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  BAAM Behavioral Essentials
Behavior Analysis Q & A

Behavior Analysis and Behaviorism Q & A

The questions below are examples of the kinds of questions asked by people interested in basic and applied behavior analysis. If you want to add a question, please use the BAAM suggestions page. We cannot answer every question or provide treatment advice. But we can address general inquiries about the basic and applied behavior analysis, as well as questions about the history, philosophy, and theory of behaviorism.

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Applied Behavior Analysis

Behaviorists keep saying to give rewards for good behavior. Didn’t that study by Lepper, Greene, and Nisbett* show that intrinsic motivation undermines external rewards? Didn’t they show that kids who were promised a certificate for drawing drew less later on?

Yes, they did. But the rewards had little to do with the effect. The nature of the social interaction was everything in the study. Your textbook probably didn’t tell you that the kids who showed low interest in drawing drew more after receiving unexpected rewards.

Consider the deal the teacher offered to the children: “You draw, and I’ll give you this certificate.” Sounds like an assignment to me. Hardly anyone finds assignments fun, even the "A" students. The reward isn’t a reward anymore. It has become a conditioned aversive stimulus. After that, there is little reason to expect drawing to become more interesting.

The key is to avoiding the problem is to reinforce naturally. You don’t need the “deal.”

*Lepper, M. R., Greene, D., & Nisbett, R. E. (1973). Undermining children’s intrinsic interest with extrinsic rewards: A test of the “overjustification” hypothesis. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 28, 129-137.

What is incidental teaching?

Incidental teaching is one of the most important things a parent, teacher, or therapist can do. It is actually just paying attention and reinforcing appropriate behaviors whenever they occur, even if they occur outside of a formal behavior program. If a child who does not ordinarily respond quickly or appropriately to a parent's request does so without complaining or delay, the parent should immediately and strongly reinforce the behavior. You should always remember to "Catch them being good."

I use incidental teaching and it seems to work well. I also know that giving a higher rate of reinforcement will help. But I'm so busy that I just can't reinforce more often. What can I do?

Increasing the rate of reinforcement isn't the only thing you can do. You can also increase the quality, size, and duration of reinforcement; it is also often possible to decrease the delay of reinforcement. Changes in these things have the same effect as changing the rate of reinforcement. For example, doubling the size of a reinforcer has the same effect as doubling the rate of reinforcement. Reinforcing twice as quickly is the same as doubling the rate. Tripling the duration of reinforcement is the same as tripling the rate. Thus, consider what would happen if you were to keep the rate of reinforcement the same but (1) tripled the duration of reinforcement by using descriptive praise instead of just saying "good job;" (2) doubled the quality of reinforcement by using the descriptive praise, and; (3) cut the delay of reinforcement by half by reinforcing twice as quickly.

This would be the same as taking the original reinforcer and multiplying it by three for the duration, two for the quality, and two for the being twice as fast: (3 x 2 x 2=12). That is, without having to reinforce more often, you have potentially increased the power of the reinforcer by a factor of 12.

Good applied behavior analysts know that it is much easier to get teachers, parents, or therapists to reinforce better than more often. Reinforcing more often is extra work, and might require a significant change in the teacher's routine. Reinforcing better can work just as well, but doesn't require a change in the teacher's routine or do more work. Of course, if the teacher can reinforce more often too, that will improve things even more.

What is "descriptive praise" and why should I do it?

Descriptive praise is a verbal reinforcer that includes a description of the behavior that you are reinforcing. Instead of just saying "good" or "good job," you should say, for instance, "Johnny, that's a really nice picture" or "Sally, you've hung up your coat so nicely." Generally, you should include the person's name. Always use a positive description of the behavior. (Don't say to Sally, "I like the way you didn't throw you coat on the floor.")

Descriptive praise is better than simple praise because it increases the duration and quality of the praise, and identifies the behavior being reinforced. By using the person's name, you increase the chances that the person will notice that you are delivering a verbal reinforcer and directly engage with you. If you are reinforcing the behavior of a person who is non-verbal, the descriptive praise will attach verbal labels to the activity, perhaps teaching the person more words. Even a completely non-verbal person will benefit. Longer social contact is likely to more reinforcing than a brief contact (even if the person doesn't understand).

