SPED 8013 | Chapter 2: Basic Concepts

Basic Concepts

Definition of Behavior

“The behavior of an organism is that portion of an organism’s interaction with the environment that is characterized by detectable displacement in space through time of some part of the organism and that results in measurable change in at least one aspect of the environment” – Johnston and Pennypacker (1980, 1993a)

  • Behavior of an organism
    • Living organisms
  • Portion of the organism’s interaction with the environment
    • Must be interaction (not just a state or environmental change)
  • Displacements in space through time
    • Temporal locus (when in time it occurs)
    • Temporal extent (duration)
    • Repeatability (frequency over time)
  • Results in a measurable change in some aspect of the environment
    • Must be able to be detected and measured

Behavior vs Response

  • Behavior refers to a larger set or class of responses sharing certain
    • Physical characteristics
    • Functions
  • Response –“Action of an organism’s effector”
    • Specific instance of behavior

Descriptions of Behavior | Structural and Functional

  • Response topography
    • Form
    • Physical characteristics
  • Functional – Response Class
    • Effects of behavior on environment

Saying the word fire while looking at the letters F-I-R-E different than saying FIRE! When smelling smoke in a crowded theater.


  • All behaviors a person can do
  • Set or collection of knowledge and skills a person has learned that are relevant to a particular setting or tasks
    • Repertoires with respect to language skills, academic tasks, everyday routines, recreations, etc.


  • All behavior occurs within an environmental context;
  • Behavior cannot be emitted in an environmental void or vacuum
  • Johnston & Pennypacker (1993a) definition- “everything except the moving parts of the organism involved in the behavior” -includes other aspects of the organism
  • Complex, dynamic universe of events that differ from instance to instance
  • Stimulus
    • “an energy change that affects an organism through its receptor cells” -Michael, 2007, p.7
    • Exteroceptors, interoceptors, proprioceptors

Description of Stimulus Events

  • Formally
    • Physical features
  • Temporally
    • Occur with respect to a behavior of interest
      • Antecedent
      • Consequence
    • Functionally
      • Effects on behavior
        • Immediate temporary or delayed relatively permanent, Increase or decrease

Stimulus Class

  • Any group of stimuli sharing a predetermined set of common elements in one or more of these dimensions
    • Formal dimensions of stimuli
    • Temporal locus of stimuli
    • Behavioral functions of stimulus changes

Respondent Behavior

  • Behavior that is elicited by antecedent stimuli
    • Induced, brought out by the stimulus that precedes it
      • Something in your eye elicits a blink (reflex)
      • Ready-made behaviors protect against harmful stimuli
  • Stimulus-response relations
    • Reflex
  • Habituation
    • Gradually diminishing response strength

Respondent Conditioning (Classical conditioning)

  • Experimental demonstrations of respondent conditioning
    • Ivan Petrovich Pavlov
    • Digestive systems of dogs
    • Animals salivated every time lab assistant opened cage door to feed them

Operant Behavior

  • Any behavior whose future frequency is determined primarily by its history of consequences
  • NOT elicited, but:
    • Selected
    • Shaped
    • Maintained by consequences

Selection by Consequences

  • All forms of life, from single cells to complex cultures, evolve as a result of selection with respect to function – Pennypacker, 1994, pp. 12-13
  • Ontogeny
    • Operates during the lifetime of the individual
  • Phylogeny
    • Natural selection in the evolution of a species

  • What does all this have to do with behavior?
    • Natural selection has to minute degrees over the course of time

Operant Conditioning

  • Refers to the process and selective effects of consequences on behavior
  • “Functional consequence”
    • Stimulus change that follows a given behavior in a relatively immediate temporal sequence and alters the frequency of that type of behavior in the future
  • Reinforcement has taken place when
    • Operant conditioning consists of an increase in response frequency
  • Punishment has taken place when
    • Operant conditioning consists of a decrease in response frequency
  • Consequences can only affect future behavior
  • Consequences select response classes, not individual responses
  • Immediate consequences have the greatest effect
  • Consequences select any behavior
    • Reinforcement and punishment are equal opportunity selectors
    • Importance of temporal situations
  • Operant conditioning occurs automatically


