Behaviour Change

PROPAGANDA FOR CHANGE is a project created by the students of Behaviour Change (ps359) and Professor Thomas Hills at the Psychology Department of the University of Warwick. This work was supported by funding from Warwick's Institute for Advanced Teaching and Learning.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

I'll have a side order of positive reinforcement please

Although not in my long-term career path, I have spent many a summer/ Christmas/ Easter working (suffering) as a waitress and I thought this would be the perfect place to vent my rage… I mean do some applied behavioural analysis (ABA)!

Applied behavioural analysis is based on the behavioural approach developed by Skinner (1938). Behavioural analysts are concerned only with behaviours, those that don’t occur enough and those that occur too much. The focus is on the antecedents of the behaviour- what happened before the behaviour and the consequences of behaviour- what happened afterwards to cause the behaviour to happen again. ABA interventions focus on changing the frequency of the target behaviour.

One way in which behavioural frequency can be altered is through reinforcement. A reinforcer is a consequence of behaviour that acts to maintain or increase the frequency of that behaviour. An example of this in my field of work, which I find myself naturally using, is in response to polite customers. Obviously every waitress wants a customer who is polite and gracious. Therefore every time the customer shows these behaviours for example saying “thank you very much” I find myself smiling and saying “you’re welcome”. With polite customers I also tend to throw in extra effort such as “I’ll go and get your main courses right away.” When the customer’s polite behaviour is met with a positive reinforcer from me, this means the behaviour is more likely to occur again. Resulting in a nicer time for us all! Positive reinforcement has been shown to be effective for example in one interesting study, shop workers were commended by their boss every time they successfully identified an underage person trying to buy tobacco which resulted in a town wide reduction of youth smoking (Biglan et al, 1995).

The previous example deals with increasing behaviour, but what about when we want to lessen the frequency of a behaviour occurring? For me the classic example would be the customer who clicks his (yes it’s always a man) fingers at me when he wants my attention. In behavioural analysis there are a variety of techniques used to decrease problematic behaviours for example extinction which involves withholding the reinforcers that maintain the target behaviour. However for my example I think a punishment would be most apt. When we talk about punishment in behavioural analysis we are not talking about getting a smack (no matter how much the clicking customer deserves it), instead we are referring to an event that, when it is made contingent on the target behaviour, acts to decrease its frequency. Therefore when the customer clicks his fingers I ignore them completely. After a few times the customer begins to realise this behaviour doesn’t result in what they desired, and will have to try something else (maybe using words like a big boy). Selected punishers have been shown to be effective in the treatment of some eating disorders (Harrison et al, 2010) and also particularly effective in schools (Alberto and Troutman, 2006).

Thanks behavioural analysis!


Alberto, P., & Troutman, A. C. (2006). Applied behavior analysis for teachers.

Biglan, A., Henderson, J., Humphrey, D., Yasui, M., Whisman, R., Black, C., & James, L. (1995). 

Mobilising positive reinforcement to reduce youth access to tobacco. Tobacco Control, 4(1), 42.

Harrison, A., O'Brien, N., Lopez, C., & Treasure, J. (2010). Sensitivity to reward and punishment in eating disorders.Psychiatry Research, 177(1-2), 1-11.

Skinner, B. F. (1938). The behaviour of organisms. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts. 

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