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How Consequences Affect Behavior

In behavior analysis, the framework for understanding behavior is known as “the ABCs.”.

As a reminder:

A = Antecedent (the events that occur immediately before behavior),

B = Behavior (the actions we are trying to understand or change), and

C = Consequence (the events that follow behavior).

The above model states that behavior (B) is caused by its antecedents (A) and its consequences (C). Of these two, consequences have the biggest impact on behavior.

This way of thinking is different from the way many people think about the causes of behavior. The phrase “cause and effect” suggests that primary causes come before effects. But in behavior analysis, this is not the case.

Imagine a friend comes to you and says, “You should try the new restaurant on 3rd Street. It’s amazing!” Because you trust your friend, you head to the restaurant.

Unfortunately, your experience is horrible: Your server is rude, your bill is outrageous, and your meal leaves much to be desired.

In short, the events that followed your behavior of going to the restaurant—the consequences—were not what you’d call “rewarding” by any stretch of the imagination.

If your friend—or anyone else for that matter—came to you the following week and recommended the restaurant on 3rd Street, would you go?

Probably not! The consequences you experienced the first time around greatly decreased the chances that you will ever eat there again.

In behavior analysis, what happens after you behave largely determines whether you’ll behave that way again. When the consequences are “good,” or reinforcing, you’re more likely to repeat an action; when the consequences are “bad,” or punishing, you’re less likely to do the same thing.

So given this notion that consequences have the biggest impact, how can you go about changing behavior?

Although the following recommendation is a bit oversimplified, it’s a solid starting point. To change unwanted behavior (or behavior in general), you need to do one of three things:

(a) Modify the consequences that are currently maintaining your behavior,

(b) Introduce new consequences that are stronger than the existing consequences (even if you don’t modify the existing consequences in any way), or

(c) Both (a) and (b).

The Gale app is structured to capitalize on this notion that consequences are one of the strongest determinants of behavior and that changing consequences will ultimately produce meaningful behavioral changes.

Let’s discuss consequences a bit more, specifically, how exactly they affect our behavior.

Consequences “Select” Behavior

In the ABC model, consequences have an interesting way of affecting behavior. Rather than causing behaviors to occur in some reflexive-type manner (for example, as when a tone caused Pavlov’s dog to salivate), consequences actually work “backwards.”

Instead of impacting behaviors that follow them, consequences work by “selecting” the behavior that preceded them. It’s almost as if a consequence says, “Yes, do that again!” or “No, stop doing that!”

For example, after we eat healthy food, the consequence of losing weight might “select” healthy eating—in essence, it says, “Yes, that was good. Keep eating healthy food!” 

Conversely, if eating junk food leads to unwanted weight gain, the consequence—for example, a bigger number on the scale—might tell us, “No! Stop eating junk food!” 

When a consequence affects a behavior and makes it more likely to occur, the consequence is known as reinforcement. When a consequence makes a behavior less likely to occur, it is known as punishment. 

Notably we determine whether a consequence is reinforcement or punishment by its impact on behavior, not by what we think it should be. The presentation of money is reinforcement only if it increases the likelihood of a behavior, and a verbal reprimand is punishment only if it decreases the likelihood of a behavior. Moreover, what is reinforcement for one person might actually function as punishment for another.

There is one more consideration we need to address when analyzing the type of consequence that is impacting our behavior: whether the consequence is positive or negative.

Consequences: Positive or Negative?

As we’ve discussed, consequences have their effect by selecting the behavior (or behaviors) that preceded them—in essence, by “telling” a person, “Do that again!” (reinforcement) or “Don’t do that again!” (punishment). In addition to consequences being either reinforcement or punishment, we can further categorize each of these into two sub-types: positive or negative.

Consequences and behavior.

Importantly, positive and negative don’t mean “good and “bad,” respectively. Rather, positive means “added” and negative means “removed.”

Thus, positive reinforcement is when something is added after a behavior and makes the behavior more likely in the future. For example, receiving a paycheck after working increases the chances that you’ll go to work again.

Negative reinforcement means that something is removed after a behavior and makes the behavior more likely. Hitting the snooze button on your alarm clock removes the annoying “buzz” and makes it more likely that you’ll hit it again the following morning.

Positive punishment means that something is added and decreases the likelihood of a behavior. For example, going to a restaurant and receiving bad service makes it less likely that you’ll go to the restaurant again.

Finally, negative punishment means that something is removed after a behavior and makes the behavior less likely. A child who loses his television privileges after hitting his sister is less likely to hit her in the future.

In sum, identifying what consequences are affecting your behavior can be determined by asking two questions:

  1. After you behave a particular way, is something being added (positive) or removed (negative)?
  1. As a result of #1, has the behavior become more likely (reinforcement) or less likely (punishment) to occur in the future?

Whether you’re trying to create a desired behavior, or changing an unwanted behavior, it’s critical to understand the important role consequences play in changing your habits and behaviors for good.