Maybe you have noticed that there has been a decrease in frequency of posts during the past month. This is due in part to a shift in attention to studying for my upcoming Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA) examination. I love posting rambling essays on whatever topic on my interest of the day, but I had this reality check regarding the upcoming exam; only 46% of those who sit for the exam get a passing score. Yowzers. Less than half. I am a reasonably confident person, and I have a good track record in regards to test-taking, but less than half?!?
After a sufficient period of worry and anxiety (about two days) I decided that this information was good news. Fewer people receiving the BCBA credential means that my future credential will be more valuable. A high pass rate would mean that my certification would be meaningless, the money I’ve spent would be wasted, job opportunities would be scarce, and the title would have no prestige or recognition. Of course this view is anchored in the belief that I will pass this exam. Maybe not on the first try, or the second, but I will pass this exam.
How am I going to make sure that this happens? I am going to use the principles of behavior analysis to help me become a behavior analyst. Although it is a minor area in the overall discipline of Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA), Self-Management is a fascinating topic. Most of ABA is concerned with how behavior is modified through the manipulation of socially mediated or automatic (aka sensory) antecedents and consequences. Typically, the behavior of students or individuals with disabilities is modified by teachers or therapists, but that is just a reflection of how ABA is currently being utilized. The principles of Behaviorism apply not only to all people, but to all organisms. The current boom underway in the field is due to the increased prevalence of autism and the well-documented effectiveness of ABA in educating these students, but ABA was developed to apply to anyone. Even myself.
Self-Management is defined as “the personal application of behavior change tactics that produces a desired change in behavior.” A typically dry and broad textbook definition, but for me it was a real wake-up call. I don’t have to wait to apply all of the techniques and principles I have learned – I can use them on myself! What better way to improve my study habits than to use what I am studying to get myself to study more often and more efficiently!
Easier said than done, but the last month has been very successful. (I’m going to throw some ABA terms around just to make myself feel like I know what I’m talking about – I have to get some use out of these hours of studying!) After conducting an informal “stimulus preference assessment” on myself, I found that checking things off a list is very reinforcing. To utilize this as reinforcement, I made a daily star chart similar to what you would see in a classroom, in which I give myself a star for 12 daily tasks that I need to accomplish, several of which involve studying different ABA material. I have arranged “antecedent stimuli” in places around the apartment to make it easier to engage in the behavior and have eliminated “discriminative stimuli” for interfering behaviors, such as Facebook or listening to my iPod.
Those terms are fun to use, but most of what I did was common sense. I wrote down my goals, kept track of completion, put my stuff out in the open so I would remember to study, and made sure there weren't any distractions. Most people successfully implement behavioral self-management techniques every day. Most people could also benefit from improved self-management (myself included). Think about someone who overeats. The person knows that overeating causes them to be obese, and they really don’t want to be obese. Barring some medical issue, all they would have to do is eat less and exercise more and they would lose weight. This is the case for millions of people, so what stops people from doing what they know they need to do to reach their goals? The problem lies in the contingencies of behavior. The desired behavior – eating a light meal – produces no immediate reinforcement, but the problem behavior – overeating on rich foods – produces immediate and powerful reinforcement. Each individual act of overeating does not cause one to be overweight, and one single instance of healthy eating does not cause one to reach a desired weight. Behavior Analysis has proven in countless studies that it is the more immediate of contingencies that influences behavior patterns. The same principle applies to smoking. Everyone knows that smoking causes cancer and emphysema, but that consequence is in the distant future and smoking a cigarette produces very powerful and immediate reinforcement.
How can Self-Management help people to achieve desired behavior change? By “designing and implementing contrived consequences to compete with the ineffective natural consequences”. Not smoking a cigarette is extremely important in achieving the goal of improved health, but it does not provide any natural immediate consequences, especially not compared with smoking a cigarette. In a self-management program, you would develop a contrived consequence for not smoking a cigarette. For example, for every hour you go without a cigarette, you give yourself ten minutes of your favorite activity. Conversely, you can arrange for a punitive consequence for smoking, such as paying a dollar into a jar for each cigarette smoked. The success of self-management relies on the individual honestly implementing the consequences, but the individual can also put someone else in charge of distributing reinforcement and punishment, such as a spouse or roommate.
In my case, studying for the BCBA exam provides no immediate reinforcement, despite the fact that it has an important long-term benefit. I had to create a short-term contingency that would make reinforce daily studying. Luckily, I am very compulsive and can’t go to bed without getting every checkmark, so a simple list works for me. To ensure that I exercise daily, I reward myself with an extra-large lunch. I don’t exercise; I don’t get as much to eat. I exercise to improve my overall health and to keep my weight down, but those consequences are too long-term and vague to be effective in reinforcing a daily routine.
Since Applied Behavior Analysis is filling my mind these days, it may be what fills the next few blog posts. I did not intend for this post to be so lengthy, but I have enjoyed rambling on this topic. Hopefully I have struck the right balance between being technically accurate and using common-place language to describe the topic. If you have any behavioral question for me – please ask! I am anxious to use this knowledge on something other than flashcards!