What is the difference between a reinforcer and a reward?

"Reinforcer" is a technical term; "reward" is an everyday term. A reinforcer is any event, which when it follows a response, increases that response in the future. A reward is an everyday term for a reinforcer, but is less specific. Sometimes things are called rewards even if they have no effect on behavior. Sometimes a promise is a called a reward, such as when a reward is offered for the return of a lost dog. No great harm is created using the term reward for reinforcer, but it is important to remember that if the reward has no effect on behavior, it is not really a reward at all.

Do behavior programs only use candy and food as reinforcers? That is, is it all M&Ms?

No. Applied behavior analysts are taught to use the most natural reinforcers possible in the situation--the ones that would occur in the "real world." Descriptive praise, smiles, social interactions, earning points, tokens, and other things are preferred to food. Although you will see candy and food used in programs for people with severe developmental disabilities, actually most behavior programs don't use "appetitive reinforcers" at all.

Giving candy or food isn't what usually happens in the world, and behavior that is rewarded only with these things is not likely to last very long outside of the treatment setting. In fact, all good programs include a way to transfer "contrived" contingencies to "real world" reinforcers. In technical terms, all good interventions "program for maintenance and generalization."

When behavior problems are serious or very few functional behaviors exist, food and other easily delivered reinforcers are used to quickly establish new functional behaviors. It is important to deliver a powerful, reliable reinforcer as quickly as possible when the desired response occurs. Small pieces of food can be given quickly, and a person who has no verbal behavior need not "understand" that they are rewarding. Small tokens can work too if the child understands what they mean. However, and this is important, you will notice that the delivery of food in a good behavior program is always accompanied by verbal praise, a smile, or other social indicators of approval. This is done on purpose. A well-designed behavior plan should move as quickly as possible from reinforcers like food and candy to something more natural. Eventually, you hope to rely exclusively on real, everyday reinforcers like verbal approval, or even just a smile. The late Donald Baer of the University of Kansas called this "entry into natural communities of reinforcement," and he was one of the first to study the power of social reinforcement with young children.

I can't seem to find a good reinforcer for my child. She has autism and doesn't seem very interested in anything but playing with the water in the sink, watching Sponge-Bob, looking out of the window, and sitting in her room spinning things. We've tried verbal praise, tokens, hugs, and candy but she just doesn't respond.

There are three parts to this answer. The first is that this is a good question. Many otherwise well designed behavior programs fail because the therapist was insensitive to the need to have a wide variety of powerful, easy-to-deliver reinforcers. Sometimes we just don't notice when good reinforcers are losing their power. We can actually cause newly established behavior to weaken by continuing to deliver reinforcers that are not very reinforcing. This is called "extinction." This is why good behavior analysts have always emphasized using the widest variety of the most natural reinforcers as possible. Before starting a behavior program, a good behavior analyst will do a functional analysis or at least a good assessment to determine what the potential reinforcers are.

Second, there are probably lots of reinforcers available to you. You just haven't found them yet. This isn't a criticism. It is common for people working with people with developmental disabilities to have have fewer reinforcers because their children or clients are just not interesting in many of the things that are reinforcing for most other people. But if you are going to do a behavior program, you simply need to find a wide variety of easily delivered reinforcers. Ideally, you should use smiles, verbal praise, and social interactions as reinforcers. In fact, if you are working with a person with autism, making social interactions more reinforcing is one of your most important goals. Before this happens, you might have to use food. But it doesn't have to be candy or pieces of cereal. Anything will do if she will eat it, or just wants it. Don't worry at this stage if it's nutritious (although if it is nutritious that's even better). You are also going to want to have a variety of things ready. Remember that food preferences can change daily and even from moment to moment.

