Some Basic Behavioural Techniques and The Idea of a Blank Slate

“If this is rationalism, and incompatible with Locke’s empiricism, then so much for the rationalism, and so much the worse for Locke…For, whatever we make of Locke, the behaviourist is knowingly and cheerfully up to his neck in innate mechanisms of learning-readiness. (Quine: Linguistics and Philosophy p. 57)

In this blog I will discuss some basic concepts of Applied Behavioural Analysis: reinforcement, punishment and extinction. While summarising these concepts I will consider whether any of them are committed to the idea of a blank slate. Pinker in his (2002) ‘The Blank Slate’ targeted behavioural science as a blank slate position which denied human nature. I will argue here that Pinker was incorrect on this issue, behaviourism isn’t necessarily a blank slate position in fact it is largely consistent with both evolutionary theory and the idea of human nature. I will not consider whether Pinker is correct or incorrect in his attacks on other scholars and disciplines, my focus here will be entirely on behaviourism. When discussing behaviourism I will outline of how some concepts of behaviourism are used in the field so I will discuss a lot of Applied Behavioural Analysis.

Reinforcement is when a stimulus immediately follows the behaviour and increases the likelihood of that behaviour reoccurring in similar circumstances. It is a three term relation consisting of: Responding, Consequence, and Change in Behaviour. There are two types of reinforcement: positive reinforcement and negative reinforcement. Positive reinforcement occurs when a response is followed immediately by the presentation of a stimulus and this presentation increases the future occurrences of said behaviour. Negative reinforcement occurs when a response is immediately followed by the removal of a stimulus and this removal increases the likelihood of the behaviour increasing in the future.

An example of positive reinforcement is as follows: Every time subject A blinks subject B who he is talking to smiles, this results in an increase in the occurrence of blinking behaviour by subject A. An example of negative reinforcement is: Every time subject A feels intense hunger he eats some food, this behaviour removes the feeling of hunger and means that the response of eating when hungry is more likely to occur in the future.

When considering reinforcement (both positive and negative) it is important to take note of the distinction between primary and secondary reinforcers. A primary reinforcer is a basic physiological need such as hunger, thirst, sexual desire, etc. Now it should by admitting unconditioned reinforcers into their theory behaviourists are not blank-slaters, they openly admit that our evolutionary history will have shaped our instincts so that certain behaviours will occur independent of learning from our current environment. Skinner is quiet explicit on this point

“Just as we point out the contingencies of survival to explain an unconditioned reflex, so we point out to ‘contingencies of reinforcement to explain a conditioned reflex” ( Skinner 1974 p. 43)

“The task of a scientific analysis is to explain how the behaviour of the person is a physical system is related to the conditions under which the human species evolved, and the conditions under which the individual lives” (Skinner 1974 p. 14)[1]

Here we can see that Skinner far from advancing some silly blank slate position holds a theory and whose methodology relies on the notion of instincts from the start. Secondary reinforcers can be use to modify some behaviour. A secondary reinforcer is something that becomes reinforcing because of being associated with the primary reinforcer. A good example of a primary reinforcer is hunger; if through using classical conditioning I associate relief from hunger (negative reinforcement) with a particular form of behaviour (pressing a lever), pressing a lever will become a secondary reinforcer because of its association with the primary reinforcer.

Careful observation and recording of what behaviours are reinforcing and what behaviours are not is vital. So, for example, while food may be reinforcing for a child who has not eaten for a while it is not likely to act as reinforcer for the child who has just eaten a big dinner. So when choosing reinforcers take into account both satiation and deprivation. Satiation occurs when a desire is satisfied fully, while deprivation occurs when you are deprived of a particular reinforcer for a sustained period. Obviously ethically when one is working with people we should not implement a schedule of deprivation to make reinforcement more likely. Rather we should observe the behaviour and schedule treatments at appropriate times. If, for example, one wanted to use food as a treatment, then it would be best to implement the treatment a couple of hours after dinner or lunch to ensure that the child will be slightly hungry.

