Sunday, 29 May 2016

Geek Out - The Science of Behaviour Change - Part 1

As most of you are reading this, I am likely on a plane to Chicago for the annual conference for behaviour analysts. It is 3 full, full days of behaviour change (8 am -7pm)! While my interests are in autism and developmental disabilities, some of the other topics I saw in the over 500 events included, gambling, climate change, exercise, animal training . . . . It is my geek out weekend!

In honour of my geek out weekend I am going to try and explain the science of behaviour change as simply as possible. It is almost as simple as ABC!

An Antecedent occurs in the environment (some people outside the science refer to this as a trigger), this results in an immediate Behaviour (in this case we are meaning something that is observable and measurable) and it results in a Consequence.

There are 3 types of consequences.
If a behaviour is staying the same or increasing, something is reinforcing it.
If a behaviour decreases one of two things is happening: the behaviour is being put on extinction (meaning the reinforcer is being withheld) or it is being punished.

There are several things that make behaviours more or less likely to occur.
The first is motivating operations. If you are highly motivated (we call this having an establishing operation - think state of deprivation), you are more likely to engage in certain behaviours. If you are not motivated (we call this an abolishing operation - think a state of satiation) you are less likely to engage in certain behaviours.

There are also setting events. These are things that happened before the antecedent or are within a person (such as not getting enough sleep, or having a headache). They don't specifically cause a behaviour to occur, that is the antecedent, but may make some behaviours more or less likely to happen.

Ok, enough with the boring science (which I love) and on to how this works.

Let's do an example with food because we all face food related behaviours everyday!

Let's say, I come home from a rough day at work (and for me that would be a client was aggressive). I got scratched and kicked and am feeling a bit grumpy (setting event).
Also, because I was getting scratched and bit, I didn't have time for lunch, so I am really motivated (I am deprived) to engage in behaviour that would result in food. (For example, opening the fridge, or cupboard).
I come in hungry, and grumpy, (Lord help my husband), and there is a big bag of my favourite kind of chips in the cupboard.
Seeing the chips is the antecedent to picking them up and eating them.
Because for a moment the chips taste soooooo good and they decrease my hunger and maybe even my grumpiness, my chip eating behaviour is reinforced, and I am more likely to eat chips again in the future.

If this situation was a bit different, say work was fine, I had my lunch, I wasn't starving, there was a big bowl of fruit on the counter, my behaviour may change.

Further, if the chips made me really sick, my chip eating behaviour would likely be punished and I would be less likely to eat chips in the future.

Please feel free to ask me questions, this is truly my life passion!

Next week, I will share some more about the science of behaviour change!


  1. I look forward to chatting with you about this at BAR! Something I have noticed is that I get (psychologically?) compelled (by habit?) to eat certain things every day. But after something changes my habit (like a vacation) it is easy to come back and change my habit. But eventually I drift back into it and here we go again . . .


  2. This is very interesting. I also can't wait to hear more!