Third, reinforcers are not just objects. You have already listed a bunch of good reinforcers in your question. Anything your daughter does can be used as a reinforcer. Even problem behavior can be a reward. This is known as the "Premack Principle," using a common behavior to reinforce a less common one. Look for other things your daughter does a lot. The opportunity to watch Sponge Bob would be an excellent reinforcer because you could use a DVD to show the program whenever you need to. You can establish a connection between tokens and these activities to make the tokens reinforcing. If she likes Sponge Bob, the DVD case itself might be a good "token" because it's associated with the show. Even if you use tangible or edible reinforcers, don't forget the social ones. Smile, look at your daughter, and use descriptive praise whenever you deliver any other reinforcer, even if it is an activity. By pairing social signals with the activity, you make yourself and your approval more reinforcing by association. Eventually, just your attention and approval will be reinforcing, and you will be able to dispense with the objects and food altogether.

I have read about behaviorists using a lot of punishment. Do they actually do this?

No. Most behavior analysts use only positive reinforcement in their programs. Behavior they want to reduce or eliminate is ignored (extinction) usually while better alternative behaviors are reinforced. Good behavior analysts know that people who deliver punishment become punishing by association. Sometimes "time out" might be used for serious behavior problems. But even time-out is substantially a form of extinction, with other components added. A good behavior analyst will use time-out only for short periods, no more than a few minutes at most, and even then very judiciously. Time-out might consist of nothing more than removing learning materials and attention for a few seconds. In very rare and serious cases of severe head banging, a device called SIBIS might be used. SIBIS provides an brief, annoying shock to the leg when the wearer hits his or her head sufficiently hard. SIBIS is highly effective, sometimes reducing head banging to zero in one or two trials. It is considered a treatment of last resort, and its use is heavily regulated and remains controversial even within the behavior analytic community. Responsible applied behavior analysts never use it without also having a good program of positive reinforcement for functional behaviors. And, a plan to fade SIBIS (or any kind of punishment) is essential. Behavior management using positive reinforcement is now so effective that programmed punishment of any kind is not very common.

Related Readings:

Animal Training

What is clicker training?

Clicker training is a technique for animal training that uses the sound of a clicker as a conditioned reinforcer for shaping behavior. Properly done, clicker training involves no punishment at all. First, you make the clicker reinforcing by repeatedly pairing clicks with food. (Click first then immediately deliver the food. Always deliver the food in the same place.) When the animal comes immediately to get food when the clicker is sounded, then you are ready to teach. Now, shape the behavior you want by immediately clicking the clicker when the animal emits an approximation or part of the final desired behavior.

Clicker training was developed by B. F. Skinner in conjunction with his experimental research on animal behavior in the 1930s and 1940s. He published an article on the technique in the magazine Scientific American in 1951. Clicker training has been popularized by Karen Pryor, an ethologist and dolphin trainer. It has now become the standard method of training animals for performances, work, and obedience. It has been used with animals ranging from whales and dolphins to dogs and cats.

Related Readings:

Why are cats harder to teach than dogs? Are cats less intelligent?

It is dangerous to get in the middle of a dog versus cat discussion, but we will take the risk. Cats are not really less intelligent than dogs. Or, at least we don't know who is smarter because they can't easily fill in the little circles on the standardized test forms.

The issue really isn't whether dog or cats are easier to train. The issue is the range and type of reinforcers cats and dogs are sensitive to. Dogs are highly social pack animals. Their behavior can be strongly reinforced by just a little attention from other members of their pack, especially the pack leader (you). Thus, there are many opportunities for a dog's behavior to be shaped by incidental, attention-based reinforcement. This is one of the reasons dogs seem to take on many human characteristics. They are taught to be more human by attention we give to human-like responses. It is also likely that they teach us to be more dog-like because we respond to their social attention. Cats are less generally social and less sensitive to attention as a reinforcer. Their behavior is less likely to be shaped by incidental attention than dogs'. Unlike dogs, which are hunter/scavengers and will consume a very wide range of foods at almost any time, cats consume a narrower range of foods and will often do so only at specific times. Thus, food reinforcers are almost always more effective with dogs. However, as cat owners know, cats will quickly learn to run to kitchen as soon as they hear the can opener. Thus, clicker training for a cat can be easily done if it is the cat's regular dinner time, and the clicker is paired with a favorite food. (J. Todd)

I am teaching my rat to turn in a circle using clicker training. Things were going fairly well. I was reinforcing each part of a turn, and he was getting almost all the way around. But now he has “regressed.” He mostly sits and sniffs the air. I hardly ever get a whole circle and it takes forever for him to try again. What is going on?