Both positive and negative reinforcement are extremely useful ways of dealing with behavioural issues associated with autism. One area where it is particularly helpful would be in the implementation of Discrete Trial Training. Discrete Trial Training is a method of teaching in simplified and structured steps. Instead of teaching in one go, the skill is broken down and built up using discrete trials that teach each step one at a time (Smith 2001). There are five steps ( Malott and Trojan Suarez 2006, Smith 2001) in a discrete trial:

  • Consequence
  • Inter-trial interval

Step three is the key one as it relies heavily on the notion of reinforcement. Let us consider a very simple trial where a child is being taught to discriminate between a picture of a Dog and a picture of a Cat. In the antecedent the teacher has a picture of a Cat and a picture of a Dog. The teacher points to the picture of the Cat, and says “this is a picture of a cat”. With the prompt phase the teacher may point to the picture of the Cat as he asks the child to “Point to a Picture of a Cat”. The response phase involves the child trying to answer the question. If the child answers correctly he receives positive reinforcement (for example a sweet or a high five depending on what has been determined to be the best reinforcer for the child). If the child answers incorrectly the instructor will bring the child’s hand to the correct picture and ask the child again. When the child replies correctly based on the second prompt reinforcement is withheld, as you don’t want to reinforce the child for getting the question wrong in the first place. So in this particular training schedule the child is only reinforced for getting the correct answer.

All behavioural therapies rely heavily on using reinforcement whether positive or negative. However, some therapies use the concept of extinction to remove reinforces that lead to various types of challenging behaviour. Extinction can be used to remove different types of behaviour whether positive or negative. So, for example, if a rat in a lab is trained to press a lever through receiving the reinforcement that every time he presses the lever a pellet of food appears, then he will learn through reinforcement to press the lever when hungry. If a behavioural scientist wanted to get rid of the lever pressing behaviour he would remove the reinforcing stimulus that is maintaining the behaviour i.e. the food.

Using extinction is not however without its dangers. One danger is the occurrence of an extinction burst. An extinction burst typically occurs when extinction is used to remove a particular behaviour. This burst is typically short term and after a period the targeted behaviour typically disappears altogether. There is always the possibility of spontaneous recovery after a period of time but the main thing is to not reinforce the recovered behaviour, and it will typically disappear after again.

There are three basic steps to applying extinction to decrease a response.

  • Observe what happens and identify the reinforcer.
  • Determine how often a particular behaviour occurs within a particular period.
  • Remove the reinforcer. (Miltenberger ‘Behaviour Modification’ p. 105)

Step 1 above is not a trivial matter and if one is trying to determine what the reinforcer is there are six key steps that should be taken:

  • Determine the baseline rate of the response.
  • Identify the potential positive reinforcer for the response
  • Withhold the stimulus that you have identified as the potential positive reinforcer for the response.
  • Measure the rate of the response. If it decreases (even after an initial increase), it is likely that the stimulus you identified, is the positive reinforcer for the response.
  • If it is important to demonstrate that the stimulus is the actual positive reinforcer, reinstate the stimulus following the response.
  • Measure the rate of the response. If it increases again, the stimulus has served as the positive reinforcer for the response. (Chapter 4 extinction p.37.)

Extinction is an effective procedure for decreasing challenging behaviour but it typically needs to be implemented with other procedures. In Lerman et al. (1999) they studied the effects of implementing extinction programmes they noted that typically treatment with Operant Extinction leads to two main problems:

  • Extinction Burst:
  • Extinction Induced Aggression:

In their analysis of the 41 different cases of people who engaged in SIB they discovered that 40% of the people being treated had one of the side effects (almost 20% of the cases showed both side effects). Bursting was slightly higher than extinction induced aggression. It is important to note that both side effects were less likely when the extinction was combined with other therapies. These findings show that side effects may be minimised when extinction is combined with other treatments (e.g. differential reinforcement). So their study indicates that while extinction treatment can be very effective it is best to be combined with other forms of therapy.

In connection with extinction it is important to note how the use of it is clearly not some hippy-dippy blank slate position. Behavioural Analysts don’t just assume that applying some technique in a route manner will automatically modify the behaviour of the subject understudy. The subjects under study can react in a variety of different ways, as seen above it may happen that prior to stopping the behaviour there is an extinction burst, or the extinction induced aggression. What should be clear that in practice analysts don’t just assume they are dealing with a blank slate, rather they take meticulous data to indicate what behaviour modification is likely to produce what behaviour and they modify their theories accordingly. So, for example,  Fisher et al (2004) have done a experimental study whose results indicate that dual treatments result in greater reductions in target behaviour than did extinction alone and suggested that competing stimulus assessment may be helpful in predicting stimuli that can enhance the effects of extinction when non-contingent attention is not available.

