Why We Do What We Do

Before I got into this crazy thing called Applied Behavior Analysis I often wondered what possessed people – including myself – to act in certain ways, or to do something they knew wouldn’t turn out well.  I think I may have been a budding BCBA as a teenager when I asked one of my friends why she drank so much. I distinctly remember her reply, “Because then I don’t have to think about all the other crap!”  I didn’t fully get it then, but now I do.  That feeling of being drunk or high served an escape function.  That feeling made her want to be in an altered state more frequently, yes– it was reinforcing.  Her hangovers and next-day shame and guilt may have been momentarily punishing, but the immediacy and magnitude of her feeling of freedom and escape from the “crap” was more powerful.  She had set up a motivating operation for herself– she wanted to escape her current feelings, that made drugs and alcohol oh so valuable.  She ended up working harder and harder to attain any substance that allowed her to escape.


One thing we know (and have known for some time) is that a history of reinforcement is the number one predictor of future behavior.  This particular friend never found a replacement behavior that was functionally equivalent to escaping  her pain.  She drank, and smoked, and drank some more, because guess what– that is how she knew she could feel free.


Think about the people in your life who make you shake your head;  maybe it’s that co-worker who is always complaining or bringing drama into the workplace, or your sister who goes from failed relationship to failed relationship.  Could the reinforcement they receive from getting everyone’s attention be maintaining that behavior. What about your child who knows if they whine just long enough at the restaurant you’ll get sick of it and let them play games on your phone.  Could it be that this behavior has worked for them before?  Why we do what we do in the future has a great deal to do with the reinforcement we have received in the past.  Many successful parenting programs are based on the idea of letting the consequences do the teaching, because, they do.

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