Forensic behavior analysis is difficult. So this is just a guess. I am going to assume that your rat is hungry and the food is reinforcing.

It sounds like you are reinforcing a second or two after the rat has completed a partial turn. You should be reinforcing while he is turning. The problem with reinforcing after the turn is completed is that you are essentially reinforcing the behavior of being stationary. That is, the one response that is most consistently and immediately reinforced is standing still, waiting for food. Starting a new turn is farthest from the reinforcer. Therefore, starting a new turn is becoming weaker while stopping is becoming stronger.

Animal trainers make a point of keeping the animal moving. If there is movement, there is behavior to shape from. If the animal is not moving, you don’t have much to work with. Reinforce during the turn, not after, and differentially reinforce quick starts (especially at the beginning of training). That means if he starts a new turn very quickly, reinforce that immediately. Of course, reinforce longer and longer turns, but be a little variable too so he doesn't learn to stop at any one point to anticipate the reinforcer.

If you do this, it won't be long before he gets that complete circle. (James T. Todd, 02-01-2006)

Conceptual and Theoretical Issues

My instructor says that the Breland's "instinctive drift" shows the "fundamental weakness of operant theory." What is "instinctive drift" and why is it so harmful to operant theory?

Instinctive drift doesn't harm operant theory at all.

Your instructor has been taken in by generations of academic folklore. "Instinctive drift" (or sometimes "instinctual drift"), said to be the gradual shifting of learned behavior back towards instinctual behavior, exists primarily in textbooks and the imaginations of critics of behavior analysis. Instinctive drift is not, in fact, the inevitable outcome of conditioning. And when it does seem to occur, it is a perfectly obvious and predictable outcome of operant theory, not a violation of it.

Consider this: You observe some species-specific behavior during conditioning. The dog rolls over on cue but begs and whines too. The rat bites the lever that it also presses for food. The raccoon washes the large "coin" you are shaping it to put in the bank. Should these things happen? Sometimes. If they do, you shouldn't be surprised.

If you are reinforcing behavior with food, you are also pairing the food with various objects and events in the training situation. The food will reinforce certain behaviors, and these will increase in probability. But through classical conditioning the association between the food delivery and things in the training context will cause those things to become conditioned stimuli for food-related behavior. Pairing the moving lever with food deliveries will cause the rat to treat the lever like food and bite it. The association between you and the food will cause the dog to treat you like a food source, eliciting begging. Pairing the coin and the food will cause the coin to become a conditioned stimulus that elicits food-related behavior in the raccoon.

The only way to see "instinctive drift" as a problem for operant theory is to forget, as the Brelands did in 1961 when they published the "The Misbehavior of Organisms," that many things are taught during conditioning, not just the target behavior. If you use food reinforcement, then you are also eliciting and conditioning food-related behaviors whether you want to or not. Sometimes the elicited behaviors will be strong enough to interfere with the operant behavior. Just as often or moreso, they will not interfere. It is the job of the scientist to figure out which situation will occur and why. Seems odd that students of Skinner, the man who called attention to the importance of elicitation as a fundamental behavioral process with his distinction between operant and respondent behavior, would completely forget about the respondent part. Of course, the Brelands' article would not have been nearly as interesting if they had gotten the answer right.

My textbook says that behaviorists believe that all behavior is learned. Do behavior analysts believe that all behavior is learned?

No. All behaviorists know that organisms are born with many specific, sometimes very complex patterns of behavior. No one believes that spiders learn to spin webs. No one seriously questions that the tendency of border collies to herd sheep (versus poodles, for instance) is inborn and due to selective breeding. But the question is not always where the behavior came from, but what is making it occur right now, how it might be changed, or what you might have to do to make it happen in the future. Behaviorists are often concerned that people believe that an innate behavior is also hard to change. Some behavior is hard to change, are and some is not. The degree to which an unlearned behavior can be changed is as much a function of our knowledge about the behavior as the behavior itself. It was not that long ago that the behaviors associated with developmental disabilities were thought to be almost impossible to change. Applied behavior analysts often seem to disregard the unlearned origins of some of the behaviors. The strange self-stimulatory behavior often exhibited by people with autism certainly has biological origins. But, the applied behavior analyst is interested in what will make it change, and is leery of the idea that just because the behavior might have unlearned origins, it will be hard to change. They would prefer to assume it can be changed and be proven wrong (temporarily, until they figure out what to do), than not try at all.

