The Four Functions of Behavior Made Simple

Photo by Jared Sluyter on Unsplash

Todd A. Ward, PhD, BCBA-D

bSci21Media, LLC

Brett DiNovi, M.A., BCBA

Brett DiNovi & Associates

In a recent YouTube video, Brett DiNovi, CEO of the largest Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) agency on the East Coast, gives us an overview of the four functions of behavior.  As Brett noted, “they are very, very uncomplicated to understand.”  But first, let’s get clear on what we mean by “function” of behavior. 

When you read “function” think “what the behavior achieves for the person.”  Behavior that acquires functional properties is also known as operant behavior – or behavior that “operates” upon the environment to change it in some way.  So, when we talk about the “function” of behavior, we are talking about operant behavior that changes the environment in some way.  The change in the environment then makes the behavior that produced it more likely in the future.  Let’s take a closer look at the four functions and how they can contribute to adaptive, as well as maladaptive, behavior in our own lives and in clinical settings.


Unsurprising to most, the receipt of attention can function as a positive reinforcer that makes whatever behavior produced it more likely.  Attention functions can be adaptive or maladaptive, depending on the context.  For example, people whose behavior is maintained by attention would do well in certain types of jobs for which attention is a key component.  Politicians, public speakers, waiters or waitresses, actors and actresses, all have jobs in which attention from others is a critical component, and there are many more. 

However, attention can also function to promote maladaptive behavior.  In the clinical world of ABA, for example, self-injurious behavior, aggression, property destruction, and the like can easily acquire attention functions.  And if you think about it, it makes sense – when people act out in destructive ways people tend to rush to them (i.e., provide attention) in an effort to get them to stop.  Although their efforts might be in good faith, the attention itself can function to make the behavior more likely in the future, particularly if the individual is deprived of attention in other areas of his/her life.


If your behavior has escape functions, it means that the behavior removed something from the environment.  Again, this can be adaptive, or maladaptive, depending on the context.  For example, most modern vehicles have a safety feature whereby buckling your seatbelt removes an aversive sound.  Most of us then behave so as to quickly remove, or outright avoid, the sound in the future by buckling our seatbelts as soon as we get in the car. 

You can also think of the behavior of medical personnel as functioning to remove aversive stimuli from the environment.  When a paramedics stop heart attacks, or contain traumatic bleeding, one could say the removal of such events means they did their job well.  But maladaptive behavior can acquire escape functions as well.  For example, children at school may tantrum during certain activities which might lead the teacher to remove them from the classroom, or put them in “time out.”  Although the time out is intended to function as punishment, it can also function as a reinforcer that increases the future probability of tantrumming.   


If your behavior is maintained by access to tangibles, it means that your behavior is positively reinforced by the receipt of objects, or opportunities to engage in activities. For most of us, the most influential tangible in our lives is money, and the receipt of money keeps us working.  In the clinical world, a token economy works in much the same way – adaptive behavior is reinforced with stickers, points, or other arbitrary objects that are later exchanged for toys or other desirable things. 

But tangibles can produce unwanted effects as well.  When a parent gives a child candy in order to stop a tantrum, the parent risks reinforcing the tantrum with tangibles.  Or, when intermittent wins reinforce gambling behavior to the extent that gambling continues even in the face of a draining bank account, tangible reinforcement is in effect (and has likely contributed to an addiction).


Automatic reinforcement is in a unique category, because the reinforcing functions in this case are often tied to our sensory receptors.  The feeling of endorphins from exercise, sometimes known as “runner’s high,” is a classic example.  Or the feeling of relaxation during a massage can make regular massages more likely. 

But automatic reinforcement can also have deleterious effects.  For example, sex stimulation can lead to addiction in some people.  The sensations that come about from drugs such as heroin, or crystal methamphetamine, can lead to serious addiction and even death.  Children with autism may be seen wave their fingers in front of their faces for hours simply due to the visual stimulation that arises as a result.  They also may engage in inappropriate sexual behavior due to the sensations that arise in the moment.

Of course, in the real world, behavior often has multiple functions. For example, escaping a situation can also mean the receipt of attention…but that is a topic for another day.

In the meantime, be sure to check out the full video, and to subscribe to Brett DiNovi’s YouTube channel and let him know what you would like to see from him in the future! 

Todd A. Ward, PhD, BCBA-D is the President and Founder of bSci21Media, LLC, which owns the top behavior analytic media outlet in the world,  bSci21Media aims to disseminate behavior analysis to the world and to support ABA companies around the globe through the Behavioral Science in the 21st Century blog and its subsidiaries, bSciEntrepreneurial, bSciWebDesign, bSciWriting, bSciStudios and the ABA Outside the Box CEU series.  Dr. Ward received his PhD in behavior analysis from the University of Nevada, Reno under Dr. Ramona Houmanfar.  He has served as a Guest Associate Editor of the Journal of Organizational Behavior Management, and as an Editorial Board member of Behavior and Social Issues.  Dr. Ward has also provided ABA services to children and adults with various developmental disabilities in day centers, in-home, residential, and school settings, and previously served as Faculty Director of Behavior Analysis Online at the University of North Texas.  Dr. Ward is passionate about disseminating behavior analysis to the world and growing the field through entrepreneurship. Todd can be reached at [email protected]

Brett DinoviBrett DiNovi, M.A., BCBA has the unique and distinguished experience of studying the principles of applied behavior analysis under the rigorous scrutiny of both Dr. Julie S. Vargas (formerly Skinner) and Dr. E.A. Vargas at West Virginia University’s internationally recognized program. For the past 26 years, Brett has used behavior analytic principles to create large scale change across school districts, Fortune 500 companies using principles of Organizational Behavior Management (OBM), and across individual learners. Brett has been a OBM consultant in Morgantown WV, an instructor at West Virginia University, a guest lecturer at numerous universities, a speaker on multiple Comcast Newsmakers TV programs, an expert witness in due process hearings, has publications in the Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, and has been in in executive leadership positions across schools and residential programs nationwide. In addition to an award from South Jersey Biz Magazine for “Best Places to Work,” an award for “Best of Families” in Suburban Magazine, and the distinguished “Top Ranked U.S. Executives” award, Brett’s proudest accomplishment is being a role model and father for his daughter and two stepchildren (one of which has autism). Brett can be reached at [email protected]

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  1. Love the simplicity of this to explain to public school staff. Any chance you know if anything out there that explains how important it is to set up the environment so as not to reinforce the problem behavior?

  2. Alot of clients I work with engage in self stimulation, that are part of who they are, and the sensory input they need, that aren’t included in the tx plan provided by the BSC. Ex., child hand flaps when stimulated, and their is no reduction plan for this behavior.

  3. I enjoyed the videos about the four functions of behavior, and the explaination of each function. I can identify with the automatic reinforcement in children with autism. Attention function is more challenging to me. I am glad I am learning strategies to support attention behaviors. It would be great if tangibles work every time. but a therapist or teacher the choice tangibles the child will have a positive reinforcement experience.

  4. THe four functions in the video helped me understand the way they can play out. I am new to this field and with all the reading, watching and reapplying to I can use all these in my own everyday life. I see why this would make scene to a child well if it happened before it can happen again ill just make sure to act the same way as before. I am blown away with how intuitive a child can really be. These functions are easy to definite and use in every day settings.

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