Behavior 101 is an ongoing series about the principles underlying human behavior, and how to apply those to changing problem behavior in children, teaching children skills and maintaining positive behaviors. This installment: functions of behavior.
Have you ever watched someone — child or adult — do something very strange and then wonder to yourself, “why on Earth did he do that?”
(That sound is every parent of every 2-year-old ever, all nodding in unison.)
In the realm of behavior, the term for the answer to that question of “why” is the function of the behavior. Function is the motivation for our actions, the reason we do the things we do and act the way we act.
Because we think of human behavior as being so complex, this idea of function seems at first like it would be terribly complicated. When you get down to it, though, people really only do anything for one of two reasons:
That’s it. That’s all there is, folks. Every action that every human being has ever taken since the dawn of time was motivated by a person’s desire to do one of those two things.
And it’s not just people, either. The same can be said of animals, who don’t even have a concept of “good” or “bad,” per se. A spider spins a web in order to use it to catch prey to eat. Good. That same spider backs away from a flame in order to not be burnt to a crisp. Bad.
Not convinced? Think about the things that you do every day. Start at the beginning.
Did you hit snooze on your alarm this morning? Did it feel awesome? That’s because you got to escape that obnoxious alarm (bad) and stay in bed for 6 more minutes (good). (A psychiatrist I used to work with described that feeling right after you hit snooze as being “not as good as heroin…but it’s close.”)
After that you probably took a shower to gain positive social attention, ate breakfast to nourish your body and maybe had some coffee in order to feel the effects of the magical stimulant that is caffeine.
All you are is a behavioral pleasure-seeking, punishment-avoiding machine, just like the rest of us. Sorry if that bursts a bubble for you. (If you’ve noticed that some of these examples up until now could be explained by both kinds of functions, or a combination of functions, bonus points for you. Sometimes it can be either one, and sometimes more than one function can be at play. There — you got your notion of complexity back. Enjoy it.)
Of course, the exact same principles apply to kids. Why did Yoshi hit Salvador yesterday? To try to get back the toy Salvador took from him. Why did Salvador hit Yoshi back? To enjoy a brief feeling of retribution at having returned the blow.
An important subtlety in all of this is that what is “good” versus what is “bad” is all in the eye of the beholder. For the ignored child, negative attention > no attention, so negative attention = good. Based on that analysis, the kid will act out in order to get in trouble, just to have someone pay attention to him. Sad but true.
So, when you run into those baffling behaviors from your children, spouse, colleagues or self, think it through for a second and try to see what that person stands to either gain or escape from doing it.
Figuring out the function of a behavior can be a fun puzzle, and it can also be a necessary first step in figuring out how to change problem behaviors…which is what we will start talking about next time in Behavior 101.
How about you, parents? What kinds of seemingly inexplicable behaviors have you run across? After reading this, can you identify any possible functions?
(Photo credit: Jellaluna’s flickr. Used under Creative Commons license.)