This is the second post in a series that looks at what behavioural psychology is, the research and some implications.

This post explores some of the rhetoric around behavioural principles and then talks about some new research findings and the implications of research from behavioural psychology. For the first post that looks at what behavioural psychology is and areas of research click here.

The rhetoric:

One I have heard a bit goes something like this: Using behavioural principles such as reinforcement to change behaviour is manipulative and encourages extrinsic motivation (which is bad because we want people to be intrinsically motivated).


Image credit:

Image credit:

Every minute, of every day, of every year, we are being shaped through interactions with our environment. I learn that when I touch a hot stove I get burnt. I learn that when I put effort into my studies I get good grades and that makes me feel good because I have worked hard and achieved something. That ‘feeling good’ is reinforcement and motivates me – but it is not extrinsic motivation. We are reinforced by many things – a smile, acknowledgment of work done or achievement or even scratching an itch! The smile, the grade, or the scratch, are no different to a sticker or other reward. It is still an environmental event that influences behaviour. The difference is the MEANING that that environmental event has for a person.

The problem that this poses is substantial because what is reinforcing for one person may not be for another. A smile may make an autistic child feel uncomfortable or getting a good grade might mean alienation from your peer group. Also reinforcement can happen when a teacher thinks they are punishing. For example, a child that is sent to sit outside the principal’s office for playing up in writing time is escaping from the painful experience of struggling through a subject that they think they can’t do. A smiley face on the board might be reinforcing for some kids but not others. So behaviour is complicated and the very best thing we can do is get to know our learners inside out and backwards.


In many countries we have moved on from using physical punishment as a way of stopping certain behaviours. This is a good thing as research shows that punishment doesn’t stop unwanted behaviour and only has unwanted negative effects. But we still widely use time out and other response type punishers. New research shows that this is problematic and unwanted behaviours still return in most cases. We need to look for different ways to encourage appropriate behaviours.

New research

Behavioural Momentum theory tells us that behaviour that has had a very rich history of reinforcement persists for a very long time. While this can be a negative for removing unwanted behaviours, it has a positive side also. Experimental research has shown that not only will organisms orient their attention to the stimulus that has a higher rate of reinforcement, but also attention persists longer where there has been a richer history of reinforcement. Take for example a student who loves Art but hates writing. The act of creating a piece of art makes the student feel good which is reinforcing a love of the subject and the attention that may come from the work produced from teachers, parents and peers. But imagine writing! The art subject has a larger history of reinforcement and so there will be more persistence in behaviour in this area. This has important implications around helping students to persist in areas that they struggle with.

Image by Paul L Dineen

Image by Paul L Dineen

Choice behaviour looks at why we choose to do one behaviour over another at any given moment. The newest research on Choice Behaviours using Local Analysis is very exciting. What this research has shown is that behaviour is not just emitted based on where a person got their last reinforcer, but where next one is likely to come from. This calls into question Thorndike’s strengthening argument and has some interesting implications. For example one of the findings is that choice changes more rapidly in environments that change more frequently. More rapidly changing environments could be a way to change or deter negative contingencies forming with certain contexts or subjects. It also would equip students with the ability to adapt positively to change. An example of this is teachers who use Individual Learning Plans. Students know what they need to complete in the week and then they work out when, how and with whom they will complete the tasks. This changes week to week and adaptations can be made along the way.

We also have found that regardless of the rate of environmental change, reinforcers from the lower-rate alternative tend to produce larger changes in choice than do those from the higher-rate alternative. It’s almost as if unusual events are ‘surprising’ and produce a bigger change in behaviour. Interestingly this is exactly the same finding from cognitive science that novel events produce more engagement.

So What? What does all this mean and how can it inform us?

  1. Creating positive environments and interactions between students, teachers and classroom activities is critically important for learning.
  2. Know thy learner. It is so important to know the students learning and personal history & current situation. If we don’t have this understanding then not only can we not empathise with our students, but we can’t make changes to set up positive contingencies for them.
  3. We need to know what the antecedents are (what is triggering behavior). What specific thing is causing the behaviour. Is it something in the classroom or something that happened at home? A good question to ask is what is it that the student needs? Going back to the example in an earlier post of the student who misbehaves during Writing, the need to is to escape the situation. Knowing this we can change the contingency to make it a positive experience for them. If we can change the antecedent, we can change the behaviour.
  4. Punishment doesn’t work as a behaviour management tool. Instead give the students the responsibility to do the right thing and reinforce efforts towards good behaviour. See table in this post for a differential on behavioural science for learning and classroom management.
  5. Because punishers can become associated with particular stimuli we need to make sure those contingencies don’t stick. For example, a child repeatedly failing a Maths test will come to associate Maths with a negative bad feeling. Giving students opportunities for effortful success can change this contingency.
  6. We also need to rethink contexts in classrooms. What does stimuli signal? What do the areas and objects and events in your classroom signal to the learners? Is this a quiet area, an area where we collaborate or work individually? Where are my safe spaces? When we change contexts we can change behaviour.
  7. New research in choice behaviour suggests that we get faster changes in behaviour when the environment changes more rapidly – hypothetically this could reduce negative contingencies and allow faster adaptation to change*. This seems to support the idea of Individual learning plans where students plan when and how they achieve the set tasks. It also supports the idea of cross-curricular work as students are not locked into one genre for set periods of time.

*Two very important caveats for the last point (a) Emphasis on ‘suggests that’ as this not been tested outside the lab yet. (b) There is a difference between using behavioural findings for understanding how we learn and classroom management. See this more in this summary post on this.


Cowie, S., Elliffe, D., & Davison, M. (2013). Concurrent schedules: Discriminating reinforcer-ratio reversals at a fixed time. Journal Of The Experimental Analysis Of Behavior, 100, 117-134.

Shahan, T.A & Podlesnik, C. A. (2006). Divided attention performance and the matching law. Learning & Behavior, 34 (3) 255-261



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