stimuli.

This interaction between behaviour and its antecedents and consequences is what is studied by behaviourists and helps us to understand why behaviour occurs. This antecedent, behaviour, consequences sequence is called a behavioural contingency, and analysing these contingencies is the main focus of behavioural assessment today.

It is important to note that the term punishment is used frequently in everyday life and doesn’t always mean the same as it does in this case. Ultimately, for it to be considered punishment behaviourally, it needs to lead to the reduction in behaviour over time. Just because something may be a punishment for one person does mean it is a punishment for another. Same is true for reinforcement. Attention can be very reinforcing for some but punishing for others. Same can be true for timeout (this can actually be reinforcing if it provides an escape from a situation that someone doesn’t want to be in)!

The Application of Behaviour Analysis

Behaviour analysis, and the study of behaviour, can be applied to anyone (or anything) that engages in behaviour, which is virtually every human, animal and living organism out there. Behaviour analysis is primarily applied to individuals on the autism spectrum and intellectual disabilities, to reduce behaviours of concern and increase functional skills (such as communication skills). But it can also be used with neurotypical children to aid the learning process.

The science has also been used to train a variety of animals, including dogs and rats. For example, behaviourist approaches are the foundation of most pet training programs and has also been used to train animals to detect bombs and illegal substances to aid in police searches.

Thinking back to the application to humans, behavioural science can be used to increase productivity and efficiency of staff teams and organisations, increase safety behaviours in industries such as mining and manufacturing, support with brain injury rehabilitation, support the maintenance of behaviours with individuals diagnosed with dementia, support the decrease in unwanted behaviours with elderly individuals (such as aggression associated with dementia), support the treatment of substance use and mental health disorders, and so much more.

If you would like to discuss how behaviour analysis can be help you or your organisation, please contact us and arrange a free 30-minute consultation.

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