By STEPHEN F. LEDOUX
A Los Alamos member of The International Behaviorology Institute
Why these columns? Because human behavior causes global problems and solving these problems requires changes in human behavior. So everyone needs to know something about the natural science of human behavior.
Have you ever heard, or said, “Is there no end to the bothersome behaviors of others?” Since examples abound, we will let a short list stand for them all. For instance, does your mate fail to treat the toothpaste tube the way you prefer? Does a neighbor’s lawn left unattended for weeks or months disturb you? Does a dog owner ignoring a dog’s leaving dung on your nice lawn leave you dealing with a severe negative emotional reaction?
More fun ways to say that last sentence are available, but they are not printable. Note that all those particular examples refer to behaviors that are not occurring.
While we will examine some contingencies for one of those relatively simple examples, far more important, and complex, examples certainly exist. Some of them concern the problems that stem from someone not wearing a seat belt, or someone not recycling (but just tossing recyclables into the trash), or someone not attending to driving (but phoning or texting instead).
In addition to the analysis problems that non–occurring behaviors cause, some of those examples contain the occurring behaviors upon which contingencies should focus.
Those kinds of concerns often evoke the early steps of an intervention to end or change the offending behavior. If we bring behaviorology to bear at this point, these early steps will likely include trying to clarify the current contingencies, and plan the intervention contingencies.
Also, when we describe contingencies here, sometimes we combine emotional responses and feelings (which are actually effects of emotional responses), and sometimes we include the more public events available to observers. In all cases, however, we need to avoid including non–occurring behaviors in the contingencies that we describe, because that causes analysis problems.
Consider some of those early steps with the contingencies in the example of an owner’s dog leaving dung on your lawn. We start with some contingencies on the lawn owner. The odor/smell of the dung, and the sight of someone leaving it on your lawn, are generally aversive stimuli for lawn owners, as dog owners are responsible for picking up their dog’s dung.
By the way, Odor refers to energy streams from particular molecular gas pressures to which nasal membranes are sensitive, while smell refers to the responses that neural structures mediate when such energy streams contact nasal membranes.
Those aversive stimuli both elicit various negative emotional reactions, and evoke behavior that removes the dung from the lawn. Removing the dung reduces the negative (that is, aversive) emotional reactions. This reduction functions as a reinforcer (often called relief). It makes the kind of behavior that produced the reduction occur more quickly or more often whenever such aversive stimuli occur.
Meanwhile, the emotional reactions tend to exaggerate the forms of behavior that, in this case, remove the dung from the lawn, for example, stomping out, shoveling more deeply than necessary to collect the dung, and strongly flinging it into the trash bin.
Remember that an observer of the lawn owner’s reaction cannot directly see the emotions (for instance, the chemical dump into the blood stream that the lawn owner feels as anger, which the dung on the lawn elicits). Only the lawn owner, as what can be called a “public of one,” is privy to the emotions and some of the responses that they provoke.
Still, since emotional arousal exaggerates the mediation of later responses for a short time, the observer reliably responds to (that is, infers) the emotions from the wide range of events in the setting (the context) including, and perhaps especially, from hearing the string of hearty obscenities that seeing the dung on the lawn evokes from the lawn owner.
What about contingencies on the dog owner? Recall that in most jurisdictions, leaving your dog’s dung on a neighbor’s lawn is illegal. The general history that we all observe of the punishments that the legal system provides for illegal activity can help condition aversive feelings that we call guilt. Any subsequently evoked behavior tending toward illegality elicits more guilt feelings.
In some cases parents or peers, including neighbors, provide the punishment for activities, which leads to the conditioning of similar aversive feelings that we call shame.
Aversive feelings that we call a sense of sin occur when we engage in activities that religious authorities punish, including with threats of hellfire and damnation.
Such aversive feelings are often a part of currently operating contingencies. Even the stimuli evoking thinking behavior regarding punishable responses come to elicit the emotions that lead to feelings of guilt, shame, or sin.
