Behavioral Hiccups and Other Manifestations of Change

Behavior analysis seems to me uniquely positioned for studying change. Indeed, our most basic research method is all about change. We first establish a baseline in which the behavior under study is observed until it is relatively constant across several observation periods. After that, the intervention is made and the behavior is allowed to stabilize. The difference in performance between the baseline and intervention is the index of the behavioral change caused by the intervention. (We next often return to the original baseline after the intervention effect stabilizes.  If the behavior reverses to its pre-intervention level, this tells us that it was indeed the intervention that caused the change, ruling out the simple passage of time as the reason for the change.)

Some kinds of behavioral change, however, do not lend themselves easily to this basic method.  Some effects are transient ones, occurring for a while and then dissipating or disappearing as new conditions come into play.  A child might, for example, throw a temper tantrum upon arriving at school, but such behavior may dissipate with the passage of time and the departure of the parent from the school. Or a dog might engage in a bout of destructive behavior as the owner departs for the day, only for it to dissipate a few minutes after the departure. Such behavior have been described as transitional, separating two periods of relatively calm behavior from one another. In his classic text, Tactics of Scientific Research, Murray Sidman used as an example of a transition state the acquisition of new behavior, where one observes first the absence of the target behavior, then a period wherein the behavior appears in various forms approximating the final form, and finally the final, fluent form of the target response.

Yet a third form of behavior change is transient behavior, something I think of as a “behavioral hiccup.” These hiccups are short-term deviations from steady-state responding that may be the result of unplanned or planned interventions. Often in the course of an experiment, unexpected things happen, for example, the power goes off during an electrical storm shutting down the computers controlling the experiment, leading to short-term erratic behavior when the power goes back on. Or a child gets sick in the middle of a treatment session, resulting in her behavior being transiently erratic. Planned instances of transient behavior include processes like the phenomenon of resurgence (click here to learn more about resurgence) or other phenomena studied by using what are called “probes,” in which the conditions of an intervention are changed momentarily to assess the effect of some variable in the short term against the more stable background behavior. 

The study of steady-state behavior, behavioral transitions, and behavioral hiccups all help us provide a more complete picture of behavior. Having this more complete picture means creating better ways of helping people address the many transitions that define our lives, from adjusting to the birth of our first child to the bereavement that is an inevitable transition following the loss of a loved one. 

Posted by Andy Lattal, Ph.D.

Dr. Andy Lattal is the Centennial Professor of Psychology at West Virginia University (WVU). Lattal has authored over 150 research articles and chapters on conceptual, experimental, and applied topics in behavior analysis and edited seven books and journal special issues, including APA’s memorial tribute to B. F. Skinner.