How to use science to improve behaviour

Kirsten recently sent me an article about how behavioural science might just turn out to be the most important science of all.

I read the article with wonder and some satisfaction, as I have long believed that behavioural science is definitely underutilized.  For many of us, science is something we enjoy the advantages of on the daily as we use electricity, take medicine, and surf the internet.  I would guess that most of us feel as though we are at arm’s length from science and don’t realize that we can actively apply scientific strategies in our relationships, at work, and at home.

Behavioural science examines how organisms, such as animals including humans, interact with the world around them.  It looks at more than just behaviour, though, because behaviour never occurs in isolation.  There is always something that happens right before a behaviour, an antecedent, and something that happens right after a behaviour, the consequence.

Antecedent Behaviour Consequence

When we begin to see that behaviour is affected by what happens before and afterward, we can start to learn ways to change behaviour.  If you are a dog owner or a parent, I can almost guarantee that at some point you have googled a behaviour issue that you want to improve or eliminate.  I can bet that you found pages and pages of search results promising techniques and solutions.  Some of them might have even worked!  But how many asked you to stop thinking about the behaviour and start thinking about the antecedent and the consequence?

The antecedent is what determines if a behaviour is going to occur.  The consequence is what determines if the behaviour will happen again in the future Most of the “solutions” you come across are generalized and do not take into account the highly personal antecedents and consequences affecting an individual’s behaviour.  Without addressing those factors, behavioural change will be difficult and it is not likely to be long lasting.

Determining the antecedent

The first step to addressing a behaviour is identifying when the behaviour is going to occur or what prompts the behaviour.  Antecedents can be anything from an event, action or circumstance.  It can be a location, change in activity, or a physical signal such as a having to go to the bathroom.  Antecedents can be identified by taking note of what happens right before the behaviour that you want to influence.

You can begin to affect change by modifying the antecedent or even eliminating it.  This information gives you the opportunity to arrange the environment so that it is more likely a desirable behaviour will occur.  A simple example of this is healthy eating.  If you are trying to eliminate an unhealthy afternoon snack, arrange your environment (your antecedent) so that there are no unhealthy options available and plenty of desirable healthy options available.  It is really that simple.

Understanding the consequence

The consequence of a behaviour determines if the behaviour will occur again in the future.  If the consequence was desirable, then it is likely you will see the behaviour again.  If the consequence was undesirable, then it is less likely that the behaviour will be repeated.  Consequences can be a tricky thing because they are highly personal and the true consequence can sometimes be difficult to identify.  For example, a child who is misbehaving may get yelled at by their parents but despite that being unpleasant, the child continues to repeat the behaviour.  How come?  Maybe the consequence that was meaningful to the child was the attention from their parents, which they definitely received.

It’s not really about the behaviour

Many of us spend way too much time worrying about behaviour (I’m so guilty of this!) and that rarely solves anything.  If you want to help someone, including yourself, improve or eliminate a behaviour then stop paying so much attention to the actual behaviour and figure out what is happening right before and right afterward.  The key to behavioural change is in the antecedent and the consequence.  This ABC Chart can help you track antecedents and consequences.

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