“Hey! Paul and I would really like for you to come to dinner with us tonight.”
Oh no! Another night tagging along as the third wheel…can you really handle it? Your palms are already clamming up; they’ll be all snug and cozy next to each other, quietly judging the empty seat next to you. No! You can’t do it. Why did you even answer the phone? You’ll just tell her:
“I have so much work to do tonight, maybe another time?”
Congratulations! You just engaged in lying in order to escape an uncomfortable situation.
Guilt may set in later tonight, or not, but regardless of what happens next, the behavior (lying) was an avoidance tactic. Immediately, you feel relieved; another crisis averted; the anxiety triggered by the invite is squashed (negative reinforcement) and once again you are free.
Behavior = anything that a dead man cannot do. That is the simplest explanation I have.
Behaviors can be observed either by others (publicly) or by ourselves (privately). A dead man cannot think, feel, yell, scream, cry, walk, run… okay, you get the picture. Thinking and feeling are both privately observed behaviors; no one else can observe our thoughts except us.
There are 5 primary functions of behavior:
1. To Escape or Avoid – today’s topic
2. To Gain Something
3. Attention Seeking
4. Signs of Damage
Yep, that’s it. Disappointed?
Escape or Avoidance Behaviors
When you open your umbrella, you aren’t expecting a ray of sunshine to beam out of it. I really hope you aren’t, because it straight up isn’t going to happen. Opening your umbrella does not get you anything; there is no positive reinforcement to it. You do open your umbrella though in order to escape the rain. You find the rain aversive and so you are doing something about it.
I work a lot with children; typically, their behavior is attributed to a) gain something or b) attention seeking. We seem to have this view of children that they are selfish creatures always trying to take something from us. I mean, it’s somewhat logical – why else would she be screaming at the top of her lungs if not to get that candy bar?
Many times, though, we engage in a set of behaviors in order to avoid an aversive situation (remember negative reinforcement). Considering that escape and avoidance behaviors tend to be negatively reinforced and because negative reinforcement isn’t generally talked about or understood, we tend to forget this function of behavior altogether. Even professionals are guilty of this. I’ve often heard professionals confuse negative reinforcement and punishment, or panic when removing attention from a behavior doesn’t work.
This frequently occurs when we are anxious or depressed, and generally this exacerbates our symptoms in the long run. We avoid situations that trigger our anxiety, which only really serves to increase our anxiety the next time. We isolate from others when feeling depressed, and give up productive and pleasurable tasks because they are so aversive when we are fatigued and unmotivated. In these situations, the negative impact of avoidance behaviors is that they reduce our opportunities to experience positive reinforcements. In the moment, they alleviate the negative feeling (or at least reduce it), but the long term result is an increase in our symptoms.
Let’s consider defiant behavior for a moment. We often attribute attention-seeking or gaining control as the purpose for defiant behaviors, but, in some cases defiance may be triggered by a negative feeling (or anxiety) and serves to escape.
Your son outright refuses to complete any written work. If pressured, he responds with verbal aggression. Teachers are responding to his aggressive behavior by giving up or sending him out of the classroom. Most likely, he is being sent out of the classroom because if teachers “give up”, then the kid won, and adults tend to not like that very much. Surprisingly, when asked to leave the classroom he willingly complies. Why?
If a child immediately removes himself from conflict when given the option, I tend to assume that their behaviors are serving an escape function. So, let’s consider that your child possibly has difficulty writing his thoughts on paper, perhaps other kids (or adults) have poked fun at his writing skills, and perhaps writing itself is a more difficult task for him and makes him feel stupid. If by blowing up, he gets to escape that task (or negative feeling), then ta da! It was negatively reinforced and he will most likely do it again.
Let’s consider the same situation (being asked to write) but a different behavior.
Every time your son is asked to write, he responds by crying. Teachers are responding by offering 1:1 help, giving him a break, or allowing him to leave the room. Most likely, he is also being offered reassurances of how smart and capable he is. In this scenario, it would be necessary to also rule-out attention seeking behavior. However, if his crying (behavior) is working to escape negative feeling then, ta da! Again, it is being negatively reinforced.
I also want to note that in each of the above examples, the teacher is also responding to her ways that may possibly be functioning as escape avoidance behaviors. If she is sending your son out of the room in order to escape the disrespectful behavior, it is avoidance. It is not the behavior that matters, it is the purpose of the behavior. Any behavior can be an avoidance or escape behavior if the purpose of the behavior is to avoid or escape.
This includes: aggression, running away, defiance, impulsive behaviors, self-injury, crying, lying, hiding, flipping over desks, property aggression, verbal aggression, ruminative thinking, rituals, compulsive behaviors, and obsessive thoughts. Again, any behavior can function as an escape.
This is why I am so passionate about behavior therapy – once the purpose of a behavior is identified, a tailor-made plan for change can be developed. It is very individualized. Strategies that are implemented may be similar from person to person but the intervention is not based on the behavior. It is based on the function.
In other words, we are looking at the individual’s goal. The goal or the way of achieving the goal may be adaptive or maladaptive but we are recognizing that people are goal-oriented. There is a purpose to what they are doing! We normalize the behavior by looking at the context it is occurring in.
People Are Goal-Oriented
This can be very empowering!
Really, think about it! We are telling people that their unhealthy behavior is completely understandable given the circumstances and the context. They are not weird! They are not sick! In fact, we are telling them that their behavior is serving a purpose! It’s effective! It just may not be the most long-term effective plan available. They need help developing a more effective action plan.
Sometimes, there are multiple functions that are maintaining a behavior. Behavior really can be complicated, it’s not as simple as I may be trying to make it seem. Functions of behaviors can change and evolve through months and years of doing the same patterns. The same person’s behavior may have an altogether different purpose depending on the situation.
Do you remember my compulsive tendencies?
Sometimes these serve as avoidance and escape behaviors in my life; sometimes they serve to get something; sometimes they may even be attention-seeking (ah!). It really depends on what is happening at that moment in my life.
But the more that we touch base with what is our goal, the more we can start to recognize whether we are really meeting our needs.
When identifying the function of a behavior, we need to look at what is happening right before and right after the behavior occurs. In escape and avoidance behaviors, something is being alleviated; whether that is having to complete a task, or experiencing a feeling or a thought.
Consider your own life right now… what avoidance behaviors are you engaging in? As you ponder this question, make sure you follow my blog as we continue the journey through functions of behavior and ways to promote change.