Creative Self-Management: Measuring Behavior for Change

A while back, I posted some observations about creative self-management. In it were some suggested steps to take to change our own behavior. These were to, first, define the behavior to be changed – the target behavior - in measurable ways. Second, establish a baseline of the occurrence of the target behavior in the absence of doing anything but observing. Next, take active steps to change by arranging consequences following the target behavior (I suggested, among other things, that this is best done by using an objective observer who will dispense reinforcers when they observe changes in the target behavior, rather than trying to reward yourself). In this posting, we will explore in a little more detail how to define a target response, and in the next the power of graphing in self-management programs.

measurement goalWe first have to define what it is that we want to change. It isn’t always easy to get what we want to change down to something that is measurable (our goal), but if we can’t count it, it is going to be difficult to change it.  To measure something you have to be able to recognize an instance of its occurrence. One criterion for such recognition is whether other people also can independently agree with you on occurrences and nonoccurrences of the target response. This is easily tested by having you and another person independently observe and record your target behavior. At the end of the observation period if you are not in agreement at least 90 percent of the time, then you should go back to the drawing board and refine your target response definition until you can reach this level of agreement.  

Things that we want to change often are easily countable: How many times did I say “like” as a filler word during my last conversation? How many miles did I run this week?  How often did I say something positive to a co-worker today? As noted above, counting is basic to behavior change. Digital devices are now available that count many dimensions of activity, from steps walked to the amount of time you were stooped over while reading this. These devices are a real boon to measuring exercise related behavior, but they aren’t much good for counting how many times you said something positive or whether or not you called your Mom today. The point is that we should rely on the vast array of technology when we can to count our target behavior. When we can’t, we always can revert to the old tried-and-true paper and pencil method of making hash marks on a page.

measurementqSome activities that are countable also can be measured as the time spent engaged in the activity. We can count the number of words or pages we read over a day, and we can count the number of steps or miles that we walk or run. But we also can measure the amount of time we spend reading or running. Other activities are much more difficult to count as discrete or distinct instances. These activities lend themselves more readily to time spent doing the activity. Take an activity like “cooking.” It isn’t something that lends itself to a frequency count. It involves multiple activities that together constitute cooking. In fact, it really isn’t any specific activity, but the combination of many. Many other activities fit his mode: studying, gardening, painting, cleaning, socializing.   

Both counting and time allocation have a place in self-management programs. Which you use for a particular program depends on which one works best for your target behavior: which most accurately reflects what you are interested in changing, which is easier to measure and record, which is more sensitive to change as circumstances change? 

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.