Being Sensible about Ignoring Behavior

There’s an old adage in psychology that when dealing with behavior problems one should reject the behavior and not the person. It’s pretty good advice, we think, and consistent with the idea expressed in an earlier commentary that we should think about the  momentary making of rewards response-dependent in a broader, more molar framework. In this commentary, we turn to the opposite behavioral process of not providing reinforcers. Ignoring behavior by withholding attention to the behavior often is promoted as a relatively benign means of eliminating such behavior. It certainly can be this, but it also can be used in other ways that are not benign at all. They are in fact both counterproductive and hurtful to the person who is being ignored.

Reinforcement is most effective when it is targeted to a well-defined response. When the response is ill-defined or the relation between the response and the reinforcer is inconsistent, effectiveness is degraded, or even absent.  Similarly, extinction needs to be targeted to be effective. If there is a problem response that is shown by functional analysis methods to be shown to be maintained by attention, then ignoring the problem behavior is in order. Ignoring problem behavior, however, does not mean ignoring the person.

Consider the consequences of simply ignoring “someone” in an attempt to eliminate a troubling response or pattern of responses. This essentially puts all of the person’s behavior on extinction. In the first place, we would label such an action inappropriate. We also might label it is as “degrading to the person,” “hostile,” “demeaning,” and “overcontrolling.” And maybe a few others, too. Our labels aside, consider the effects of total extinction of the sort described here. Extinction has strong emotional by-products, including aggression.

Extinction turns out to not be so benign after all. If it is not used as it was designed to be used – to target specific behavior (but not specific persons) for extinction, it is, well, bad for everyone concerned. The extinguisher is, in fact, behaving unethically by not using a procedure as it was intended to be used. The extinguisher also is, in lay terms, being a jerk.

One way of avoiding this problem of extinguishing the person rather than the response is to not only implement extinction for a specific response, but also identify an alternative, appropriate response that can be reinforced at the same time the problem behavior is being ignored. Another is to talk to the person engaging in the problem behavior and tell them both the expectancies and the potential consequences of their continuing to behave inappropriately. With anyone with verbal abilities, this seems an appropriate first step before implementing any other procedure. Not only is instructional control easier (if it works), but it also is more respectful of the person, something behavior analysts are not always viewed as being. 

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.