Behavior Analysis and Learning
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Behavior Analysis and Learning

A Biobehavioral Approach, Sixth Edition

W. David Pierce, Carl D. Cheney

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eBook - ePub

Behavior Analysis and Learning

A Biobehavioral Approach, Sixth Edition

W. David Pierce, Carl D. Cheney

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About This Book

Using a consistent Skinnerian perspective, Behavior Analysis and Learning: A Biobehavioral Approach, Sixth Edition provides an advanced introduction to the principles of behavior analysis and learned behaviors, covering a full range of principles from basic respondent and operant conditioning through applied behavior analysis into cultural design. The textbook uses Darwinian, neurophysiological, and biological theories and research to inform B. F. Skinner's philosophy of radical behaviorism.

The sixth edition expands focus on neurophysiological mechanisms and their relation to the experimental analysis of behavior, providing updated studies and references to reflect current expansions and changes in the field of behavior analysis. By bringing together ideas from behavior analysis, neuroscience, and epigenetics under a selectionist framework, this textbook facilitates understanding of behavior at environmental, genetic, and neurophysiological levels. This "grand synthesis" of behavior, neuroscience, and neurobiology roots behavior firmly in biology. The book includes special sections, "New Directions, " "Focus On, " "Note On, " "On the Applied Side, " and "Advanced Section, " which enhance student learning and provide greater insight on specific topics.

This book is a valuable resource for advanced undergraduate and graduate students in psychology or other behavior-based disciplines, especially behavioral neuroscience. For additional resources to use alongside the textbook, consult the Companion Website at

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A Science of Behavior: Perspective, History, and Assumptions 1
  1. Inquire about learning, a science of behavior and behavior analysis.
  2. Discover how selection by consequences extends to evolution and behavior.
  3. Explore new directions in behavior analysis and behavioral neuroscience.
  4. See how early learning is retained by epigenetic mechanisms.
  5. Investigate the early beginnings of behavior analysis and learning.
  6. Analyze feeling and thinking as complex behavior.
Learning refers to the acquisition, maintenance, and change of an organism’s behavior as a result of lifetime events. The behavior of an organism is everything it does, including private and covert actions like thinking and feeling (see “Science and Behavior: Some Assumptions” section of this chapter). Learning also involves neuroplasticity—alterations in the brain that accompany behavior change and participate in the regulation of behavior. While our focus in this book is centered on the study of behavior for its own sake, the links to the brain and neural processes are increasingly important to the field of learning and behavior analysis as we discuss throughout the book.
An important aspect of human learning concerns the experiences arranged by other people. From earliest history, people have acted to influence the behavior of other individuals. Rational argument, rewards, bribes, threats, and force are used in attempts to promote learning or change the behavior of people. In civilized societies, people are required to learn socially appropriate behaviors. As long as a person conforms, no one pays much attention. As soon as conduct substantially departs from cultural norms, people get upset and socially reject the non-conformist—ensuring that most of us comply (Williams & Nida, 2011). All societies have codes of conduct and laws that their people have to learn; people who break moral codes or civil laws face penalties ranging from minor fines to capital punishment. Clearly, all cultures are concerned with human learning and the regulation of human conduct. Without regulation, anarchy and confusion eventually destroy the civil order of society.
Theories of learning and behavior have ranged from philosophy to natural science. When Socrates was told that new discoveries in anatomy proved that bodily movement was caused by the arrangement of muscles, bones, and joints, he replied, “That hardly explains why I am sitting here in a curved position talking to you” (Millenson, 1967, p. 3). About 2300 years later, in 1934, the great philosopher Alfred North Whitehead and the famous behaviorist B. F. Skinner were seated together at dinner involved in a discussion about the behaviorist approach to psychology. After listening to Skinner’s interpretations of human behavior based on principles discovered in the laboratory, Whitehead challenged the behaviorist to account for the generative nature of human language. He said, “Let me see you account for my behavior as I sit here saying, ‘No black scorpion is falling upon this table’ ” (Skinner, 1957, p. 457). Whitehead’s point was that no theoretical or empirical system existed to account for the spontaneous and generative nature of human language. Although there was no satisfactory behavioral account of complex human behavior and language in the 1930s, the science of behavior is currently addressing such puzzling questions.
Human behavior has been attributed to a great variety of causes. The causes of behavior have been located both within and outside of people. Internal causes have ranged from metaphysical entities like the soul to hypothetical structures of the nervous system. Suggested external causes of behavior have included the effect of the moon and tides, the arrangement of stars, and the whims of gods. Unfortunately, some of these bizarre, prescientific attempts to explain human behavior remain popular today. For example, the use of astrological forecasts is even found in modern corporations, as demonstrated in the following passage taken from The Economist:
Is astrology the ultimate key to competitive advantage? That is what Divinitel, a French company specializing in celestial consulting, claims. For FFr350 ($70) a session, the firm’s astrologers offer advice on anything from the timing of takeovers to exorcisms
. So who is daft enough to pay for such mystical mumbo-jumbo? About 10% of French businesses are, according to a study by HEC, a French business school.
(“Twinkle, Twinkle,” The Economist, 22 December 1990, p. 95)
In an interview with Ashley Lutz for Business Insider (2012), Susan Miller, a successful astrologer with a business degree from NYU, said, “What I do is scientific. Astrology involves careful methods learned over the years and years of training and experience.” Her website has six million visitors every month and she has built an empire based on her “scarily accurate” predictions, said the Insider. Miller states “one unlikely group of customers 
 are professional men from 25 to 45-years-old. In these uncertain economic times, astrology is more important than ever!” Many people faced with the unpredictability of daily existence turn to the theory of celestial alignment (astrology) to inform and guide their actions in business, life, and personal relationships.
The trouble with astrology and other primitive accounts of human behavior is that they are not scientifically valid. These theories do not hold up to objective testing, replication, and close scrutinizing by researchers who follow the scientific method. Over the last century, a science-based model of learning and behavior has developed. Behavior theory states that all behavior is due to a complex interaction between genetic influence and environmental experience. The theory is based on observation and controlled experimentation, and it provides a natural-science account of the learning and behavior of organisms, including humans. This book is concerned with such an account.

