Behavior 101 #3: Functions of Behavior

Welcome back to the latest installment of your behavior 101 class. In case you missed the first two, or want to brush up, we covered the 4 quadrants of reinforcement and punishment HERE, and extinction, conditioned reinforcers, and schedules of reinforcement, HERE.  Today, we’ll be delving a little deeper into functions of behavior.

All behavior that occurs has a function to it. No matter who is doing it, what they’re doing, or where it occurs, behavior happens for a reason. That reason is not always the most apparent to the observer, but some data taking, and a Functional Analysis of Behavior (FBA), will reveal the behavior’s function.

The 4 main functions of behavior:

Access/Tangible: The organism’s behavior serves to gain access to a tangible item (food, item, etc.).

Attention: The organism’s behavior serves to get social attention.

Escape: The organism’s behavior serves to get away from something/someone.

Sensory/Automatic: The organism behaves in a way that feels good to them.

In order to determine what function is maintaining the behavior we’re looking at, we can take some ABC data. ABC data’s purpose is to analyze the environmental changes surrounding the presence of a behavior. This is considered a ‘descriptive analysis’ of behavior rather than a functional analysis. For most trained behavior analysts analyzing everyday behavior, a descriptive analysis is all that is needed to pinpoint the function(s) of the behavior. For more complex cases or for more clinical/academic/research work, a full functional analysis is done. For brevity, and because doing an FBA takes training, we won’t be discussing that here, but rather looking at descriptive analysis.

What is ABC data?

A= Antecedent: anything that exists before the behavior is exhibited

B= Behavior: the behavior we are analyzing

C= Consequence: anything that happens after the behavior. The consequence can be reinforcement, punishment, or extinction, depending on the effect it has on the behavior.

ABC data is typically taken on a chart with three columns, one each for A, B and C, and helps us see the function of the behavior.

Simple ABC collection data

Simple ABC collection data

Let’s do an example together.

A person says, “Sit.” Puppy sits. Person gives puppy an edible. In the future, the puppy sits more often when he hears, “Sit.”

What is the antecedent? The person said, “Sit.” (This is an Sd, a discriminative stimulus, and we’ll learn what kind of antecedent this is later on). What is the behavior? The puppy sits. Consequence? Puppy gets an edible. What kind of consequence was that? Well, the rate of the behavior occurring in the future goes up- so the puppy was positively reinforced. What was the function of the puppy’s sitting behavior? The puppy sat in order to gain access to the edible. The puppy’s behavior functions for access.

Let’s try another:

The kitchen has a nice, stinky, full trash can. Dog doesn’t touch the trash while her person is home. Person walks out the front door, gets in the car, and drives away. Dog gets into the trash. This is Great Fun for the dog, and as a result, whenever her person leaves, she gets into the trash.

Mmmmmm.... trash....

Mmmmmm…. trash….

What is the antecedent? The trash can being full and stinky? No- the trash can was full and stinky before, but the dog didn’t touch it. The antecedent was the person leaving the house. The behavior was getting into the trash can. And the consequence was, again, access to the delicious trash.

How about this one:

A stranger walks past the front window. The dog jumps off the couch and charges the window, barking and snarling. The person continues walking down the sidewalk, eventually disappearing from sight. Every time the dog sees a person through the window, he now barks.



The antecedent? The sight of the person through the window. The behavior? The dogs barking. The consequence? The person goes away. Now, we know the rate of behavior in the future goes up (because we are good little data takers!) so we know the dog is being negatively reinforced. What is the function? The dog is engaging in behavior in order to have the strange person go away. The barking functions for escape.

A child is in math class, and is told to complete 5 math problems. He starts screaming, and throws himself on the floor. The teachers remove him to a time out chair. Now, every time he is told to do math, he screams and throws himself on the floor. What just happened? The screaming and throwing himself on the floor functioned for escape, and the teachers put him in time out. He got out of doing the math problems that he didn’t want to do, and now he does it every time he doesn’t want to do math, because it works. Inadvertently, the teachers are negatively reinforcing the screaming behavior. This is why identifying the correct function of a behavior in crucial to planning an effective intervention, no matter if it’s a human, a dog, or your spouse ;).

Can you think of a very common type of escape behavior in dogs? Growling. This is generally the go-to escape behavior for dogs, along with fleeing. Fight-or-flight behaviors are escape behaviors. With few exceptions, a growling dog is trying to get the antecedent to stop.

Go away!!

Go away!!

One of the side effects of punishment is an increase in escape-maintained behaviors. It is one of the reasons that punishment-interventions are only used when nothing else has worked (usually in cases of severe life-threatening self-injury in people). We see this side effects in dogs- use enough aversive control training techniques and you’ll see a lot of escape behavior- to include aggression, growling, and avoidance of the trainer. We’ll discuss the side effects of punishment at length later, but suffice to say, these side effects are the reasons that only Masters and PhD-level Board Certified Behavior Analysts are allowed to use punishment in treatment settings, and only for the most severe cases which have failed to respond to other positive or discriminative interventions (with data to support the failed prior interventions), or for severe life-threatening behavior. Punishment should never be taken lightly.