They begin by talking about the limitations of the extinction method. That it takes away reinforcements from the patient. That it sometimes leads to Extinction Bursts, and Extinction Related Aggression. They speak of how using Non-Contingent Reinforcement can help overcome some of these problems. Non-Contingent Reinforcement involves discovering what the reinforcer is that the child is seeking with his aggressive behaviour. Once this is discovered the reinforcer is presented to the child at fixed time intervals independent of the child’s behaviour.

It was been discovered that when Extinction is done alone Extinction Bursts sometimes occur, while when extinction is done along with Non-Contingent Reinforcement treatment the Extinction Bursts and Extinction Related Aggression don’t occur. A difficulty with the NCR approach is that the parent may not be able to deliver the particular reinforcer at times when it is needed to offset potentially destructive behaviour. As a response to this difficulty an approach has been developed which aims to develop arbitrary or competing reinforcers that may be useful in these circumstances.

They compared the effects of:

  • Extinction Implemented Alone.
  • Extinction Implemented with non-contingent delivery of the reinforcer that maintained destructive behaviour.
  • Extinction Implemented with non-contingent delivery of competing stimuli (those identified with competing stimulus assessment)

They found that non-contingent presentation of the reinforcer that maintained problem behaviour or a competing reinforcer in combination with extinction can produce rapid reductions in destructive behaviour.

Again the above study shows that multiple techniques and empirical tests are used when trying to modify behaviour. People are not treated as blank slates. If a technique does not reduce the behaviour, various different experimental procedures are used to improve the technique. Behaviour analysts who spend years working with people with severe intellectual disabilities and/or autism, don’t expect miracles. It is a slow procedure that while it can and does improve the lives people, doesn’t provide cures for severe developmental disorders.

Another way of modifying unwanted behaviour is through punishment. In her blogThe Difference between Positive and Negative Reinforcement and Positive and Negative Punishment’ Kelley Prince defined punishment as follows:

“Punishment is also a useful way of modifying undesirable behaviour. A key difference between negative reinforcement and punishment is with negative reinforcement you are increasing the behaviour whereas with punishment you are decreasing the behaviour. Punishment is a process by which a consequence immediately follows a behaviour which decreases the future frequency of the behaviour. Like punishment a stimulus can be added (positive punishment) or removed (negative punishment)”.

The important point to note is that the concept of punishment is not a concept that has to do with the intrinsic negativity of a consequence. Rather punishment is simply a contingency between an antecedent, a behaviour and a consequence. If we are to count something as positive punishment then the probability of a given behaviour occurring must decrease after a particular stimulus is presented as a response to the behaviour. So, for example, if every time a child talks out of turn in class we sent them the back of the room, this will count as a punishment if this consequence results in a decrease in the behaviour of talking out of turn. If however this consequence does not decrease the child’s behaviour then we cannot call the consequence a punishment even if it intuitively feels that it is a punishment. The same is true of negative punishment. In negative punishment something that is typically reinforcing is removed as a result of behaviour that we do not want. So if a child is talking out of turn in class and we know that the child finds attention reinforcing we could remove the attention from the child. If the removing of the attention results in the child decreasing the behaviour of then this is a form of negative punishment.

In his ‘On The Status of Knowledge for using punishment: A Commentary.’ Horner (2002) correctly notes that punishment is an effective treatment for problem behaviours. However it has some down sides. It can lead to escape and avoidance procedures. It can also sometimes result in negative emotional and aggressive actions. For that reason punishment is only used when it positive or negative reinforcement have been shown to not work. Furthermore when punishment is used it is combined positive reinforcement it usually works better because you are not just punishing the subject for bad behaviour but are also rewarding the subject for good behaviour.

His major thesis is that development of a  comprehensive technology of behaviour change requires more detailed research on punishment with special attention to (a) conditioned, intermittent and delayed punishment, (b) Interaction effects of reinforcement and punishment, (c) the value of functional analysis in the design of punishment interventions, (D) greater attention to treatment failures to identify how punishment may be used more effectively in clinical interventions.

His central point is that punishment is a fact of life. It occurs in all areas of organism interaction with each other and the world. Yet we have not researched into the nature of punishment nearly enough. He argues that this is a big gap in the literature that needs to be addressed. So punishment like extinction is a form of treatment that is effective but can be have negative consequences when used on its own. It is vital that more research is used in this tool in order to achieve a better understanding of how to modify things like self injurious behaviour.

