ABA in my world: Or is my world ABA?


By Christopher Bloh, Ph.D., BCBA-D

Guest Writer

I don’t think that I’m unique as a behavior analyst to say that I understand my world through Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA).  What my friends may say is ‘fun,’ I note as reinforcing (provided that the behavior is repeated).  When students or others greet me at work, I wonder if they are manding for just attention or something else.  If my communicative partner replies something that I view to be odd, I mark it as an incorrect or inappropriate intraverbal.  Being given vocal directions on an exercise, I say to myself, “Don’t bother telling me about it.  I’m just going to engage in motor imitation.”  While this may seem odd, weird, or geeky for the non-behavior analyst, this is fun for me.  It helps me to understand and even control (a little…maybe) how my world works.  It may sound like a cliché, but my behavior analyst ‘meter’ does not stop running when I’m outside of work.  I analyze the world around me on the way home, in stores, and even analyze behaviors and stimuli that occur at home.  Don’t pity me.  As I stated previously, this is fun and apparently reinforcing for me.

How early does ABA make an appearance in my understanding of the day?  While I can’t claim that this happens every day, I do sometimes consider the most salient reinforcer when I awake.  Is it more reinforcing for me to go back to sleep now or go to the gym?  Since skipping the gym is not an option for me (long, long history of reinforcement), it tends to get a little complicated.  While resuming sleep (a likely positive reinforcer) may seem like a good idea, going to the gym and getting it done (negative reinforcer) would allow me access to other activities during that time frame which I find positively reinforcing.  Exercise is also positively reinforcing for me because I like the way it makes me feel and look, so I continue to do it.  Thus, choosing going to the gym over additional sleep seems like an easy choice.  However, establishing operations also play a role.

An Establishing operation (EO) is a variable that momentarily affects the saliency of a reinforcer (Keller & Schoenfeld, 1950).  Michael (1988) elaborated on EO and describes deprivation as a motitative EO, in that it can momentarily alter the reinforcing efficacy of other events.  While getting out of bed and going to the gym would give me access to quantitatively more reinforcers (both positive and negative) than going back to sleep, I stayed up late last night.  In other words, I was deprived of sleep.  This deprivation (EO) strengthens the effectiveness of sleep as a reinforcer.  Though the number of potential reinforcers accessible by getting up and going to the gym outnumbers the single reinforcer of going back to sleep, all reinforcers are not created equal, especially with a formidable EO present.

I made my choice, started my day, and drive to the gym.  During my drive, I engaged in rule-governed behavior.  Skinner (1974) suggested that obeying laws and following directions constitute rule-governed behavior.  While I may have obeyed the speed limit through rule-governed behavior, it may have been influenced by consequences.  Admittedly, being pulled over for speeding in the past has affected my driving behavior.  This could be understood as contingency-shaped behavior through getting a ticket and paying a fine.  Since this unpleasant experience has not occurred for years (thankfully), my behavior was occasioned solely by the posted discriminative stimuli (speed limit signs), classifying it as rule-governed.

Upon returning from the gym, I prepared for my work day by engaging in the expected adaptive behavior like showering, shaving, and identifying clean, seasonally-appropriate clothing.  Why?  I could state that I simply want to look ‘nice’ or ‘take pride in my appearance.’  While those claims could be true, my behavior analyst mind considered what could be reinforcing for human interactions.  I’m a teacher and my students (I believe as I can’t state that I know that their attending is affected by the way I look because I always dress ‘professionally’) are more likely to attend to my behavior if I ‘look nice.’  What about my clothes?  I sure would feel more comfortable wearing the t-shirts and shorts I wear at home but may not get the same type of responses from my classes.  ABA does not claim a monopoly on explaining human behavior.  Bandura (1968) claimed that the social status of the model could affect the likelihood of the behavior being imitated.  So, if I look that I am competent through a professional appearance, my students will act as I do and potentially attend more.  A layman might corruptly define this behavior as ‘fake it until you make it.’