Science of Behavior

The experimental analysis of behavior is a natural-science approach to understanding behavior regulation. Experimental analysis is concerned with controlling and changing the factors that affect the behavior of humans and other animals. For example, a behavioral researcher in a classroom may use a computer to arrange corrective feedback for a student’s mathematical performance. The relevant condition manipulated or changed by the experimenter may involve presenting corrective feedback on some days and withholding it on others. In this case, the researcher would probably observe more accurate mathematical performance on days with programmed feedback. This simple experiment illustrates one of the most basic principles of behavior—the principle of reinforcement.
The principle of reinforcement (and other behavior principles) provides a scientific account of how people and animals learn complex actions. When a researcher identifies a basic principle that governs behavior, this is called an analysis of behavior. Thus, the experimental analysis of behavior involves specifying the basic processes and principles that regulate the behavior of organisms. Experiments are then used to test the adequacy of the analysis.

NOTE ON: Experimental Analysis of Behavior

Experimental analysis occurs when, for example, a researcher notices that more seagulls fly and congregate along a shoreline when people are on the beach than when the beach is deserted. After checking that changes in climate, temperature, time of day, and other conditions do not affect the behavior of the seagulls, the researcher offers the following analysis: People feed the birds and this reinforces flocking to the beach. When the beach is abandoned, the seagulls are no longer fed for congregating on the shoreline. This is a reasonable guess, but it can only be tested by an experiment. Pretend that the behavior analyst owns the beach and has complete control over it. The experiment involves changing the usual relationship between the presence of people and food. Simply stated, people are not allowed to feed the birds, and food is placed on the beach when people are not around. Over time and repeated days of food with no people, and no food plus people days, the behavior analyst notes that there are fewer and fewer seagulls on the beach when people are present, and more and more gulls when the shoreline is deserted. The behaviorist concludes that people regulated coming to the beach because the birds were fed, or reinforced, for this behavior only when people were present. This is one example of an experimental analysis of behavior.

Behavior Analysis: A Science of Behavior

Experimental analysis is the fundamental method used to establish the principles for a science of behavior. Contemporary researchers no longer refer to their science as behavioral psychology, recognizing that psychology is focused on mental or cognitive events rather than on the behavior of organisms. Today, a science of behavior informed by a philosophy of naturalism is called behavior analysis. This term implies a more general scientific approach that includes assumptions about how to study behavior, techniques for carrying out the analysis, a systematic body of knowledge, and practical implications for society and culture.
Behavior analysis is a comprehensive, natural-science approach to the study of the behavior of organisms. Primary objectives are the discovery of principles and laws that govern behavior, the extension of these principles across species, and the development of an applied technology for the management of behavior. One behavior principle is called discrimination. The principle of discrimination states that an organism will respond differently to two situations (e.g., predator vs. no predator) if its behavior has been reinforced in one setting but not in the other (differential reinforcement). Two assumptions should be noted here. First, behavior is a product of the organism’s past and current interactions with the environment, as well as its biological or evolutionary history (primarily coded by the genes). Secondly, the principles (e.g., discrimination) discovered by an experimental analysis have wide generality, applying to all animal life.
The principle of discrimination may be extended to human behavior and social reinforcement. You may discuss dating with Carmen, but not Tracey, because Carmen has shown interest in such conversation while Tracey has not (differential reinforcement). In a classroom, the principle of discrimination can be used to improve teaching and learning. A child is given a series of multiplication problems from the 2-times table such as 2 × 4 =_?_. Correct answers result in the next question, while incorrect responses lead to corrective feedback from the teacher, and repetition of the question. In this way, most children learn their 2-times table. The use of behavior principles to solve practical problems is called applied behavior analysis and is discussed at some length in Chapter 13.
As you can see, behavior analysis has a strong focus on behavior–environment relationships. The focus is on how organisms alter their behavior to meet the ever-changing demands of the environment. When an organism learns new ways of behaving in reaction to the changes in its environment, this is called conditioning. The two basic kinds of conditioning are called respondent and operant.