Consider a simplified description of some contingencies. Recall that contingencies are causal dependencies. These often occur as a string of interconnected evocative stimuli, behaviors, and consequences. Each of these relates to the others as independent variables and dependent variables in functional relations. We use arrows to show the functional relations. Here is a guilt contingency that affects the dog owner:
Contingency A: Dung on lawn (aversive stimulus) —> walk away with dog (response) —> diminishing feelings of guilt as distance increases (relief consequence) —> walk away more often or more rapidly in future when dog leaves dung on lawn (predicted and, sadly, often verified, result).
Note that only the dog owner is privy to the relief part of that contingency. Also note that we include some predicted results in some contingencies, although results are usually not a part of contingency descriptions.
Next, let’s try planning some intervention contingencies. In an effort to describe a contemplated intervention that might improve the dog owner’s behavior, and get the dung off the lawn, we might write this contingency for a dog owner:
Contingency B: Dung on lawn (aversive stimulus) —> not deal with dung (response) —> feelings of guilt or shame remain (consequence) —> bag the dung for disposal (predicted result).
But wait! The middle term (the response) in that contingency is a behavior that does not occur. It is a non–behavior. But stimuli only evoke behavior. Stimuli only stimulate nervous–system structures the operation of which is the mediating of a real behavior, not of a non–behavior.
Also, without the energy trace from a real behavior into the environment, no consequence can occur. That is, non–behaviors cannot produce consequences. With a non–behavior, no behavior actually occurs, and so none produces energy streams that then affect the environment in ways that produce other stimuli (other energy streams) that further affect the nervous system as consequences.
Thus, that contingency shows function arrows that do not function. With no stimuli evoking the non–behavior, no behavior produces a consequence, so no result can occur. All those arrows should appear crossed out (like —X—>), because none of these functions are possible. So, as a potential intervention, this “contingency” is useless. It does, however, show some of the kinds of analysis problems that including non–behaviors causes.
Instead, we must only write contingencies for behaviors that actually occur, and then implement the contingencies to establish those behaviors. In this dog–dung–dirtied–lawn case, one such intervention involves a couple of contingencies with stimuli evoking different dog–owner and lawn–owner behaviors. Here is what we might design, beginning with two related versions of one contingency on the lawn owner (who might be you). Note that only the lawn owner is privy to the result in the second one:
Contingency C: Approach of dog and owner (stimulus) —>lawn owner hands free bag to dog owner and requests its use (response) —> dog owner (says “Thank you” and) puts dung in bag, leaving lawn clear (consequence) —> lawn owner hands out bags when needed (predicted result).
Contingency D: Approach of dog and owner (stimulus) —>lawn owner hands free bag to dog owner and requests its use (response) —> dog owner (says “Thank you” and) puts dung in bag, leaving lawn clear (consequence) —> lawn owner feels relief from aversive stimuli of dung on lawn (predicted result).
Similarly, we might continue with two contingencies on the dog owner, with only the dog owner privy to the consequence in the second one:
Contingency E: Dog owner, with bag in hand, sees dog put dung on lawn (stimulus) —> dog owner puts dung in bag, leaving lawn clear (response) —> lawn owner says “thank you” (consequence) —> dog owner puts dung in bags regularly (predicted result).
Contingency F: Dog owner, with bag in hand, sees dog put dung on lawn (stimulus) —> dog owner puts dung in bag, leaving lawn clear (response) —> dog owner feels relief from guilt or shame (consequence) —> dog owner puts dung in bags regularly (predicted result).
Of course, if only life were as simple as that. Instead, the situation might require some of the many even more reasonable and complex interventions that are possible, for dog owners and neighbors. These can help manage the peace between them. In every case, though, keep non–behaviors out of contingencies.
For several science books on companion animal training, especially dogs, see the “Books” page at www.behaviorology.org.
Writing these columns occurs separately from membership in The International Behaviorology Institute (TIBI, at www.behaviorology.org where you can always find more information and resources). The author is not speaking for TIBI, and the author and TIBI need not be in agreement. TIBI welcomes feedback, members, and donations (501.c.3). Write the author through this paper’s Editor. Find previously published columns on this paper’s website. This is column 12 of 72.