Behavior Basics: Thoughts and Emotions

From the early days of ABA, the foundation of behavior is that all animals (which includes humans) follow the same principles of behavior. This means that all behavior adheres to the same rules of triggers and functions. Under B.F. Skinner, behavior was studied as a philosophy of the science of behavior, called Radical Behaviorism. Radical Behaviorism is the science behind behavior analysis, and what helps separate ABA from most other forms of psychology.

Another concept that helps define Skinner Behaviorism, is that thoughts & emotions (private events) are looked at as behaviors. They are internal behaviors, and can only be observed by the person experiencing them. In contrast, external behaviors are the observable actions most people would common describe as “behaviors”.

When looking at animals, we have a very clear division between internal and external behaviors. We can define (see, hear, feel) what a dog does, and how it responds to activity in it’s environment, as these are external behaviors. We cannot define the dog’s thoughts and emotions that results from activity in it’s environment, as these are internal behaviors. For example, if a dog hears a loud noise it may run and hide behind a couch. This is typically described in 1 of 2 ways.

  1. The dog heard a loud noise and hid. (Environment triggered external behavior)
  2. The loud noise scared the dog and it hid. (Environment triggered internal behavior (emotion), which triggered the external behavior (observable action)

In the 1st description,

  • We see a trigger leading to an observable action.
  • We learn the loud noise triggered an action, but we don’t understand why hiding occurs.
  • What does the dog get from hiding? How can we replace the behavior?

In the 2nd description,

  • We see a trigger leading to something we cannot see, which led to an observable action.
  • We learn that fear led to hiding, which means the dog learned hiding behind the couch will protect it.
  • How can we make the dog feel safe more appropriately?

HOWEVER, the 2nd description also tells us that hiding behind the couch fixes the problem of fear, not the loud noises. Because we don’t know what the dog felt or thought, we naturally made assumptions that it was afraid. This assumption is based on what we have learned to identify as typical responses to fear. Since we view hiding as a typical fear response, we labeled the dog “afraid”, however, it could be irritated. And hiding behind the couch could simply be a comfortable spot to block noise and decrease irritation.

You can’t assume a thought or emotions based on what you think an observable behavior means!

Just like with animals, we make assumptions about people based on what we have individually learned from our experiences (learning histories). We assume people think and feel the way WE would think and feel, based on our actions towards them. We treat other people the way we treat animals. And just like animals, people learn how you react towards them, which affects how they react towards you. What you do teach them how to react to you.

The links below are two rewritten/reproduced copies of a 1951 B.F. Skinner journal article from Scientific American.
It relates how animals learn to how people learn.

Skinner, B. F. (1951). How to teach animals. Scientific American, 185(6), 26-29.
(Citation of original article)


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