Behavioral analysis: observe and record antecedents and consequences to understand behavior.
If we can understand what causes a particular behavior, we are more likely to be able to change that behavior. One way to better understand some specific behavior is to carefully observe its antecedents and consequences, i.e. what occurs just before and right after the behavior. By using a knowledge of learning (see chapter 4) we should be able to analyze the situation and explain the behavior.
- To understand what in the environment is causing a behavior or emotion or interpersonal interaction. (If nothing external, look inside for thoughts, memories, feelings or physiological factors.)
- To use this knowledge to figure out how to change the behavior or to determine why a self-help effort isn't working.
STEP ONE: Remember the circumstances preceding the behavior or emotion or interaction.
Think back and remember as much as possible about what happens right before the "target" behavior:
- time and physical setting, any environmental cues that set you off--
- your actions, thoughts (self-talk), and feelings--
- any defeatist ideas, e.g. "I'll never get better," "I can't change," "I'm just that way"--
- others' behavior and feelings (including believing they think you are stupid, etc.)--
- nature of interaction with others--
- are there any signs of possible consequences (+ or -) that influence your behavior?
- your physical condition (tired, hyper, drunk, etc.)--
- your use of or lack of skills--
- + or - expectations or values--
- is this situation similar to a situation or person you have had experience with before?
List the stimuli that seem to occur right before the behavior in question. In this method, you can concentrate on the antecedents of desired or unwanted behaviors, feelings, or interpersonal interactions.
STEP TWO: Think about the possible + or - consequences following your behavior or emotion or interaction.
It will also be helpful to consider the payoffs for both the unwanted and the desired behavior, perhaps comparing the two. If you are dealing with a bad habit, you may feel "I don't get anything positive out of the habit." Don't believe it, get started carefully observing the results of your habit. The positive pay offs outweigh the negative consequences. Each habit has its own unique set of positive and negative consequences. It is important to consider many possible consequences to uncover them all:
- desired pay offs--consider both extrinsic rewards (material, interpersonal, or symbolic of success) and intrinsic satisfaction (enjoyable feelings, relief, and self-esteem), both in the immediate and long range future. Often performing a well-learned habit just makes us feel better but we don't understand how or why; it is still a consequence.
- negative reinforcement--relief or escape from stress, self-criticism, interpersonal pressure, or any other unpleasant experience. Ask: were there any cues in the situations that enabled you to anticipate and avoid something unpleasant without actually feeling bad at all? (Example: one might avoid an argument by avoiding a topic. In this case, escaping the threat of a fight reinforces avoiding the topic, but there has been no resolution of the conflict between the two of you.)
- unwanted consequence--punishment, criticism, deprivation of something you wanted, increased self-criticism or interpersonal conflicts, unpleasant thoughts about terrible possible outcomes, having to correct the mistake you made, or any unpleasant outcome.
Consequences may be positive and negative, expected and unexpected, immediate and long-term, extrinsic and intrinsic, material and symbolic (a failing grade), emotional and interpersonal and even unconscious. To understand ourselves, we have to be honest about all the possible consequences.
It is very important to ask yourself: Is it possible that a part of me really unconsciously wanted the consequence I got? Also, ask yourself: How does the outcome make me feel about myself? Do I have an unconscious need to put down or hurt someone else? to rebel or resist pressure? to put down myself? to fail? to feel bad or guilty? to live out a "life script?" Chapters 4, 9, and 15 might be helpful. Also, writing out one's explanations might clarify the situation and help with the decision of exactly what to observe in the next step.
STEP THREE: Observe and record the antecedents and consequences of the behavior, emotion, or interaction.
Every time the "target" behavior occurs observe carefully and record the exact conditions that preceded it and followed it. Consider the factors mentioned in steps one and two which you think could possibly be relevant, or any other possible cause.
Record your observations on 3 X 5 cards. Do this for several days, or at least until 8 or 10 occurrences of the target behavior have been observed. Several observations are necessary to determine if the behavior is only occasionally reinforced.
STEP FOUR: Complete a "behavioral analysis" using both your recall and your recorded observations of antecedents and consequences.
For each target behavior, list the stimuli that seem to elicit the behavior and the payoffs that result from and reinforce the behavior. This should "explain" the behavior, i.e. what causes the behavior and why this one behavior is dominant over all the competing behaviors.
Chapter 4 describes operant, classical, and social learning. These theories will help you understand how antecedents-behavior-consequences relationships are formed and maintained. Chapter 4 also explains why some behaviors are hard to understand; this may help too. Some of the questions above also involve many other factors that might influence our behavior besides learning procedures, such as values, unconscious needs and motives, games, unresolved emotional situations, etc. These other factors are discussed in chapters 4, 9, 14, and 15.
