Behaviour Change

PROPAGANDA FOR CHANGE is a project created by the students of Behaviour Change (ps359) and Professor Thomas Hills @thomhills 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

The perils of a zookeeper...

I want to be...a zookeeper! (I don’t, but bear with me.) Imagine I did though, and imagine I have a naughty monkey to contend with on my daily rounds; he has begun to fling his food at me which results in lots of giggling and clapping from children. How do I – as the chief zookeeper – stop monkey doing this? The answer could be Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA)!

Rather than trying to identify what has caused this change in behaviour, ABA is concerned with altering the environment in order to change the frequency of a behaviour, i.e. reduce the frequency with which monkey throws his food at me. To do this, ABA suggests the following behavioural assessment:

1) Define the target behaviour so you know what behaviour you are trying to change
2) Identify functional relations between the target behaviour and its precursors and consequences
3) Identify an effective intervention for changing this behaviour by selecting appropriate reinforcers or punishments

These processes are based on Skinner’s work on learning behaviour (1938), and Thorndike’s (1927) ‘Law of Effect’ which states that the likelihood of a behaviour occurring in a given situation depends on the consequences that have followed the setup previously. Hence, ABA aims to alter the frequency of a behaviour in a situation by changing the consequences of the action, (Iwata, 1987). So, I should be able to eliminate the target behaviour by removing the reinforcers – the clapping children. In a classroom of children where there is one child who’s behaviour is reinforced by the others laughing, it would be very difficult to remove the reinforcement completely (because you can’t shut the problem child away). With monkey, it is possible that I could take him out of public view for a while so that when he throws food at me, there is no one to clap and reward him for this behaviour. In summary, preventing the consequences that maintain the behaviour should weaken it until it becomes extinct, (Hanley, Iwata & McCord, 2003).

With this knowledge – and assuming all animals are as receptive to punishment and reward as children – I could have the most well behaved zoo animals ever!

Katherine Baylis


Hanley, G. P., Iwata, B. A., & McCord, B. E. (2003). Functional analysis of problem behavior: A review. Journal of Applied Behavior, 36, 147-185.

Iwata, B. A. (1987). Negative reinforcement in applied behavior analysis: An emerging technology. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 20, 361-378.

Skinner, B. F. (1938). The Behavior of Organisms: An Experimental Anaylsis. New York: Appleton-Century.

Thorndike, E. L. (1927). The law of effect. The American Journal of Psychology, 39, 212-222.

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