What about my feelings? Relationship between feelings and ABA.

What about my feelings? Understanding behavioralism

One of the major side-eyes given to behavioralism is that it does not consider emotions when dealing with people and their behavior.

While this is mostly true, it is not a cold, rigid, or unfeeling practice, as most detractors would propose. The focus of Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA)  is on the environment and what can be observed from that environment, rather than what’s happening inside a person’s mind.

Understanding action in a world of emotions

Think of it this way: if you go to see a cardiologist, his or her focus is narrowed by their field of study to analyze the needs of your heart. They are not going to spend a ton of time thinking about your skin, though they certainly will use your skin to provide clues about what might help them understand your cardiac needs. Even more certainly, if they happen to see something troubling on your skin in their quest to diagnose your heart problems, they would refer you to dermatologist.

In any case, the cardiologist is very unlikely to start scraping off your troublesome mole. Of course, they care about the mole and understand that it is a part of your overall health, but it’s not their focus.

Behavioralism is the same way. We care about your feelings (really!), but it’s not the focus of how we analyze and understand behavior. Psychologists are all about feelings, and for some reason, feelings are a more comfortable place for humans to explain human behavior.

Personally, I like feelings. I could talk about them all day, especially if someone has wronged me and I am fired up about it or I am having a particular struggle. But, feelings are problematic for a number of reasons when you are trying to determine and change behavior.

Where feelings and behaviorism parted ways

To really understand where feelings get sticky, it helps to explore how behaviorism took a sharp left turn from the parent umbrella of psychology in such a way that psychology and behaviorism are now considered antithetical.

While there are diabolical differences between the two schools of thought, they are still part of the same family. Just think of behaviorism as the weird uncle who shows up late wearing all black.

Rather than think of the two as separate and opposed, it helps to view them on a spectrum. On one end of the spectrum is psychology, which focuses on explaining behavior based on an internal view. The things that are happening in the mind, such as moods, or personality, or hypothetical states like the ego are considered the best lens through which to focus and understand behavior.

On the opposite end of the spectrum is behaviorism, which focuses on explaining behavior through an external view. Things that occur in the environment, such as consequences, are the best lens through which to focus and explain behavior.

Need an example?

A commercial comes on during the big game/final rose ceremony (you take your pick). You get up and go to the refrigerator. Why? The psychologist would explain that action as a response to the internal feeling of hunger. The behaviorist would explain that action as a learned behavior that was shaped over time because going to the refrigerator results in feeling less hungry. Because the refrigerator reliably produces food—and thus a decrease in hunger—we learn to return to the refrigerator again and again when we want to get rid of hunger.

It’s all about the focus of the ‘why’ 

Let’s do another one: you return to the couch with your bowl of ice cream. Suddenly, the star player drops the ball/the bachelor chooses the wrong person to present the final rose. (Again, take your pick.) Enraged, you jump up from the couch, shutting off the TV with a maddening click of the remote. The psychologist would say this occurred because you were feeling angry. The behaviorist would say that this occurred because you have learned that turning off the TV when you see something you don’t like makes it disappear and then you don’t have to deal with it.

It’s all about where you place your focus.

So why does this matter?

It matters not a wit if you don’t care to change the behavior. But if you want to make things happen differently in the future, it suddenly becomes very important.

Behaviorists choose to practice their science with an external focus because they can see and measure the external. We can’t measure hunger and we can’t measure anger, but we can measure the number of times you go to the refrigerator or slam down the remote. It’s an action that is observable, and therefore, changeable.

If change is the goal, then understanding the cause is very important.

If you believe the cause of going to the refrigerator is hunger, it is reasonable to try to remove the hunger and solve the problem. But, of course, the person feeling hungry is in control of the hungry. A person on the outside can’t do anything to control that.

If, however, you believe that going to the refrigerator is a pattern of learning, that pattern can be altered in whatever direction is necessary.

Put simply, believing that behavior is influenced by the environment gives us the focus to change that behavior. Behaviorism is the power card to play when something needs to change.

Behaviorism gives you, the parent, the power to have an impact on the kind of behavior you want to teach to your child.


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Understanding the link between feelings and one's environment: the science of ABA at work.

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