This process called "behavioral analysis" is the essence of all efforts to understand human behavior. The various theories--psychoanalysis, social learning, humanistic, behavioral, Gestalt, etc.--simply emphasize different factors among the antecedents or the consequences. By repeatedly attempting to understand human behavior in this way, you are becoming an "insightful" psychologist. Be sure to discuss your "theories" with others; you need to consider many points of view.
STEP FIVE: Use the self-awareness from the behavioral analysis to exercise better self-control.
The knowledge from this method leads directly into using Methods 1 and 3, involving antecedent stimulus control, and Methods 16, 17, and 18, involving control of the consequences, in order to develop plans for creating a new response, a new way of handling a problem.
Anyone who has learned a new habit--exercising, picking up dirty clothes, overcoming shyness--realizes that the new behavior is hard to start. At first, the old behavior is so much easier, it's still automatic. However, after 3 to 4 weeks of daily practice, the "hard" new habits become automatic and easy too. There is no known alternative to simply pushing yourself to carry out the new better habits until they become "natural."
As we learned in chapter 5, almost any change is stressful, even though it is an improvement. Furthermore, the ramifications of seemingly small changes may be far reaching. Examples: deciding in the sixth grade to go out for several sports may influence your career, your choice of friends and spouse, your life-long interests, etc. Likewise, if you decided to become a serious student... In some cases, however, the "cost" of the new habit, in terms of effort and ramifications, may seem too high.
An hour or so will be involved in the arm chair philosophizing about the role of the antecedents and consequences. The actual observation and recording will take 10 to 30 minutes a day for a couple of weeks. The behavioral analysis will be another hour if you keep your explanations strictly behavioral. (If you branch out into other theories, e.g. "what games am I playing?" or "did my relationship with my father influence this behavior?", it will take much longer--and may be more exciting.) Total=about 10 hours. Of course, one could be more casual and sloppy about it. In some instances, you may have no choice since a change may not be possible without the better understanding of a careful analysis.
Common problems with the method
As mentioned before, some people naturally abhor keeping systematic records, especially about themselves. A lesser problem is going through the process and finding that you didn't record the relevant information or that you don't yet know enough about the theories to make sense out of the data you have observed.
Effectiveness, advantages, and dangers
A careful observer almost always learns facts about his/her own behavior that he/she hadn't realized. In that sense it is effective. It is unknown how often it leads to effective self-change, however. No dangers although it is possible you may not like all the things you find out about yourself.
Nelson, R. (1976). Assessment and therapeutic functions of self-monitoring. In M. Hersen, R. Eisler, & P. Miller (Eds.), Progress in behavior modification, Vol. 5. New York: Academic Press.
Also see Watson and Tharp (1972), Thorensen and Mahoney (1974), and Birkedahl (1990).
Disrupt the unwanted behavior; thought stopping; self-distraction
A habit flows along smoothly. Once interrupted, however, it is easier to stop or alter its course. Likewise, an unwanted response, like an outburst of anger, can be reconsidered if there is a pause in the process before any action occurs; thus, the wisdom of the old adage, "Count to 10 before getting mad." Furthermore, it is easier to avoid temptations if there is a delay of gratification and attention is directed away from the temptation. Walk away and get your mind involved in something else.
Unwanted worries or fantasies can sometimes be delayed or ordered to stop, which is a form of disruption. However, in other cases, attempts to suppress an obsession makes it worse (see method #12 and chapter 5).
In order to develop a new behavior, we may have to weaken the old habit, especially it is a strong habit. In order to study, we have to break our habit of watching TV all the time. In order to eat more healthy food, we have to break our habit of eating lots of red meat. Sometimes the old habit can be broken instantly, "cold turkey," but often some technique is needed.
- To disrupt habits that are so automatic that they are done unconsciously. The disruption draws your attention to the habit and gives you a chance to stop it. The disruption also enables you to develop a more desirable habit to replace the unwanted behavior.
- To provide a pause to think and reconsider in the middle of an otherwise impulsive, ill-considered response.
- To stop unwanted thoughts, especially depressive ideas, anger-generating fantasies, and worries.
- To increase your confidence in self-control.
STEP ONE: Plan in advance how to disrupt the unwanted behavior.
Mostly this consists of making "rules" which you then have to enforce. For example, it is common to recommend this rule to dieters: pause between every bite, putting down your fork and savoring the food. This breaks the automatic habit of rapidly shoveling in the food. It is also recommended that 2 or 3 five-minute "rest periods" be incorporated into every meal; this gives you practice at stopping eating and a chance to reconsider if you really want to eat more during that meal.
