Applied Behavior Analysis

In preceding sections of this chapter you have been introduced to the main tools of the applied behavior analyst, a behavioral psychologist who specializes in operant conditioning. There are two main tools: (1) systematic arrangement of consequences (reinforcement and punishment) and (2) careful analysis and arrangement of antecedents (S+ and S-). Together, these skills can be called contingency management. A contingency is a dependency between events, such as the delivery of food when an animal performs a behavior. Contingency management is used whenever animals are motivated by incentives (such as getting paid for a job) or penalties (such as paying a fine for doing something wrong).

Applied behavior analysis is the application of conditioning principles to any tasks or problems outside the laboratory. We already discussed applications of classical conditioning in an earlier section of this chapter. In this section we will concentrate on applications of operant conditioning.

How did a professor start a class on applied behavior analysis, and what was the point?

One professor started a graduate class on applied behavior analysis by generating a huge list of problems. The professor told the students, "Think of any problem a person can have, and we will design a behavioral therapy for it. Let's get a big list on the board."

At first the class responded slowly. Someone suggested "marriage problems" and the professor said, "Put it in terms of behaviors." "OK," said the student, "let's say the problem is not enough time spent together." The professor wrote that on the board. Another student suggested the problem of eliminating "writer's block," defined behaviorally as the problem of increasing the frequency of certain types of writing. Another student suggested the problem of eliminating unwanted involuntary movements (tics). Other students mentioned problems like nailbiting and quitting cigarettes.

How are problems defined in behavioral terms?

As the list grew, the students realized this process could take quite a while. The list of possible human problems is neverending. Most can be defined in behavioral terms. In other words, most problems can be described in terms of some observable, measurable activity (behavior) that must be made either more frequent or less frequent. That is the essence of the behavioral approach: problems are defined as behaviors that can be made more frequent or less frequent, and the therapy consists of applying conditioning techniques to make the desired changes.

After the list filled the board, the professor gave the class its assignment. Each student had to select a problem and, by the end of the term, design a behavioral treatment for it. The professor was making a point, not just an assignment. Behavioral approaches can be applied to virtually any conceivable problem.


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