Again with punishment we can see with Horner (2002) above that the use of punishment is linked to the evolutionary history of our and other species. So there is no denial of instincts being passed on because of the different evolutionary history of different species. Furthermore different species may find different things as punishing, and so may different people. Whether something is considered a punisher is to be determined by the effects on the subject being studied. Again there is no denial of human nature no claim that humans are blank slates, just the uncontroversial method of deciding what a subject finds punishing by looking at their behaviour.

In this short blog I have outlined a few key concepts in behaviourism and showed that these concepts do not deny human nature nor and are consistent with evolutionary theories. Thinkers like Steven Pinker have attacked and caricatured behavioural science and has convinced many people that it is an absurd blank slate position. In this brief blog I have tried to show that behaviourists are anything but blank-slate thinkers. I think that if Pinker and his ilk want to criticise behavioural approaches they will need to deal with actual theories of behaviourists and critique them as opposed to attacking straw men.

In (2011) Jerry Fodor co-authored a book with Piattelli Palarmi called ‘What Darwin Got Wrong’. The book was universally slated and its critics noted that the book was attacking a straw man. Evolutionary psychology was one of the fields that Fodor and Piattelli attacked, in my view they were attacking a straw man. I am sure that Pinker and his supporters agree. I find it interesting that Fodor and Piattelli use the construct a similar straw man when attacking behaviourism:

“In fact, the two theories are virtually identical: they propose essentially the same mechanisms, to compute essentially similar functions under essentially identical constraints. This raises a question about which prior discussions of NS have been, it seems to us, remarkably reticent: it is pretty generally agreed, these days that the Skinnerian account of learning is dead beyond resuscitation. So if it is true that Skinners theory and Darwin’s theory are variations on the same team, why aren’t the objections that are routinely raised against the former likewise raised against the latter? If nobody believes Skinner anymore, why does everyone believe Darwin? We are going to argue that the position that maintains the second but not the first is not stable.” (Fodor and Piattelli ‘What Darwin got Wrong’ (2011) p. 3)

I think that in both cases Fodor is simply caricaturing theories without engaging in them seriously. I am sure that Pinker agrees with me on the evolution aspect, but would support Fodor’s caricature of behaviourism. I would urge Pinker to look closer at behaviourism before making unjustified attacks on a promising discipline. I should note before finishing that I am not a behaviourist, but I think that if people like Pinker want to critique a discipline they should do so in a fair and objective way.

[1] Quotes taken from Ludvig (2002) ‘Why Pinker needs behaviourism’.

2 thoughts on “Some Basic Behavioural Techniques and The Idea of a Blank Slate

  1. Ashok

    Behaviorism considers Mind the sort of manner in which Locke begins his essay, Locke has no intention to draw the picture of mind or the nature of it.. the consequence is the caution that must be applied in stating that Mind is blank state as preliminary to experience, though the meaning of the phrase may be attributed to Locke and the profound intensity of his thought lead subsequent generation to adopt the same, with vigor
    In Locke the investigation starts with the commonsense standpoint of how we come by the ideas, and the modes in which they are presented and represented, sensation and reflex ion. Nothing of the innate kind is influencing this modes is hard to agree with. But the postulate that experience begins in a blank plenum is to suggest, the emphasis for the empirical nature of experience; learning or operant conditioning.. The consideration here is overt behavior alone…
    Keeping the concepts like mind consciousness out of the purview, it is behavior alone that counts, for a staunch behaviorist. I hardly no to what extent they talked about “self” or “personal identity”, while taking the stance for explaining overt behavior.. can you tell me something on this self issue and behaviorism;
    In the beginning of twentieth century , the unit individual, as the political entity, equal in status and role as a citizen, has been pressing, and the diversity of behavior, of individuals, is not on account of the general , or universal rules, or principles of learning and conditioning, for it is applicable irrespective of the person, or who he is , or the context, but, the manner in which the interaction modify the space of the subject, in tandem with the modification of the space of the other, and the irrevocable nature as material basis is independent of the subjective experience of the individual, where, perhaps the innate components out of evolutionary determination may play a role, but, of course in the nature of qualia, dismissible as of no consequence for the scientific realization and manipulation of social condition, and the person’ s consciousness in lieu of it, where everyone in principle and essence is considered equal.. as the political subject

    1. surtymind Post author

      Thanks Ashok, Methodological Behaviourists didn’t deny the reality of consciousness. Rather they didn’t believe that consciousness was amenable to scientific understanding because it was private. I think that neuroscience has made progress on this. But the hard problem still hasn’t been solved. Behaviourism won’t solve that particular problem. I am not sure what will to be honest.


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