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Behaviorism

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Updated on Dec 23, 2009

Behaviorism is the scientific study of observable behavior of living organisms in relation to environmental events. Behaviorists view observable behavior as an important subject matter in its own right and avoid interpreting behavior as a sign of some other psychological phenomenon as other psychological systems do (e.g., interpreting behavior as an indication of repressed psychological content in a Freudian model). Instead, behaviorists seek to identify predictable relationships between environmental events and behavior (Alberto & Troutman, 2003; Cooper, Heron, & Heward, 2007; Miltenberger, 2008). Although the totality of all possible environmental events is theoretically limited only by natural physical laws, behaviorism categorizes all environmental events into three types: neutral events, antecedents, and consequences. Only antecedents and consequences are of interest to behaviorists, who refer to them as stimulus events. Behaviorists study stimulus events that cause behavior to occur, stop occurring, or change in some way as a function of antecedents or consequences to behavior. Behavioral scientists recognize, however, that environmental events that affect behavior as antecedents or consequences often vary from person to person and have developed an experimental methodology that allows them to study these phenomena at the level of the individual organism (single-case experimental designs).

RESPONDENT AND OPERANT CONDITIONING

The two main traditions of behaviorism are respondent conditioning and operant conditioning (Alberto & Trout-man, 2003; Cooper et al., 2007; Miltenberger, 2008). Respondent conditioning studies antecedent events that cause reflexive behavior to occur. For example, if an otherwise neutral stimulus (e.g., a pungent spice) is paired with a noxious stimulus (e.g., spoiled meat) that causes a reflexive action (e.g., upset stomach), the previously neutral stimulus may cause that response in the future (becoming a conditioned stimulus). A relationship between a stimulus and a response that did not exist prior to the pairing has been created: the pungent spice now causes upset stomach.

Operant conditioning studies a different class of behaviors, behaviors that are caused by consequences. Behavior changes the environment in some way, and those changes can become consequences that affect future behavior. For example, if a child's inappropriate comments in the classroom result consistently in laughter such that a contingent relationship is formed and there is an increase over time in the frequency of those comments, then the laughter (social attention) is the consequence that causes the behavior to occur. There are four types of consequences that affect the future probability of behavior, two of which are reinforcers and two of which are punishers. A consequence that increases the future probability is a reinforcer. If an environmental stimulus is added following the occurrence of behavior and the behavior is more likely to occur in the future, the consequence is a positive reinforcer (Milten-berger, 2008). For example, laughter is the positive rein-forcer that increases the future probability of inappropriate comments in the previous example. If an environmental event is removed following the occurrence of behavior and the behavior is more likely to occur in the future, the consequence is a negative reinforcer (Miltenberger, 2008). For example, if a child is sent to time-out for crying and screaming when asked to pick up toys and clean up the room, the child may be reinforced by the removal of the demand (picking up toys and cleaning the room) that occurs when the child is sent to time-out. As a result, crying and screaming are more likely in the future when the child is asked to pick up toys.

Punishment is the other consequence that affects the future probability of behavior. However, its effect is opposite that of reinforcement; it decreases behavior. If an environmental stimulus is added following the occurrence of behavior and the behavior is less likely to occur in the future, the consequences is a positive punisher (Miltenberger, 2008). For example, if a mother gives a stern look at her child when he is making noise in church and the child is less likely to make noise in church in the future, the stern look is a positive punisher. If an environmental stimulus is taken away following the occurrence of behavior and the behavior is less likely to occur in the future, the consequence is a negative punisher (Milten-berger, 2008). For example, when parents take driving privileges away from their adolescent daughter because she was late in returning home and the daughter is less likely to be late in the future, taking away privileges serves as a negative punisher.

Although the primary focus of operant research is on consequences that cause behavior to occur, behavioral scientists are also interested in antecedent influences on operant behavior (Alberto & Troutman, 2003; Cooper et al., 2007; Miltenberger, 2008). An antecedent is any stimulus present when a behavior is reinforced that has a predictable relationship with the occurrence of reinforcement. For example, if laughter following a child's comment occurs only when a particular person (e.g., a friend) is present and does not occur when that person is not present, the antecedent stimulus (presence of friend) is said to exert stimulus control over the behavior (student comment). It is the laughter (social attention) that causes the behavior to occur; however, the antecedent stimulus sets the occasion for the occurrence of the behavior by virtue of its pairing with the consequence.