Two Types of Conditioning

A reflex involves respondent behavior elicited by a biologically relevant stimulus. When a stimulus (S) automatically elicits (→) a stereotypical response (R) or respondent, the S → R relationship is called a reflex. The reflex is inherited in the sense that those animals that quickly and reliably responded to particular stimuli were more likely than other organisms to survive and reproduce. For instance, animals that startle and run in response to a sudden noise may escape a predator, hence the startle reflex may have provided an adaptive advantage over organisms that did not run, or that ran less quickly in response to the noise. Thus, reflexes are selected across the history of the species. Of course, different species of organisms exhibit different sets of reflexes.

Respondent Conditioning

Respondent conditioning occurs when a feature (or event) of the environment without a known effect on behavior is correlated with an unconditioned stimulus (US). The US is a stimulus that elicits a response based on an organism’s biological history—thus, a puff of air (US) in the eyes elicits blinking (UR or unconditioned response) as an inherited response without apparent learning on the part of the organism. Presentation of a light does not elicit eye blinking, and has no stimulus function with respect to the eye-blinking response before conditioning (a non-functional stimulus). However, if the light comes to predict the air puff (US) and control the blink response, we say the light has acquired a conditioned-stimulus (CS) function. One method to ensure that a feature of the environment predicts the US is called pairing or temporal contiguity; the US closely follows the feature in time. For example, respondent conditioning occurs when the buzz of bees is paired with painful stings (US), but other insect sounds are not. After this conditioning, a buzzing bee (CS) usually causes people to behave so as to escape it; this is the conditioned response (CR) or respondent. The Russian physiologist Ivan Petrovich Pavlov made explicit this form of conditioning at the turn of the 20th century. He observed that dogs salivated when food was placed in their mouths. This relation between the food stimulus and salivation is an unconditioned reflex, and it occurs because of the animals’ biological history. However, when Pavlov rang a bell just before feeding the dogs and not on other occasions (discrimination), the animals began to salivate at the sound of the bell. In this way, a new feature (the sound of the bell) that predicted the presentation of food came to control the respondent behavior of salivation. As shown in Figure 1.1, the respondent (CR) is now elicited by the new conditioned stimulus (CS).
Respondent (classical or Pavlovian) conditioning is one way in which organisms meet the challenge of change in their environments. A grazing animal that conditions to the sound of rustling grass before a predator’s attack, but not to grass blowing in the wind, gains a survival advantage. The animal is able to efficiently consume food, running away only when its life is threatened. All species that have been tested, including humans, show this kind of conditioning. In terms of human behavior, many of what we call our likes and dislikes are based on evaluative conditioning. Evaluative conditioning of humans replicates many of the respondent-conditioning effects found in animals, although some differences have been noted (De Houwer, Thomas, & Baeyens, 2001). Generally, when good or bad things happen to us we usually have an emotional reaction. These emotional responses can be conditioned to other people who are present when the positive or negative events occur. Thus, respondent conditioning plays an important role in our social relationships—determining, to a great extent, how we evaluate and come to “feel” about our friends as well as our enemies. Respondent conditioning is covered in more detail in Chapter 3.

Table of contents

Citation styles for Behavior Analysis and Learning
APA 6 Citation
Pierce, D., & Cheney, C. (2017). Behavior Analysis and Learning (6th ed.). Taylor and Francis. Retrieved from (Original work published 2017)
Chicago Citation
Pierce, David, and Carl Cheney. (2017) 2017. Behavior Analysis and Learning. 6th ed. Taylor and Francis.
Harvard Citation
Pierce, D. and Cheney, C. (2017) Behavior Analysis and Learning. 6th edn. Taylor and Francis. Available at: (Accessed: 15 October 2022).
MLA 7 Citation
Pierce, David, and Carl Cheney. Behavior Analysis and Learning. 6th ed. Taylor and Francis, 2017. Web. 15 Oct. 2022.