I arrived at work and it appeared time to interact with other humans.  This is where my covert verbal behavior analysis likely begins.  Verbal behavior is behavior that is reinforced by the mediation of another (Skinner, 1957).  Up until this time, I really haven’t had to qualitatively interact with others.  In my role as a teacher, interactions are necessary and preferred.

I see a student in the hallway and say, “Hi, how are you?” noting that I just manded for information.  She responds, “I’m great.  I’ll see you at 11:00AM,” and I note an appropriate intraverbal on her part.  Seeing another student busily writing something into a notebook, I don’t say anything to distract her.  As I walk by, she looks up but still scribbles.  I smile and she smiles back but continues writing.  Thinking about it, I didn’t mand for her to smile but she did engage in motor imitation of my behavior.  So, my smiling served as a discriminative stimulus for her motor imitation, I’m satisfied.  I hear a, “Good morning,” directed to me from another student.  I respond, “Good morning,” and covertly question whether that should be classified as an echoic or intraverbal.  While my vocal response was a vocal duplication of what the student said and would consequently be identified as an echoic, I lean more towards an intraverbal because my response was dependent on her greeting as a discriminative stimulus.  Additionally, I could have responded with a myriad of thematically appropriate responses instead of responding as I did.

I get in my office but keep the door open.  From long experience, I accept that students are ‘unable’ to read when office hours are held, either posted on the syllabi or my office door through which they walk.  I barely have turned on the computer when another student pokes in her head.  “Hi, Professor.  How are you?”  Immediately I hazard a guess that she is not stopping at one mand.  OK, the first mand was for information (really attention) but I am expecting more.  It comes.  “I really need to talk with you!”  So, that statement was loaded.  She emphasized “really,” and before I respond to her (fortunately or not, this is how I behave), I’m already classifying that as an autoclitic.  This autoclitic affects my behavior in that her “really” indicates a property (dire necessity) of her behavior (Skinner, 1957).  Followed by the mand, “need to talk with you,” demonstrates that she adamantly wants this to happen.  I take a (covert) guess and tact that this autoclitic mand’s motivating operation is her upcoming test.

Like most conversations, class is filled with mands, intraverbals, and tacts.  I ask a question/mand for information.  Students respond with (hopefully) a correct intraverbal and others tact on content.  Occasionally, I will include an autoclitic during our discussions to get their attention and have them attend to a particular stimulus.  While the players in these interactions are consistent, use of operants is not. Sometimes they mand, which occasions an intraverbal response from me, or I am the participant tacting, etc.  When they mand for information, I immediately respond, consider a response, or in the circumstance where I am not sure, research the answer and offer it in the next class.  As a behavior analyst, I don’t ‘recall’ information in a mentalistic manner, nor do I have a ‘storage system’ in my mind where I put my data.  I understand my memory process as accessing discriminative stimuli to bring about the appropriate response (Skinner, 1972).  When students ask questions, I initially view them.  These physical appearance discriminative stimuli occasion me to first respond with their name.  My content-related, intraverbal response may entail many discriminative stimuli.  Depending on the complexity of the question, I may have to use one discriminative stimulus about reinforcement schedules to formulate a response and expose that to other discriminative stimuli to arrive at a final response appropriate to the original mand for information.

I go home.  I realize, accept, and embrace that I engage in a variety of mands to get attention from my wife.  I admit it: I want her approval.  Consequently, I appear to be tacting events in the news (I believe to be reinforcing for her behavior based on history) but am trying to get attention (more on this inefficient type of communication later).  Preparing a meal well before she arrives home, it appears that I’m making it for myself (no verbal behavior involved, as it’s not mediated by another) but make enough for her to enjoy.  She eats and expresses gratitude for my being considerate.  I should respond, “You’re welcome and I was manding for attention,” but stop at “You’re welcome.”  My behavioral repertoire for manding for attention at home is quite lengthy.  I’m OK with that.