The first behaviorist, John B. Watson, wrote a great deal about unlearned behavior. He had done considerable research on the naturally occurring behavior of animals, particularly sea birds. Thus, he knew a great deal about instinctive behavior. He even said that it is impossible to know exactly what an animal has learned without knowing about its unlearned behavior. He also believed that humans have many unlearned behaviors. In his book Behaviorism, he even included a chart of unlearned reflexes in children. But for Watson, the issue wasn't so much where the behavior came from, but what could be done with the environment. You can't test the limits of behavior by just assuming that something is inborn and cannot be changed. Even it is is inborn, it is certainly possible to change it. Watson did object to the concept of instinct. He did not deny that animals often exhibit complex patterns of unlearned behavior. But, he was concerned that the concept of instinct was being used to avoid making a real analysis of why and when the behavior occurred.

B. F. Skinner also wrote a great deal about unlearned behavior. For instance, in 1966, he wrote an article called "The Ontogeny and Phylogeny of Behavior" for the journal Science which was about how learned and unlearned behavior evolve and interact. He also believed that the tendency to react emotionally to aversive stimuli was innate. Imitation, too, might be unlearned -- although obviously refined quickly by the imitator's successes and failures with good and bad imitations. Skinner, like Watson, was concerned about the tendency to attribute all kinds of behavior to genetics. This, he believed, caused scientists to fail to identify the variables that actually make the behavior happen. Terms such as "instinct" were used in place of a real analysis of behavior.

Experimental Analysis

I heard that shaping was "invented" by B. F. Skinner during World War II. I thought he had shaped a rat named Pliny to drop a marble down a tube in the 1930s.

According to a 2004 article Gail Peterson in the Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior, B. F. Skinner had not actually hand-shaped an operant response before 1943, when he was developing a guided bomb using pigeons (full text). A previous attempt to teach a rat named Pliny to drop a ball down a tube, first reported in Life magazine in 1937, did not involve response shaping. The environment was shaped around the rat in a manner that would now be called "errorless learning." According to Peterson, the discovery of shaping led Skinner to significantly alter his perspective on verbal behavior, and look more closely at human behavior generally:

This insight stimulated him to coin a new term (shaping), and also led directly to a shift in his perspective on verbal behavior from an emphasis on antecedents and molecular topographical details to an emphasis on consequences and more molar, functional properties in which the social dyad inherent to the shaping process became the definitive property of verbal behavior. Moreover, the insight seems to have emboldened Skinner to explore the greater implications of his behaviorism for human behavior writ large, an enterprise that characterized the bulk of his post World War II scholarship. (p. 317)

Skinner eventually published a popular account of hand shaping, "How to Teach Animals," in 1951 in Scientific American magazine.

Related links:

The World's First Look at Shaping: Skinner's Gutsy Gamble


Peterson, G. B. (2000). The discovery of shaping, or B. F. Skinner's big surprise. The Clicker Journal: The Magazine for Animal Trainers, No.43 (July/August), 6-13.

Peterson, G. B. (2004). A day of great illumination: B. F. Skinner's discovery of shaping. Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior, 82, 317-328. (full text)

Skinner, B. F. (1951). How to teach animals. Scientific American, 185, 26-29.

Why did Pavlov use dogs?

Pavlov used dogs in research on behavior because he was actually a digestive physiologist. At that time, dogs were commonly used because of the similarity of the dog's digestive system to the human digestive system. When he discovered the conditioned reflex, Pavlov was actually studying the relationship between salivary secretions and food consumption when he noticed that the dogs were salivating before they were given food. It looked like they were starting to salivate when the assistant started the experiment. Pavlov was an extremely careful experimenter, so he replaced the assistant with a bell. He repeatedly rang the bell then delivered the food. Before long the dog would salivate when it heard the bell. He recognized the importance of this discovery, and began to study the conditioned reflex in earnest. Because all of his equipment and laboratory were set up for dogs, he continued to use them in his behavioral research.

