The ABC’s of Behavior: As Easy As 1,2,3

One of the best ways to turn observed behavior into collected data. Believe me, this helps analysis later.

Today I wanted to talk about one of the ways you can collect data to use in your research. 

The ABC model is a way you can organized your recordings of behavior so you can look through them later for patterns. I briefly also talked about this in my Top 5 Motivation article and I talked about Antecedents in my Stimulus Control article, but I wanted to spend some time to talk a bit more in-depth about it here.

What are the ABC’s?

These concepts are gonna seem scarier than they actually are. But trust me, this is useful to know!

The ABCs of Behavior are Antecedent/Behavior/Consequences. Remember, in Operant Conditioning, we care about what the behavior is trying to accomplish. 

Antecedents are what will precede the behavior. They will tell our subject that reinforcement is now available if they perform their behavior. In turn, this will encourage them to perform a behavior. 

Behavior in this case is what the subject is doing. What is being reinforced or punished?

Finally, Consequences are the results of the behavior. What did the behavior achieve? Was there a punishment? Was there reinforcement? Noting this will give you a clue to what is maintaining or harming the behavior in question.

Example

Using ABC analysis can help you figure out what is upsetting your non-verbal subjects.

I love the example shown by the National Autistic Society (Be aware, this link will download a PDF document). In their document, they provide a wonderful chart for you to use and a great breakdown of what each section of the ABCs stand for. I highly recommend printing these sheets and using them for yourself.   

Returning back to the topic at hand, further down that document you’ll find a wonderful example of how an ABC analysis can be used to learn about your subject from the lens of their behavior and how to help them. The example features a male autistic adult who’s non-verbal and has sensory difficulties. His mom visits on the weekends and Wednesdays, but for some reason, her son lashes out and locks himself in his room when she visits on Wednesday. ABC analysis is used here to figure out what is going based on the son’s behavior.

In the chart, we can see that the antecedents are all pretty normal. The son is calm and watching TV with staff, or is just playing games. Then, when his mom enters the room, the son’s behavior was running away from his mom, shutting the door to his room, screaming and lashing out, and covering his face.

The consequences of the son’s actions are forcing his mom to leave the room which then led to the son calming down. 

A small note on this example, I personally prefer keeping everything that happened prior to the behavior in the antecedent column. I know in that the writers of this particular example put the mom entering the room in the ‘Behavior’ column, but this seems to just muddle the behavior column to me. I also think it would be easier to identify a pattern if you put information like that in the Antecedent column instead. 

Now that the data is layed out in this chart however, it’s now easier to analyze through each square and look for patterns. Based on the chart, we know that the son’s behavior is triggered every Wednesday when the mother visits, but not during the weekend when the mother visits. The son also always wants to leave the room the mother is in the moment she enters. 

If we were the researchers in this particular example, then the first thing we would do is ask the mother if she does anything differently on Wednesday in comparison to the weekends. 

According to the document, the mother realized that on Wednesdays she goes to a book club, so she dresses differently and wears perfume, which could also explain why her son covered his face once while leaving the room. Since her son has sensory difficulties, his mother “concluded that he may be reacting negatively due to the perfume.” 

After this realization, the strategy the researchers employed was having the mother not wear perfume. Her son stopped reacting on her Wednesday visits.

Pet Example

Cats can yowl for a multitude of reasons. Remember to always check for any medical issues your cat may have if you can’t figure out why they’re yowling. Also, we don’t talk about cats enough in this blog.

I used these charts extensively when I was working with pets, especially my fosters. If you look at my other articles, I’ll usually advise you to just watch your pet first before you start teaching them. The ABC method is a great way to document and take note of what behaviors your pets have before teaching them anything.

One such case was actually with one of the first cats I trained and fostered named Kimmy (name changed to protect the innocent). Kimmy had a bad habit of yowling. The timings seemed to be associated with food times, but other times she would get her food and, an hour or two later, she would yowl again. Sometimes, the yowling would just randomly happen over the course of the day. 