Smokers are given rules that disrupt the habit, such as put the pack in a different pocket, use a different lighter, use a disliked brand, smoke with the other hand, and so on. Invent your own disruptions.
In the case of impulsive behavior (anger, sarcastic remarks, seductive actions, etc.), learn to recognize the early signs and plan for a pause: "Count to 10," "Stop the insults and think of a compliment," or "Stick to business." Important rules for restraint are: wait 10 minutes, think about the consequences, use distraction (think about something else).
In the case of unnecessary or bothersome thoughts, try "thought stopping." This is simply yelling (loudly but silently to yourself), "Stop! Get out of here!" And, believe it or not, the thought often goes away. It will come back, so yell again. Eventually, by telling yourself that you don't have to put up with useless or hurtful thoughts, you can frequently control "your mind" (see method #12 when this makes things worse or doesn't work).
One of the most common methods for dealing with temptations or unwanted thoughts is self-distraction. The ordinary person tries to think of something else, say the chair he/she is sitting in, but before long the unwanted thought or feeling is on his/her mind again. So, since thinking about the chair didn't work, he/she tries to think about something else, maybe the knot in his/her stomach this time. The process goes on and on like this. It does keep the unwanted thought out of your mind fairly well, but afterwards the method may produce even more of the unwanted thoughts or emotions. This is because every time you see or think of the chair, or become aware of some sensation from your stomach, etc., you think of the unwanted thought or feeling again. Thus, it is better to use only one distracting thought, preferably something pleasant, such as your favorite hobby, vacation spot or even a very enjoyable, absorbing part of your work.
Robbins (1991) cites a case of a chocoholic who got a lot of attention because of his love of candy. Robbins told the chocoholic to only eat chocolate for several days. After about four days, he was sick of chocolate, making it easier to give up his 4-bars-a-day habit (see method # 12).
STEP TWO: Practice the disruptive process mentally before having the real experience.
Try to accurately anticipate situations where an old unwanted habit will occur, an strong emotional impulse will erupt, or an unwanted obsession will continue and continue. Practice until the idea of when and how to interrupt the process is well ingrained (see method #2).
In the case of an obsession, say a worry, you need to select and prepare in advance alternative topics to think about. Otherwise, a worrier will just shift from one worry or depressing thought to another one. Select only one positive topic to think about (as a distracter from unwanted topics), perhaps an enjoyable hobby, some pleasant aspect of your work, or maybe you could think about praying and God. You need to practice using this topic by imagining the onset of the unwanted thoughts and immediately turning your attention to the more enjoyable topic. (Don't forget to also use environmental factors to control your thoughts. If depressed, be around fun, happy people, get active in interesting tasks, make plans for the future, search for beauty and good, exercise, clean up and look good, etc.)
Consider a variety of additional ways of responding to or solving the needs or concerns underlying the unwanted behaviors or thoughts: avoidance and change of the environment (method #1), assertiveness and self-esteem (chapters 13 & 14), forgiveness (chapter 7), a desired or substitute response (methods #2 & #11), paradoxical intention (method #12) or scheduling the worry, and decision-making (chapter 13) instead of continuing the worry or bad habit.
STEP THREE: Try out the method several times, starting with the next opportunity; observe the results.
Don't expect instant results. Keep improving your method. Continue until a better way of handling the situation is well established.
Total time=1 or 2 hours. In many ways these methods will give you more time, i.e. reduce time wasted on unwanted acts (eating), worrying, getting into arguments, etc.
Common problems with the method
Most common is forgetting to disrupt or stop the ongoing response. Frequently, one's self-concept interferes with behavioral control. Example: if one sees him/herself as "hot headed," "flirtatious," "weak willed," or "too old to learn," this counteracts the effectiveness of any self-control method directed towards eliminating these reactions. (See cognitive methods and self-concept in chapter 14.)
As Wegner (1989) points out, effective suppression temporarily of thoughts may cause problems, because the troublesome thoughts may return even stronger; suppression, he says, doesn't solve problems. To solve a problem you often have to get it out, deal with it, talk to someone about it, make plans to change, etc.
Effectiveness, advantages, dangers
No carefully controlled research is available. However, practitioners frequently recommend this type of method. It is easy to learn and you can see immediately if it works. There is no danger, unless strong emotions are involved, such as intense anger and suicidal depression. The method should reduce the risk of destructive action but everyone must exercise maximum caution when potentially violent emotions are involved. In such cases, seek professional help and support from family and friends immediately.
Lazarus, A. (1971). New techniques for behavior change. Rational living, 6, 1-13.