Religious Behavioral Analysis

For most people, their religion is a life foundation that they use to base their core beliefs and behavioral responses. Most people, especially in the psychology community, feel that religion and psychology are separate and mutually exclusive of each other – and should remain that way. However, it is my contention that religion and psychology, specifically ABA, are not mutually exclusive, and go hand-in-hand with providing validity to each other.

Image from, a Social Psychology website.

ABA explains that behaviors are learned and shaped. A behaviorist will observe behaviors to identify and (operationally) define a behavior specifically. Once defined, the behavior can be put under contingencies that will either reinforce or punish the responses, which will either increase or decrease the future probabilities of behaviors. Ideally, reinforcers and punishers are delivered as immediate as possible (within 5-seconds), to create the strongest contingency between behavior and consequence, in the shortest amount of time. However, once a behavior is learned, delivery (schedule) of reinforcement can be delayed, or completely faded away, with only intermittent (every so often) reinforcement delivery. Reinforcers and punishers are delivered to the person on either a “Fixed” or “Variable” schedule, either by duration (interval) or frequency (ratio). These options are called fixed interval (FI), fixed ratio (FR), variable interval (VI), and variable ration (VR). They are further explained in the chart below.

Schedules of Reinforcement

Schedule TypeDefinedExample
Fixed Interval (FI)Reinforcement/Punishment is delivered on a consistent elapsed time interval.

Expressed as “FI-X”, with “X” representing X-minutes or X-seconds, based on what unit of time you are utilizing, that must elapse prior to delivery of reinforcer/punishment.
(Fixed Interval 5-minutes)
Reinforcer is distributed to the responder every 5-minutes.
Variable Interval (VI)Reinforcement/Punishment is delivered consistently, within a defined time range, but not on any specific time interval.

Expressed as “VI-X”, with “X” representing the average of the average duration of elapsed time, either in minutes or seconds, until delivery of reinforcer/punishment.
(Variable Interval 7-minutes)
Reinforcer is distributed to the responder every 5-9-minutes, for an average of 7-minutes during intervals.
Fixed Ratio (FR)Reinforcement/Punishment is delivered on a consistent frequency of responses.

Expressed as “FR-X”, with “X” representing the number of responses required before a reinforcer/punishment is delivered.
FR-11(Fixed Ratio 11)
Reinforcer is distributed after every correct/appropriate 11th response.
Variable Ratio (VR)Reinforcement/Punishment is delivered on an inconsistent frequency of responses, but within a defined range of responding.

Expressed as “VR-X”, with “X” representing the average of the average number of responses required before a reinforcer/punishment is delivered.
VR-5(Variable Ratio 5)
Reinforcer is distributed to the responder every 3-7 correct/appropriate responses, for an average of 7-responses before delivery.
Chart 1. This chart explains the difference between the usages of the terms Fixed, Variable, Interval, and Ratio in regards to schedules of reinforcement.

Real World Example

If you go to a soda/pop machine and it gives you 2 cans every time you pay for 1 can, you will begin to consistently use that machine, if not elusively use that machine. If the machine begins to give you 2 drinks less consistently, you will continue to check the machine to test it, hoping you’ll get lucky. If the machine later begins to give you 1 drink for every 1 drink purchased, you will not use it as often, and may stop using it entirely. However, you are still likely to check that machine from time to time to see if it will give you 2 drinks again. If it does give you 2 drinks for the price of 1, you will begin to check it more consistently to see if the contingency continues to maintain.

In this example, the behavior was created and reinforced with a consistent reinforcement schedule (FR-1), then partially extinguished with a faded schedule (VR). It was then placed under extinction once the contingency was removed. You’re behavior demonstrated a spontaneous recovery of the behaviors by randomly and sporadically checking the machine to test the old contingency, and when reinforced again (intermittently), the behavior resumed. Had the contingency continued to be placed under extinction, then the behavior would have continued to cease.

Correlation Between Behavior Analysis and Religion

Religion, similarly, invites people to focus on receiving consistent reinforcement for engaging in appropriate behaviors through fellowship (socialization which can allow access to attention and tangibles), and focus on blessings received, scriptures, and the new social community you are playing yourself in. This is aided by people’s innate desire to comply with their social norms and receive social praise from one’s community. Once a new behavior is learned and reinforced, the reinforcement is then faded. Congregations and clergy focus less energy on members once those members appear to have accepted and implemented new lifestyles and routines. However, people often cite this as reasons for pulling away from their religions (backsliding), and returning to previous “inappropriate” behaviors, which help them function in the social communities they return to begin with.

While consistent reinforcement is typically required to implement a new behavior quickly and effectively, intermittent reinforcement can create the strongest behavioral contingency relationships. This is because the learner is taught that the reinforcement never completely goes away. This is why religion and religious principles never fully leave someone’s life. It’s a long established system of conditioned behaviors, beliefs, and routines in a person’s life, which is never fully extinguished.

Social Regulations

Behaviorally, our responses are deemed as either appropriate or inappropriate based on our social community (i.e., social norms based on environment, relationships, cultural values, socioeconomic status, etc.). This dictates what we deem as socially acceptable behaviors. Religion reflects the grandest scale of identifying both appropriate and inappropriate behavior. People use it as a foundation to base their life, including the behavioral responses they engage in, and the behavioral responses they deem as either appropriate or inappropriate.

Behaviors are shaped using both punishment and reinforcement. Religions utilize these well, through intermittent schedules, while implementing non-wavering contingencies. Behaviors are either appropriate or inappropriate. Whether a religion believes in Heaven or Hell, reincarnation, enlightenment, nirvana, or an ambiguous limbo, followers are judged based on their behaviors, and must be mindful of the consequences of their actions. The reason it is so difficult for many to maintain religious contingencies is they are typical self-monitored (thus the importance of fellowship within religion), and both reinforcement and punishment generally has delayed delivery. The longer the delay, the weaker the contingency control. Meaning, while the contingency remains and has influence, the actual control weakens enough that behaviors cannot be fully controlled.

Quote from Dr. Sukhraj S. Dhillon of Yale University.

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