Most people have taken a psych 101 course and have some basic knowledge of behaviorism. Pavlov’s dogs, reinforcement, punishment…. Behaviorism is an incredibly useful tool and framework to view the world through. It’s definitely incomplete. But it’s one part of the puzzle of human behavior. Here are some behaviorism concepts that I think everyone should understand. 


Reinforcement vs. Punishment: Reinforcement is something that makes a behavior more likely. Punishment is something that makes a behavior less likely. You cannot know if something is reinforcing or punishing until you see the effect it has on the person’s behavior.

  • Sometimes, you can think that you’re reinforcing a behavior, but in reality, you’re punishing it and vice versa. For me, there are certain kinds of attention that I really dislike. One of these is when people point out certain things about me, like my looks or clothes. After wearing down my sneakers until they had holes in them, I finally admitted I needed to buy a new pair. The people around me started complimenting me on my new sneakers. They were inadvertently punishing me wearing new clothes.
  • One concept a lot of people misunderstand is positive and negative punishment and reinforcement. Most people assume that hitting is negative reinforcement because hitting is bad. However, it is actually positive punishment. The words “positive” and “negative” are not moral judgments in this case, it simply refers to whether something is added or removed. Reinforcement is something that makes a behavior more likely, and punishment is something that makes a behavior less likely – regardless of if the method of getting the change is good or bad. Positive means adding something in order to get the behavior change, and negative means taking away something to get the behavior change.
PositiveGetting your paycheck makes you more likely to do workYour teacher gives you extra homework because you did not submit your homework on time
NegativeThe loud, annoying sound your car makes when you forget to turn on your seat belt makes you more likely to put on your seat belt so the sound will stopYour teacher makes you stay in during recess because you were talking during class


Functions of Behavior: This is incomplete and doesn’t capture everything. But it’s a useful heuristic. There are four well established functions of behavior and one that is less well established and needs more research. A side note for programmers, the term function here is being used to mean the return type of a function. The well-established functions are attention, tangibles, escape/avoidant, and automatic (sensory). Attention is getting to connect with people. Tangibles is items or activities, such as food, rock climbing, hiking, and information. Escape/avoidant are quite similar but have an important distinction. Escape is leaving an aversive situation such as going inside during a thunderstorm so you get out of the rain. Avoidant is preventing an aversive situation from happening, such as going inside when you see dark clouds forming so you don’t get wet. Automatic is a bit more complicated to explain. But I think of it as your body craving sensory input, such as moving when you feel antsy. (This one I feel may just be an internal form of escape). The less established function is called the mands function, and it’s about control. From my understanding, either over your environment, yourself, or others. Think of the feeling of not wanting anyone else to tell you what to do, or when a young child asserts their independence.

  • In reality, these functions are not as clear cut - a behavior can have multiple functions. For example, I can go to the coffee shop because I like coffee and because I will meet a friend there. That’s both tangibles (coffee) and attention (meeting a friend). But it’s a useful framework anyhow.
  • Knowing the function of a particular behavior can better enable you to get your needs met and can help you choose a replacement behavior if you dislike the particular behavior. For example, if I know that I am playing too many video games as a way of avoiding my homework, I will intervene differently than if I were doing it because I enjoyed it, but my homework was not aversive in any way.


Task Analysis: I remember in fourth grade my teacher brought in a jar of peanut butter, a loaf of bread, and a knife and asked us to teach her how to make a peanut butter sandwich. “Put the peanut butter on the bread”, we said. She picked up the jar of peanut butter and put it on the bread. “No”, we said, “Take out a piece of bread and then put the peanut butter on it”. She took out a piece of bread and then placed the jar of peanut butter on the bread. This went on for a while as we realized that we had to be very specific and detailed about our instructions. That’s called task analysis. Systematically breaking a task into specific, small, and detailed steps.

  • Let’s say I need to find a doctor, but that sounds like an incredibly daunting and overwhelming task. What does that mean? How do I start? How do I do that? Using task analysis, you can break it into steps that are manageable. Find my insurance card. Go to my insurance’s website and find in network doctors in my area. Look up reviews for those doctors. Call the two with the best reviews and see if they are accepting new patients.


Extinction: This is when you take a behavior that was previously reinforced and no longer reinforce it. Sometimes a behavior is less than ideal in a particular situation. Sometimes a behavior served an important function in the past, but you’re trying to meet that function with other behaviors because this behavior has drawbacks. That’s where extinction comes in.

