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10.Measuring Behaviour


How do you monitor the behavioural stream?
You begin by identifying the dimensions of the behaviour you want to monitor. Then you record how these dimensions change over time.

The act of measuring is central to any science. But how on earth do you measure behaviour? Skinner (1953) noted:

Behavior is a difficult subject matter, not because it is inaccessible, but because it is very complex. Since it is a process, rather than a thing, it cannot be held still for observation. It is changing, fluid, evanescent, and for this reason it makes technical demands upon the ingenuity and energy of the scientist. But there is nothing essentially insoluble about the problems which arise from this fact. (p. 15).

Essentially, Skinner is making reference to the behavioural stream shown in Movie 2.5 and saying this is going to be a difficult, but not impossible subject to study.


To set the scene for this section watch Movie 2.5 again.

It was said that many of the traditional terms used by psychologists to explain behaviour (i.e., mentalistic terms) are redundant and/or misleading in a natural science approach to the understanding of behaviour.

This view results in much misunderstanding by students new to behaviour analysis. The problem stems from issues concerned with how words from everyday language find their way into a scientific analysis:

In everyday language we often talk about people's actions without reference to specific behaviors. For example, nice, happy, vile, wicked, satisfied, arrogant, confident, shy, greedy, and loving are but a few of the terms that people use to refer to human actions. When we use such terms, we are not speaking of specific behaviors but instead of a number of different behaviors that have something in common.

For example, the person who acts wickedly engages in many behaviors that violate codes of ethics and that bring harm to others who have done nothing to warrant it. Likewise, a person who is shy engages in many different behaviors involved in avoiding or being uncomfortable in social situations. (Grant & Evans, 1994, p. 4)



We saw in the animation with Adam and Julia that the term ‘summary label’ is used to refer to those categories of behaviour that have something in common. They provide information about how a person is likely to behave. In everyday speech summary labels are used extensively.

However, there are major disadvantages with the use of summary labels. Grant and Evans (1994) list four of these problems:


1. Summary labels are imprecise:
Two different people could be labelled similarly but their actual behaviours could be radically different.
‘We don't know whether a boy labelled wicked has merely been into the cookie jar without permission or whether he physically abuses others.’ (p. 4)
2. Summary labels do not permit a quantitative treatment of behaviours:
Because these labels are imprecise, observers can never reach agreement about the definition of any one label?
‘Because of the label's ambiguity, it is impossible to get agreement on what is nice or nasty, foolish or wise, and thoughtless or thoughtful.’ (p. 5)
3. Summary labels control reactions to the labelled person:
‘For example, a child might initially be labelled unintelligent because she was ill and absent from school during the time some key concepts were presented. Suppose the student is then able to overcome the problems created by her absence from school. Even if this happens, the label unintelligent might still stick. School personnel can continue to respond to the child as unintelligent, and to expect and demand little from the student beyond minimum standards of performance.’ (p. 5)
4. Summary labels may lead to the creation of explanatory fictions:
Various forms of mentalism are involved here. Since much of behaviour analysis is concerned with exposing and countering mentalistic analyses of behaviour, we will look at this a little more closely.


Let's start with a definition of mentalism. An explanatory statement about behaviour is said to be mentalistic when an inner 'mental' entity is invented to explain the behavioural observation. Quite often the mentalism in traditional psychological theory is obscured by practices which appear to be measuring a 'thing' inside. The use of questionnaires, for example, is a case in point. We all use a variety of words to describe our inner world and traditional psychologists design questions to encourage us to respond with the language appropriate to that world. But does the recording of these words constitute a measurement of the inner world? Certainly not! A questionnaire simply records the likelihood that these words will be used after a person is exposed to environmental contingencies (Movie 10.1). An example of a mistake in mentalism would be to refer to the findings from the questionnaire as independent variables. Psychologists who make this mistake remove the need for their science to assimilate the role of contingencies, the real independent variables.

Other examples of mentalism include the use of explanatory fictions like jealousy, hatred, love, shame, personality, intelligence, a poor memory, and so forth. These summary labels are not necessarily harmful in themselves, but only when they are used as causes of behavior. (Grant & Evans, 1994, p. 6)

Many students initially feel uneasy about the line of reasoning outlined above. It seems as if 'something inherently human' has been taken away by this analysis. This reaction to the criticism of mentalism would be entirely understandable if there was nothing to replace it. But there is an alternative approach taken by behaviour analysis, and it is not as alien as you might think. In fact, you only have to look at the cinema or theatre to see what we mean.

In the world of cinema, actors/actresses each have a task of portraying a particular character. Working with a director, they sort out the details of the specific behaviours that are to be performed. Once an appropriate sequence of behaviours has been executed in a 'prescribed' manner, a character is created on stage. If the choreography of the behaviours is altered in some appreciable way, the character on stage is altered. Unlike the situation on stage where characters have to be created, the behavioural scientist deals with characters in real life. Apart from this difference, though, there are significant similarities between both disciplines. We have already seen, for example, that there are many occasions when a number of behaviours that have similar outcomes are referred to collectively through the use of a summary label. In effect, the summary label describes the "character" portrayed by the pattern of behaviour.