What is "preference for free choice" and why is it important to consider in applied behavior analysis?

Research has shown that organisms prefer situations that offer a greater variety of choices, even if they do not avail themselves of the choices. That is, even if you always choose the same item on a menu, you will still find the menu itself less appealing if it has fewer items. This general situation applies to people, pigeons, and probably everything in between.

The classic experiment on preference for free choice was done by A. Charles Catania and Terje Sagvolden and published in 1980 in the Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior, "Preference for Free Choice Over Forced Choice in Pigeons."

The design was simple. In the first stage of each trial, pigeons could peck one of two keys. One key produced a "free choice" situation in which the pigeon saw a row of four keys: three green and one red. Pecks on the other key produced a "forced-choice" situation in which the pigeon saw one green key and three red keys. In either situation, pecking a green key produced food. Pecking a red key produced nothing. The arrangement of the colors varied from trial to trial.

Even though all the pigeons reliably pecked a green key in either situation, always earning food, they selected the free-choice situation about 70% of time. This shows that just having a choice is reinforcing, even if the rate of the reinforcement in both situations is exactly the same.

There are at least two reasons that free choice is reinforcing. One reason is that a free-choice situation offers a greater number of reinforcers relative to a forced-choice situation. We know from research on the matching law that organisms distribute responses in proportion to the relative reinforcement value of the different response options. In the case of the free choice situation, there are three conditioned reinforcers (green keys). Forced choice has just one conditioned reinforcer. The reinforcement value of the free-choice situation is essentially 75%; the value of the forced-choice situation is 25%. This closely matches the pigeon's behavior--selecting the free choice situation about 70% of the time.

The second reason involves prior learning. Organisms have learned that if all other things are equal, having a choice is more likely to lead to reinforcement than not having a choice. Having a choice means that if one of the reinforcers is not appealing, another might be reinforcing. If there is only one potential reinforcer available, as in the forced-choice situation, the choice might not be a reinforcing at that time. Having a choice also means that if the organism randomly selects a potential reinforcer, the choice is more likely to be reinforcing. Fewer choices means fewer chances that something might be reinforcing. In other words, organisms have learned that options mean more reinforcers, and they choose to have options.

There are significant practical implications to this. If you are delivering reinforcers to someone, you should try to offer an array of choices, not just the one thing you think the person might want. Consider a situation in which you are working with a client with a developmental disability who likes baseball cards. A new card might have worked every time in the past, but it might not work at this moment. Maybe the baseball season is over; maybe he has that card; maybe he has lost interest in baseball cards. If you offered ice cream, a token, a candy bar, and a baseball card at the same time, it is highly likely that at least one will be reinforcing. You are also making the reinforcement exchange even more reinforcing than it might have been simply by giving the choice. You also give yourself the opportunity to teach your client to learn to look at and consider the choices. This is a very important functional independent living skill. (A very good analysis of the practical issues and difficulties involved in balancing the right of people with developmental disabilities to have effective treatment with their right to have free choices was written by Diane Bannerman-Juracyk and her colleagues at the University of Kansas; full text.)


Catania, A. C., & Sagvolden, T. (1980). Preference for free choice over forced choice in pigeons. Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior, 34, 77-86. (abstract)

Bannerman, D. J., Sheldon, J. B., Sherman, J. A., & Harchik, A. E. (1990). Balancing the right to habilitation with the right to personal liberties: The rights of people with developmental disabilities to eat too many doughnuts and take a nap. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 23, 79-89.(full text)



What is B. F. Skinner's full name?

Burrhus Frederic Skinner. Burrhus was his mother's maiden name. "Burrhus" was a troublesome name for a child, and he was actually known as "Fred" to his friends.

What is John B. Watson's middle name?

He was John Broadus Watson.

James Todd Behaviorism Jim Todd Behaviorism Eastern Michigan University Psychology