STUDYING ENVIRONMENTAL FACTORS AND THEIR EFFECT ON BEHAVIOR

Behaviorism assumes that behavior is governed by natural laws that can be meaningfully studied and identified (Bijou, 1970). Behaviorists seek scientific explanations that predict the occurrence of behavior as it relates to environmental events so that the environment can be arranged to foster the organism's (human or animal) ability to adapt to its environment. When a class of environmental events is shown experimentally to have a predictable effect on behavior, behaviorists say that a functional relationship has been established (Alberto & Troutman, 2003; Cooper et al., 2007; Miltenberger, 2008). For example, aberrant human behavior has been shown to increase in frequency as a function of different classes of stimulus events (consequences) such as contingent access to preferred stimuli (e.g., social attention, toys, food) and contingent removal of aversive stimuli (e.g., instructional demands) (Iwata et al., 1994). Behaviorism also assumes that deviant behavior can be treated through its learning paradigm by rearranging stimulus events.

For behaviorists, all types of problem behavior fall into one of two categories; behavioral excesses (i.e., too much behavior) or behavioral deficits (i.e., too little behavior). Identifying existing functional relationships, therefore, allows behaviorists to rearrange the environment to establish more adaptive functional relationships. In the earlier example of a functional relationship between a child's inappropriate comments in the classroom caused by laughter of a friend, the inappropriate comments constitute the behavioral excess and the presence and laughter of the friend are the controlling events. Rearranging the contingencies to reduce the problem through a behavioral treatment could occur in a variety of ways. For example, removing the friend removes the antecedent to problem behavior; rewarding the friend for not laughing eliminates the consequence for problem behavior; rewarding the child who makes inappropriate comments for reducing or eliminating inappropriate comments by allowing him or her to have time with the peer is a means of offering a consequence that may compete effectively with the natural consequence supporting the occurrence of the behavior (peer laughter).

TWENTIETH-CENTURY BEHAVIORAL RESEARCH

The assumptions, methods, and practices of behaviorism make it an ecological model of learning. Behaviorists spend as much time examining the context for the occurrence of behavior as they do behavior itself. This dimension of behaviorism has developed over time. Early behavioral research in the twentieth century gave rise to the tradition of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior, which used single-case experimental methodology to study a wide variety of types of behavior-environment relationships largely in animals. During this phase of the field's development, the research was largely conducted in carefully designed and controlled experimental contexts. Toward the middle of the twentieth century, behaviorists began to see potential application of the principles and methods to human environments, which resulted in the emergence of the tradition of Applied Behavior Analysis (Baer, Wolf, & Risley, 1968). The field of Applied Behavior Analysis was particularly concerned with addressing human problems (e.g., psychopa-thology, educational learning, work related difficulties) in their natural context.

Early behavioral treatments often imposed novel and complex generated reinforcement contingencies (e.g., token economies) on existing, natural conditions (Martens, Witt, Daly, & Vollmer, 1999). As the field matured, researchers and clinicians began examining contingencies (antecedents, reinforcers, and punishers) that were already in existence in the natural environment prior to prescribing behavioral treatments. As a result, behavioral treatments became less cumbersome and were better adapted to the environments in which they were being applied. The earlier example of how to respond to inappropriate classroom comments demonstrates how an analysis of classroom contingencies can lead to a treatment that is uniquely adapted to the context in which the problem occurs. An important and unique aspect of the tradition of Applied Behavior Analysis is that both the principles of behavior (e.g., positive and negative reinforcement, punishment, stimulus control) and the actual methodology for studying behavior (use of single-case experimental design elements) can be applied in educational and clinical situations.