  • I am very reinforced by attention. When I’m around friends, I will often make jokes to get attention. I remember being at EAGx a few years ago and making jokes during down time. After, I reflected on it and realized that while I’m okay making jokes to get attention, in situations like EAGx, I wanted to present a different side of me. So I asked my friends not to laugh at my jokes when we were in settings like that. That’s putting making jokes on extinction.

Planned Ignoring: Sometimes I’d make a comment to my ex-boyfriend that was specifically to aimed to make him slightly annoyed (Like I said, I’m incredibly motivated by attention). And he’d respond with something like “Yeah, I’m not going to dignify that with a response”. You just did. By saying you’re not going to respond, you gave me attention. There’s a big difference between ignoring a behavior and naming that you’re going to ignore a behavior. To be clear, there’s absolutely a place for naming how you feel about what the person did and talking about that. What I’m trying to point out is that while that absolutely has a place, it’s not ignoring the behavior.

Extinction Burst: Sometimes, when you put a behavior on extinction, at first, your brain tries harder to get it. “Wait, this always used to work, why won’t it work now? Let’s try even harder”. This is normal and expected. And after the burst, the behavior decreases.

  • The example that was used to explain this to me back in AP Psych was if you’ve been talking to someone online and connecting with them for a few weeks, and all of a sudden they start ignoring your messages, many people will send more messages to see if they’ll start responding again. That’s an extinction burst. Sending messages to this person was put on extinction - it was no longer being reinforced. But immediately after it was put on extinction, the person sends a lot more messages. That’s the burst.
  • You see this a lot in parenting. A child is used to tantrumming to get what they want. And the parent decides to try to stop that. So the parent teaches them better ways to ask for what they want and stops reinforcing the tantrums. The child starts tantrumning more and the parent assumes that putting it on extinction is not working and gives up. That’s just the extinction burst. Unfortunately, what the parent is doing here is actually reinforcing a longer tantrum. “If I ignore you and don’t give you what you want when you tantrum, then you tantrum longer and more extreme, and then eventually you get what you wanted."


Mand vs. Tact: There are many uses to language, and in conversation, we go between them quite fluently and easily, but you can look at them independently and discretely. Mands are when you ask for something you want, tacts are when you label something in the environment or your mind (and intraverbals are when you answer questions).

  • Here’s a conversation you might have with a young child:
    • Kid: Look, it’s a bird! (Tact)
    • Adult: Yes, it’s flying so high (Tact)
    • Kid: I wish I could fly (Tact. This looks like a mand, but the child is not naming a request, they are just naming an internal wish.)
    • Adult: We went on an airplane last year. That was higher than the bird. Do you remember where we went? (Mand for information)
    • Kid: We went to Chicago to visit Grandma (Intraverbal) Can we get a bird (Mand)
    • Adult: Why do you want a bird? (Mand for information)
    • Kid: Because they’re really colorful and I can hold it. (Intraverbal. This may look like a mand, but the kid is not asking for anything. They’re answering a question about the request.)
    • Adult: No, we’re not getting a bird (Tact. They’re labeling a fact about the world.)
    • Kid: I feel sad. (Tact. They’re labeling an emotion.)
  • Sometimes mands and tacts can look similar. Sometimes I’ll be tired and worn out and part of me will want to skip work. I’ll say something like “I don’t want to go to work”. And that seems like a mand, and a friend will ask if I can take the day off. But I’m not asking to take the day off. I’m naming an internal feeling - I’m tacting my emotion. And because of that, a better response would be something like “I hear you’re worn out”. At this point, most of my close friends understand this distinction, and I can say something like “This is a tact, not a mand."


Shaping: There’s an old story I heard. I’m not sure if it’s truth, fiction, or embellished, but it explains shaping well. There was a psychology professor who was teaching his class about behaviorism. And after class, the students got together and decided to try it on their professor. They decided that by the end of the semester, they wanted the professor to be teaching from the front left corner while facing the wall. The students started by paying more attention whenever the professor walked towards the front left side of the room. And once he was consistently staying in that area of the room, they started to pay more attention whenever he walked towards the corner of that area. And so on. By the end of the semester, he was lecturing from the front left corner of the room. That’s shaping. It’s reinforcing closer and closer approximations to the desired behavior.

  • One area I’ve used this with in my life is helping my friends understand their mind and emotions better.Whenever a friend mentioned something more in the area of emotions, I’d name that and encourage them to do it more often. And once they were consistently doing that, I’d encourage them when they did even closer approximations. I wouldn’t say that my friends are good at talking about emotions yet. But they’re definitely better at it than they were before.