  • Most important principle of behavior
  • Key element to most behavior change programs

Reinforcement Defined

If behavior is followed closely in time by a stimulus event and as a result the future frequency of that type of behavior increases in similar conditions, reinforcement has taken place

Stimulus Changes Functioning as Reinforcers

  • Positive Reinforcement (Adding)
    • A new stimulus added to the environment (or increased in intensity)
  • Negative Reinforcement (withdrawing)
    • An already present stimulus removed from the environment (or reduced in intensity)

Reinforcement – Big Ideas

  • Always means an increase in response rate
  • The modifiers positive (adding) and negative (withdrawing)
    • Describe the type of stimulus change operation that best characterizes the consequence


  • If behavior is followed closely in time by a stimulus event and as a result the future frequency of that type of behavior decreases in similar conditions, punishment has taken place

Stimulus Changes Functioning as Punishers

  • Positive Punishment (Adding)
    • Punishment by contingent stimulation
    • A new stimulus added to the environment (or increased in intensity)
    • Type I
  • Negative Punishment (Withdrawing)
    • Punishment by contingent withdrawal of a positive reinforcer
    • An already present stimulus removed from the environment (or reduced in intensity)
    • Type II

Punishment – Big Ideas

  • Always means a decrease in response rate
  • The modifiers positive (adding) and negative (withdrawing)
    • Describe the type of stimulus change operations that best characterizes the consequence

Principles and Behavior Change Tactics

  • Principle of Behavior
    • Describes a functional relation between behavior and one or more of its controlling variables (b=fx)
      • Thorough generality across individual organisms, species, settings, behaviors
      • Empirical generalization inferred from many experiments
      • Describe how behavior works
      • Reinforcement, punishment, extinction
  • Behavior change tactic
    • Research-based, technologically consistent method for changing behavior that has been derived from one or more basic principles of behavior
      • Sufficient generality across subjects, settings, and/or behaviors to warrant its codification & dissemination
    • Technological aspect of ABA
    • Principles
      • Describe how behavior works
      • Lawful relationship between behavior
        • An immediate consequence, and an altered frequency/probability of the behavior in the future under similar conditions
    • Behavior Change tactics
      • Are how applied behavior analysts put the principles to work to help people learner and use socially significant behaviors

What Kinds of Stimulus Changes Function as Reinforcers and Punishers?

  • Unconditioned reinforcers and punishers (Unconditioned reinforce, i.e., food – Unconditioned punisher, i.e, pain)
    • Function irrespective of prior learning history
  • Conditioned reinforcers and punishers (i.e., money having been paired with other things that are reinforcing)
    • Function as such based on previous pairings with other reinforcers and punishers

Motivating Operations

  • Function
    • Alters the current value of stimulus changes as reinforcement or punishment
      • Satiation
      • Deprivation

Discriminated Operant

  • Occurs more frequently under some antecedent conditions than it does under others
  • Stimulus Control
    • Differential rates of operant responding observed in the presence or absence of antecedent stimuli
    • Due to pairings (antecedent/consequence) in the past, antecedents acquire the ability to control operant behavior

Three-Term Contingency

  • Antecedent – Behavior – Consequence (ABC)
    • Basic unit of analysis in the analysis of operant behavior
    • All ABA procedures involve the manipulation of one or more components of the 3-term contingency

The Complexity of Human Behavior

  • Highly complex variables governing human behavior
    • The strength of a response is often the function of more than one variable
    • A single variable often affects more than one response
  • Human capabilities
    • Large repertoires of response chains, verbal behavior
  • Analysis of control complicated by
    • Individual differences in histories of reinforcement
    • Practical, ethical, logistical, etc. issues