The 'success' of a character on stage can be judged in many ways. Perhaps the simplest is the extent to which it is believable by the audience. Now imagine that you are in an audience and that you are enthralled by the performance you are watching. You do this while at the same time remaining completely oblivious to the work behind the scenes that made the performance run smoothly. If at some point in a scene you were made privy to the specific details of the choreography, you might lose your feeling for the characters. You might even react to the clinical analysis that was offered because it seems as if 'something has been taken away'. At the same time, though, you would have to concede that without the attention to detail of the choreography, you would not have been enjoying the characters on stage.

Behaviour analysts also are interested in choreography, but for different reasons. In the practice of their science, they are concerned with the details of the choreography enacted by the various organisms they observe. The language of their science refers to these details by the term "dimensions of behaviour."

The most basic include:
1. Frequency - how often a behaviour occurs;
2. Duration - the length of time a behaviour lasts from beginning to end;
3. Latency - the time taken from the onset of an event to the occurrence of a behaviour.

Not surprisingly, there are techniques used to record these dimensions of behaviour. This aspect of the analysis of behaviour can be quite labour intensive. This is because behaviour is, as Skinner said in the opening quotation, ‘a process’ and ‘not a thing’ that can be held still for observation. With the help of Movie 10.2 you can see how even the simplest of choreographed scenes is difficult to translate into behavioural dimensions. After you have looked at some of the basic recording techniques, another chapter will take you through the logistics of assessing the efficacy of an intervention designed to change a choreography behaviour.

There are always ethical questions associated with any attempt to influence the behaviour of another person. Sometimes, though, people really do get the wrong end of the stick when it comes to the role that behaviour analysis plays in facilitating change. Usually, some of the problems stem from occasions when judgements are based on a shallow definition of behaviour. That is, the everyday understanding of behaviour, which is part and parcel of training in Psychology or Education professionals, is often confused with the more holistic definition used by behaviour analysts. It is felt that any change in behaviour is merely a cosmetic process that happens at a very shallow level and ignores feelings. On top of that, there are myths about how a behaviour analyst changes behaviour which, at the extreme, usually takes the form of the cruel behaviour analyst doing something to someone without consent. Many of these myths are nicely caricatured in the movie ‘A clockwork orange’. Having dismissed behaviour analysis on the basis of misinformation about this science, these same people continue on their way in therapeutic or educational settings with the assumption that their own interactions with clients, service users, students, will not have an impact on how the behaviour of these people changes over time. But you cannot NOT influence people in the free-flowing exchanges that happen in the two-and-fro of any social interaction. That being so, is ethically inappropriate to behave as the proverbial ostrich when its head in the sand and proclaim that you are not interested in how your behaviour affects others. Surely it is incumbent on us to increase our awareness of the consequences of our own behaviour by assessing the impact on others. That is the position that lies at the heart of any behavioural intervention and it explains why data collection is so important for monitoring impact. It also makes sense to harness what we know about principles of behaviour in order to facilitate changes in reaching an agreed a goal. When a client/service user/student works with a behaviour analyst then the control of behaviour is something that is done with them, not to them.

Once ethical considerations have been adequately addressed and it has been agreed that a particular intervention is appropriate, it is necessary to employ techniques which reveal the extent to which the intervention has been successful and socially valid. Here, again, we see a similarity between a behaviour analyst and a film director. The behavioural dimensions of a character provide the reference point for specifying the goal(s) of an intervention. You might need a little bit more of behaviour 'X' or 'Y', or a little bit less of behaviour 'Z'. You might even need entirely new behaviours that are considered more appropriate for a particular context. In the real world, the behaviour analyst choreographs the new behaviour(s) through appropriate consultation and with the aid of principles of behaviour. These principles are facts about how the behaviour of an organism changes across time when exposed to contingencies in the environment. The goal is to design a bespoke set of contingencies that produces successful outcomes. Who defines success? Who determines the goals? Both of these questions are central to evidence-based practice and central to training of behaviour analysts. We have provided links in the section on further reading to cover these topics.









Here, now, are a few examples of dimensions of behaviour in the scene with Julia and Adam! As part of a practical exercise, make a list of the dimensions of behaviour that make up the whole scene and compare your findings with those of another student.

Using the scene with Julia and Adam, Movies 10.3, 10.4, 10.5, and 10.6 are examples of techniques used by researchers to record behaviour. Movie 10.7 provides a tutorial on Time Sampling.

Movie 10.8 is a relatively lengthy tutorial to teach you about observational skills. It elaborates on important issues, such as task analysis, defining behaviour, Interobserver Agreement (IOA), and recording procedures. It includes many video vignettes that allow you to practice your new skills. You should take your time exploring this interactive in detail and discuss issues arising with your tutor/supervisor. You can also download the PowerPoint from which the movie was made, called Learning to Observe.



Additional video resources

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