Being a behavior analyst, one would hope that I am proficient in the use of verbal operants.  My wife is also a behavior analyst.  Two behavioral professionals, married to one another, could hardly be candidates for miscommunication.  Could they?  Before anyone could make that claim, I would remind him/her that antecedents could be covert.  Private events exist.  EO features heavily in our (and other humans’) decision-making.  Manding (or not manding) for activities prompts both of us to consider histories of the events.  If the histories were reinforcing, motivating operation (MO) suggests the mand of committing would be a ‘yes.’  If they were unpleasant, then abolishing operation (AO) would suggest a mand of ‘no.’ Even if shared with a partner, there may be more, undisclosed stimuli that serve as MO or AO.

This brings up a topic that is likely common to most people who have been in relationships.  You enter into a conversation and your partner becomes very upset, very quickly.  What just happened?  How did it happen?  Did I do something wrong?  Having been both the perpetrator and victim, I resort to a behavioral analysis of her behavior.  Why should I analyze my own?  That question is intended to be facetious.  EO was likely present and made your partner’s behavior more likely (or less) to happen.  “Could you please put your clothes in the closet?”  I ask my wife this and it appears (to me) to be a reasonable mand.  My mental meter doesn’t catch that I technically manded for information and not for her to engage in an activity, but she would know what I meant (again, more on this deficient manner of communication shortly).  She responds, “Yes, but I’m waiting for to put your clothes away that I asked for last week.”  Hmmm, I could have been more observant and noted that abolishing operation for her response before I manded.

Over the years, I’ve made a few purchases for our home, thinking that my wife would like them.  On certain occasions, I failed to analyze the variables or loosely analyzed them to suit my purpose.  Viewing some object, she expressed admiration or appreciation for it.  I bought it without her knowing.  The behavior analyst in me should have mentally stated, “The discriminative stimuli of the object occasioned her tacting response.”  I even reinforced her tact with generalized reinforcement, “Yes, it is really nice.”  Unfortunately, I thought her tact was a mand.  She did thank me but stated that she didn’t want me to buy it and was sincere.  A visible EO would have been helpful.

I learned from these experiences and embrace the ontogeny (Darwin, 1872/1958) of my selection of consequences during my individual lifetime.  Speaking plainly, I don’t make that mistake again but make new ones.  These started by my, what appeared to be mands for information, “Do you like this?”  When my wife responded with the intraverbal I wanted to hear, I purchased it.  I recognize now that her response was an intraverbal, as her behavior was dependent upon mine, and her response was thematically related to my mand.  At the time, however, I wanted to hear her mand for the object.  Thus, that was what my non-functioning behavior analyst ears heard.  I’m not sure any visible EO from her would have been helpful at that time.

Like most people, behavior analyst and non-behavior analyst, I may not be explicit when manding.  As mentioned earlier, I may appear to be manding for information, “Could you please put away your clothes?” instead of manding for action, “Please put away your clothes.”  This topic leads to another area of home miscommunication for which ABA helps me understand: Trojan tacts.  Zettle and Hayes (1982) coined this term to describe an apparent tact that is intended to function as a mand.  Likening it to the mythical Trojan horse, a Trojan tact is not what it seems.  It’s a subtle, albeit indirect, way of manding.  I gazed on my wife’s clothes that remained not put away (discriminative stimulus) and said, “These clothes have been here a long time” (apparent tact).  She likely responded, “Yes, they have been there a while” (generalized reinforcement), thus, the three-term contingency suggests my behavior was a tact.  However, I leave disappointed as I was manding and hoped that she would respond by putting her clothes away.  My Trojan tact truly functioned as a tact, much to my chagrin.  After several such interactions, my wife and I now candidly ask in those situations, “Was that a tact or a mand?”

As Skinner (1974) stated, problems facing the world (and us individually) can be solved if we improve our understanding of human behavior. For me, ABA has been very useful, both personally and professionally.  A caveat to this statement of Skinner is that human behavior can be pretty darn complex with unknown, private, or covert antecedents and consequences.  Still, ABA helps and practicing this science is very reinforcing for me.



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