What’s the function in this example?

A dog is left alone in the backyard. He starts howling. His person comes outside and shouts at him to stop. The dog stops howling and runs to greet his person. His person, satisfied that the howling stopped, then turns and goes back inside, closing the door behind them. The dog then starts howling again. The howling functions for attention. Every time he howls, his person arrives! The howling is being positively reinforced by the arrival and attention by his person. Just because the person is yelling, doesn’t mean that it’s punishment. Yelling at me would certainly be punishment; I don’t like being yelled at (unless, maybe, you’re yelling at me that I won the lottery). But to this dog, all that’s happening is that he is bored and alone, he howls and… yay! My person showed up!

A child might make rude nosies in class. His classmates laugh, and his teacher scolds him. If he continues to make noises, the behavior is maintained by attention from his classmates and his teacher. The teacher is another example of someone accidentally maintaining a behavior they don’t intend to! (It’s also possible the teacher’s scolding acts as punishment, but the social attention from the class outweighs the punishment- we’ll get to that in another lesson, later).

What about a dog with hot spots? The dog’s skin itches, so he scratches it. It feels good, so the next time he itches, he scratches it again. This is an example of a sensory function. If you bite your nails, tap your pen, or rub a soft piece of suede because it feels soft, those are all sensory-based behaviors. Children with intellectual disabilities that rock, flap hands, or spin are often engaging in sensory-maintained behaviors (although, just because a behavior seems like a sensory function, doesn’t mean it is- an FBA will revel if it is or not)

Automatically reinforced, sensory-maintained behavior. AKA- scratching.

Automatically reinforced, sensory-maintained behavior. AKA- scratching.

Behaviors can be multiply controlled, meaning, they serve more than one function. A dog may bark to get attention in one situation, and bark as a form of escape in another. When served broccoli a child may scream, throw the broccoli on the floor, and beg for cookies. The parents, out of frustration at the screaming and worried about their child not eating (especially if this is a severe case of food refusal with a pattern of days or weeks of not eating), gives in and gives this kiddo cookies. This is an example of something that is multiply controlled. The behaviors are functioning both for escape from eating broccoli and access to eating cookies.

Aggression in dogs is often multiply controlled, and without learning in what situations aggression arises and what the functions are in each situation, it will be impossible to intervene on this or other dangerous behaviors. Ascertaining the correct function of a behavior before intervening on it is of tantamount importance in designing a safe, effective and scientifically-validated intervention to reduce the behavior and replace with a socially acceptable behavior. It is important to never make assumptions on functions. Let’s say you are presented with a clinical case of a 16 year old male with polyembolokoilamania. You might do a cursory talk with the caregivers who say “Nope, he does it at all hours of the day or night.” Since this behavior is happening at night, with no one around to provide attention, nothing to gain access to, and nothing to escape from, you might assume this is an automatically reinforced sensory function. But just to be sure- you decide to conduct an FBA and leave the family with data sheets. What you find is that, after each episode, the boy is taken to the doctors or the ER the next morning to be treated for minor injuries related to his activities. Even though the doctors trips are happening hours apart from the target behavior- data and an FBA show you that this is, in fact, being maintained by attention from the doctor, if the doctor is someone the boy likes and he only gets to see if he engages in polyembolokoilamania.

Knowing the function of the behavior, and the effects of reinforcement and punishment, can enable you to systematically control the environment to bring about changes in behavior, such as suppression of dangerous or socially unacceptable behaviors, or increases in behaviors we want to see, such as required behaviors to compete at the top tiers of agility or obedience. We’ll discuss more about using this, along with differential reinforcement, and motivating and abolishing operations, in upcoming posts.

In the meantime- try identifying the ABCs and functions in the examples below and leave your answers in the comments!

Ex 1: Mom pushes cart through the candy aisle. Child screams. To quiet him, Mom gives him candy. The next time he sees the candy aisle, he screams.

Ex. 2: Dog is alone in the backyard. He decides to dig a hole. It’s fun, so he does it next time he is in the backyard.

Ex. 3: Dog is eating dinner. Another dog comes near, dog growls. The second dog turns around and leaves. The next time the second dog approaches the bowl, the first dog growls.

Ex. 4: Mom tells little boy to put his shoes on. Boy screams and says “No!” Mom’s frustrated, and grabs the boy, holding him down and putting his shoes on. He never learns to put his shoes on and screams every time someone tells him to put his shoes on.

Ex. 5: When I open the fridge, my guinea pigs run to the side of the cage and squeal. Shortly after, fresh vegetables appear in their cage. Now, whenever I open the fridge, the pigs squeal louder.

Ex 6: A little girls likes to draw pictures and show them to her mom. Every time she shows them to Mom, Mom gives her a big smile, tells her what a great job she did, hugs her, and puts the picture on the fridge. The little girl draws her mom a picture every afternoon.

Ex 7: As I’m writing this, my dogs come up and head butt my elbow. I reach down and pet them. As more time goes on, they head butt my elbow more frequently. (Then I finally make this the last example, get up, and take them for a romp in the field!)

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