I decided to make an ABC chart for her, and the entire antecedent side would look like “Kimmy is relaxing in a cardboard box in the sun”, “Kimmy is staring at birds from a window.” Then she would stay where she is (usually in front of my backyard’s sliding door) and yowl. The consequence of her yowling was that my girlfriend or I would run and check in on her. If either of us left without playing with her, then Kimmy would start yowling again. Kimmy would also be extremely energetic while playing during this period of time. This caused me to think at first that she was getting overstimulated by the sun and birds outside and so she would yowl for attention, and then relax herself by playing.  

After a few more weeks, I noticed that there was also one specific time Kimmy would yowl at every single day – 10 am, almost on the dot. This was strange, but I explained it to myself that this was probably how long she could stand to look outside before she got overstimulated and needed to be played with. Besides the yowling habit itself, it also became unrealistic for my girlfriend or me to always go to Kimmy’s location and play since we both had work to do. 

So one day, I decided, maybe I could help burn off her energy before 10 am so I could sit in my office and do work until lunchtime. I went out and played with her at 8:30 am for about 30 minutes, and then I went back to my office. 10 am hit, and Kimmy was howling like a banshee.  

While it didn’t surprise me that she yowled, it still puzzled me because she wasn’t showing any body language indicating that she was overstimulated. I wasn’t sure if she wanted to play or just hang out, so I went downstairs from my office and took her favorite toy to her. Nothing. Kimmy just looked at me, trying to figure out why this deranged lunatic who smells like at least 5 cups of coffee is throwing a stuffed fish at her face. This confirmed to me that she yowled during this time for attention, and probably out of boredom. 

Just to make sure I’m eliminating all other suspects, I talked to the non-profit I was fostering from’s veterinarian and Kimmy checked out with a clean bill of health. After that, I went to her original foster and asked what usually happens at her home during the 10 am period. The original foster lived in a two-story home like mine and also fostered two dogs. Kimmy would yowl at 10 am, but would usually stop. If she didn’t stop, then the foster would walk down and play with her.

We talked a bit more and it dawned on us that the reason Kimmy would stop yowling in the original foster’s house is cause the foster dogs would walk over to Kimmy when she yowls and give her attention. Yowling was being reinforced by attention everywhere Kimmy went, whether it was from her human caretakers at the time or fellow pets. It was one particular reason why, whenever anything upset her, she would immediately begin yowling. I checked my ABC chart and sure enough, every single time she yowled (regardless of time) the consequence was attention.

Armed with this knowledge, I tried a different training regimen for Kimi. When Kimi yowled, I would ignore her until she did anything else. When she did do anything else, then I would reinforce her other behavior with a treat. I did this so I could extinguish her yowling behavior (it was no longer being reinforced with attention), and instead start reinforcing alternative behaviors.

After a day or two, without any yowling whatsoever, Kimi gave a soft and curt meow from her spot in front of my backyard’s sliding door, and then walked straight to my office. I was over the moon. Not because I had trained her to do this, but because I didn’t train her at all to do this. My next step for her was to teach her that I would reward her for walking to us for attention. I didn’t expect her to jump straight to this. After that moment, whenever Kimi wanted attention from us, she would just walk over to us and we’d shower her in pets. Kimi, and our eardrums, were very thankful.

Conclusion

 ABC stands for Antecedent, Behavior, and Consequence. This is one of the best ways to record and analyze what your subject is doing and why they are doing it.

Antecedent is everything your subject is doing or seeing before the behavior. 

The Behavior is what exactly your subject is doing. Describe it thoroughly, because every small detail can help you figure out what is maintaining it.

Consequence is everything that happens after the behavior. What did the behavior accomplish? This should be the first place you look when you’re trying to figure out is punishing or reinforcing the behavior you’re examining. 

The National Autistic Society created a useful chart with a wonderful example of how ABC analysis is used to help autistic children. 

Kimi was a cat who had a particularly bad habit of yowling at almost random times during the day. Through an ABC analysis, I was able to determine why she was yowling and then train an alternate behavior for her to get attention with.

Thank you for reading!

If you enjoyed this article or found it useful, then don’t forget to leave a like. Feel free to follow this blog for more useful articles in the future, and leave a comment down below if you think I forgot anything or explained anything incorrectly.

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