BENEFITS OF APPLIED BEHAVIOR ANALYSIS IN EDUCATION

Applied Behavior Analysis is the version of behaviorism that is best suited to educational settings because it has produced the most useful technologies for addressing student learning and problems students typically encounter in schools. Applied Behavior Analysis is the standard of practice in the field of developmental disabilities, both in terms of teaching adaptive behavioral repertoires (e.g., self-help skills, safety behaviors, vocational training) and addressing maladaptive problem behaviors (e.g., self-injury) that are all too frequent in this population (Mil-tenberger, 2008). Functional analysis of behavior is a well-developed protocol (based on hundreds of studies) for identifying stimulus events that control problem behavior as a basis for developing behavioral treatments and has been studied extensively regarding individuals with developmental disabilities, behavioral disorders, educational disabilities, and those at-risk for learning and behavior problems (O'Neill et al., 1997). In schools, functional behavioral assessment (which involves intensive and systematic study of functional relationships in natural classroom settings using methods of Applied Behavior Analysis) is a requirement of federal special educational law under some circumstances. Positive Behavior Support is an outgrowth of functional behavioral assessment that applies methods of Applied Behavior Analysis at the school building or district level for reducing the overall level of problem behaviors.

There are also teaching models that have been developed based on the science of Applied Behavior Analysis. Direct Instruction, an instructional package that has been shown to produce strong academic learning effects over thirty years of implementation and evaluation (Adams & Carnine, 2003), was originally developed based on a stimulus control paradigm: Instructional materials and lessons are designed to assure the clearest possible presentation of instructional tasks and occasion high rates of student responding to foster strong functional relationships between academic tasks and student responding.

A related development in instructional technology is Precision Teaching (Johnson & Layng, 1992), which uses behavioral fluency training and frequent student monitoring to produce generalizable skill repertoires that make harder tasks easier to learn as students progress through the curriculum. In the field of autism, discrete trial training has achieved enormous popularity. The Comprehensive Application of Behavior Analysis to Schooling (CABAS) is another model used for children with autism and other disabilities (Greer, 1994). CABAS applies frequent and systematic prompting and consequences (learn units) to student academic responding. Behaviorism in its early 21st century form has developed into a number of applications that share a common view of the importance of measuring observable relationships between behavior and the natural contexts in which it occurs.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Adams, G., & Carnine, D. (2003). Direct instruction. In H. Lee Swanson, K. R. Harris, & S. Graham (Eds.), Handbook of learning disabilities (pp. 403–416). New York: The Guilford Press.

Alberto, P. A., & Troutman, A. C. (2003). Applied behavior analysis for teachers (6th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Merrill Prentice Hall.

Baer, D. B., Wolf, M. M., & Risley, T. R. (1968). Some current dimensions of applied behavior analysis. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 1, 91–97.

Bijou, S. W. (1970). What psychology has to offer education—now. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 3, 65–71.

Cooper, J. O., Heron, T. E., & Heward, W. L. (2007). Applied behavior analysis (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Macmillan.

Greer, R. D. (1994). The measure of a teacher. In R. Gardner III, D. M. Sainato, J. O., Cooper, T. E. Heron, W. L. Heward, J. W. Eshleman, & T. A. Grossi. (Eds.), Behavior analysis in education: Focus on measurably superior instruction (pp. 161–172). Pacific Grove, CA: Brooks/Cole Publishing Co.

Iwata, B. A., Dorsey, M. F., Slifer, K. J., Bauman, K. E., & Richman, G. S. (1994). Toward a functional analysis of self-injury. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 27, 215–240. (Reprinted from Analysis and Intervention in Developmental Disabilities, 2, 1–20, 1982).

Johnson, K. R., & Layng, T. V. J. (1992). Breaking the structuralist barrier: Literacy and numeracy with fluency. American Psychologist, 47, 1475–1490.

Martens, B. K., Witt, J. C., Daly, E. J., III, & Vollmer, T. R. (1999). Behavior analysis: Theory and practice in educational settings. In C. R. Reynolds & T. B. Gutkin (Eds.), The handbook of school psychology (3rd ed., pp. 638-663). New York, NY: John Wiley & Sons.

Miltenberger, R. G. (2008). Behavior modification: Principles and procedures (4th ed.). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth/Thomson Learning.

O'Neill, R. E., Horner, R. H., Albin, R. W., Sprague, J. R., Storey, K., & Newton, J. S. (1997). Functional assessment of problem behavior: A practical assessment guide (2nd ed.). Pacific Grove, CA: Brooks/Cole.

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