Is Behavior Ever Beyond Change?

neurological limitationsWe behavior analysts consider ourselves pretty skilled at changing behavior. But are there circumstances where behavior can’t, or won’t, change? Probably, but let’s consider the circumstances where it might or might not. Starting with the former, the positive approach embraced by most behavior analysts I know is that operant behavior is learned, which means that it has been changed to get where it now is as a result of a past history of learning. If it has been learned, then it is amenable to the laws of learning, which means it can be changed further, at least in principle.

When, then, might it be intractable? We have shown that the laws of learning apply across a wide spectrum of individuals, from typically functioning ones to those with rather severe physiological limitations. It must be conceded, however, that there may be instances of physiological and neurological limitations that may constrain the person’s sensitivity to operant contingencies. It would be difficult, for example, to bring the behavior of someone who is blind under the control of visual stimuli. That said, however, there are other sensory modalities that one could use to build discriminative control in someone without sight. Even when there are these kinds of limitations, we would be remiss as behavior analysts to not try multiple approaches to teaching before conceding that the behavior is not amenable to change.

A person’s body, of course, puts limits on behavior, but these typically are quite broad. I may never run under 10 s in the 100 meter dash because I lack the fast-twitch fibers in my muscles that allow such performance, and I may never play a violin like Mischa Elman (for those of you unfamiliar with him, he is the guy responsible for the famous response to a passerby’s question on the streets of New York of “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?” His answer: “practice, practice, practice!”) because I lack both his ear and digital dexterity. This doesn’t mean that I can’t run (relatively) fast or play a violin (relatively) well, it just means that there are physical limits to the control of my behavior by environmental conditions.

hardwired behaviorSome behavior is hard-wired, a result of our evolutionary history, and many consider it not to be amenable to changes in the environment. While true of some behavior (Richard Herrnstein, a famous behavior analyst, once noted the unlikeliness of teaching a cow to stalk like a cat does), the fact is that we don’t know how much so-labeled innate behavior can be modified by circumstances until we try to do so. And a negative outcome doesn’t prove that it can’t be done, only that our present techniques were inadequate.

Far more commonly, behavior may be practically, but not in principle, incapable of change when the supporting environment, often in the form of parents or other caregivers of children, persist in reinforcing inappropriate behavior. As we know, often the problem in problem behavior is not the child but the behavior of the caregiver toward the child. Only when an environment can be changed, and the change maintained, can behavior change. This applies equally to children and caregivers. One of the many lessons of basic research in learning is that behavior that is reinforced frequently and with high-quality reinforcers is very resistant to change.

An extension of the above is that there may be certain histories that, if they don’t preclude change, make change - shall we say - challenging. Sociopathic behavior, for example, is highly reinforced by its success in getting the individual into and out of a host of situations along life’s way. Long histories of reinforcement are sometimes difficult to overcome, at least with the change methods we are employing. Can such behavior be changed? Most probably, but doing so might be extremely difficult without new techniques and extended periods of time to overcome such strongly engrained and highly reinforced behavior patterns.

caregiver changeThe biggest problem for behavior analysts is when the first assumption is that the behavior is intractable because of its supposed origins (physiology, species history, or neurology) without even first trying to change it through environmental modifications. The second-biggest problem is when a first attempt at change fails and the conclusion, therefore, is that the behavior is intractable. And the third-biggest is when caregivers seem incapable of change, although changing caregivers to help them change their charges is what behavior analysis is about!


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.