Differential Reinforcement: This is when someone gets different levels reinforcement for different levels of behavior. Let’s say I want to be a comedian and I go perform at a comedy club. And I prepare ahead of time a bunch of different jokes. The audience will laugh some for funny jokes, a lot for really funny jokes, a little for slightly funny jokes, and not at all for stupid jokes. I am being differentially reinforced by the audience’s laughter.

  • Differential Reinforcement of Behaviors: When you want to change a behavior, there are many different ways you can reinforce. And different methods will work best in different situations.
  • Differential Reinforcement of Alternative Behaviors (DRA): This is when you reinforce behaviors that serve the same function as the targeted behavior. Let’s say I want to decrease the amount of candy I eat. I could find exactly what I enjoy about candy. If it is the sweet taste, I could find other things that have a similar taste and reinforce myself whenever I eat that. 
  • Differential Reinforcement of Incompatible Behavior (DRI): This is when you reinforce behaviors that you cannot do at the same time as the targeted behavior. Let’s say I want to stop smoking cigarettes. I can reinforce myself whenever I am sucking on a lollipop, as it is impossible to smoke a cigarette and suck on a lollipop at the same time. DRI is useful when I am not sure of the function of the behavior or when it is not possible for me to fulfill the function in another way.
  • Differential Reinforcement of Other Behavior (DRO): This is when you reinforce the person anytime they are doing anything other than the targeted behavior. This is useful for behaviors that are very frequent. However, it can often be impossible to reinforce every single moment that the behavior is not occurring. Therefore, it is sometimes beneficial to set a variable interval timer and reinforce if the behavior is not occurring when the timer goes off.


Fixed vs. Variable Reinforcement Schedules: This is when I explain why slot machines are so addictive. There are two ways temporally something can be reinforced. Well four, really. But two are a subset of the other two. A fixed reinforcement schedule is when you get reinforcement after a set number of things or amount of time. A variable reinforcement schedule is when you get reinforcement after some average number of things or amount of time.

  • Fixed is useful for learning new skills or habits because it’s set and predictable. But when you want to turn something into a habit, you want to eventually turn it into a variable reinforcement schedule because that’s more likely to turn the behavior into a habit. Your brain doesn’t know when to expect the reinforcement, so it keeps trying. This is why slot machines are so addictive. Your brain keeps telling you “This next one will give you the reinforcement. Just try one more time”.
IntervalYour friend responds to a message you sent themYou get your paycheck after a certain amount of time
RatioSlot machinesA vending machine


Prompting: A prompt is basically just something that signals what the correct response or desired behavior is. When you put something on your calendar and you get a reminder email about it, that’s a prompt. The desired behavior is attending the meeting or event. And the reminder email is a signal that you should do that behavior. Obviously there can be more intrusive (bigger) and less intrusive (smaller) prompts. Let’s go back to the example of the meeting. A more intrusive prompt might be a friend calling you the day of and reminding you. A less intrusive prompt might be a “save the date” card attached to your refrigerator.

  • Prompt Fading: The systematic fading of prompting until you are able to do something independently or with a level of prompting you are okay with.
    • I remember when I was younger, my mom asked me to bring the trash cans to the curb on trash days. But I often forgot. My mom could have used prompting and prompt fading to slowly help me develop a habit of doing this. She could have started by coming outside when I got home on those days and reminding me to do it. After a few weeks of that, she could have left a note on door reminding me. And so on, until it became a habit and I no longer needed reminders.
  • Prompt Dependence: We all rely on prompts in our life. And that’s okay. For example, my alarm is a prompt to help me wake up on time that I’m dependent on. I cannot complete reliably wake up on time without it, and that’s okay. But sometimes I need to be able to do something independently or with a less intrusive prompt because I cannot rely on the more intrusive prompt long term. For example, if I need a friend to remind me to brush my teeth, that’s not something that will work long term. But sometimes, we’re prompt dependent and cannot fade the more intrusive prompt. There’s not an easy solution to this. Sometimes increasing reinforcement helps or changing the way you’re prompting. And sometimes just an awareness that you are prompt dependent helps.


Chaining: Think back to task analysis. We’ve got this list of steps. Now what? What do we do with it? Imagine a chain. And each step in the task is a link on the chain. The goal is to slowly add links to your chain until you have the full chain. Let’s say I have a goal of reading one hour a day. I could start by reading for five minutes a day, and when I can consistently do that, I can increase to 10 minutes. Then to 15 minutes, and so on until I have reached my goal.

Thanks to @KWolff for help editing. 

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Quality article. Always looking for quality behaviorism posts.