The Potential of The Behavior Analytic Toolkit

May 19, 2019    Summer Bottini

I peeked out my window this morning and I saw the most magnificent thing. A bright yellow ball glittering amidst a blue void above me. I was overcome with the need to see it from outside. Just one step out my door and I could feel its gentle kiss of heat on my face and its warmth radiate from the ground through my toes. This yellow ball in the sky seemed distantly familiar and yet also so strange. The sunshine and warmth enticed what followed to be a horde of adults, children, pets, and wild animals. After months of solitude and cold, living organisms have finally emerged- and oh my, what interesting behavior is to be observed and understood. Ah yes, Spring is upon central New York.


It is days like this the value of behavior analytic science is so apparent. Behavior is truly pervasive. Every living organism responding to its environment simultaneously and continuously, filling every second with something to be seen. It becomes easy to relate everyday life to behavior analysis. In each observed behavior or situation, I can take out my behavior toolkit. And that’s the thing, behavior analysis is a toolkit. It is not a hammer. It is not a screwdriver. It is not a measuring tape or a wrench. It is a package of tools that can be applied across various situations in novel ways. It is a scientific mindset, a methodological approach for making data-based decisions, and a knowledge of empirical approaches to analyze and change behavior. It does not seek to replace other existing structures, it solely lends its tools and methods to make the structures sturdier. To make them better.


On warm spring days like this, I see countless situations that remind me of the vastly varied ways behavior analysis has the potential to help so many others. I see individuals exercising- behavior analytic contingency programs can be a helpful tool for those struggling with physical health behaviors. I see litter on the ground- behavior analysis can offer recommendations based on response cost and rewarding environmentalist behavior. I see children throwing tantrums to stay at the park longer or get ice cream- behavior analysis has many well-established interventions for improving problem behavior. I see strangers complaining about their workplace- behavior analysis has an entire faction of science aimed at improving workplace training, productivity, safety, and supervision. 


Those are just four isolated observations on a single warm spring day. Each observation demonstrating that for every behavior I see, I know behavior analysis has a tool. Despite my enthusiasm, I am impeded in sharing my toolkit with all it has to offer. In New York, my educational experiences have been limited to Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), in the same way behavior analysts here are limited in their practice. In fact, of the 30 states who have licensure laws related to behavior analysis, New York is the only state with a law restricting the practice of behavior analysts to treating individuals with ASD. This restriction severely eliminates the ability of many individuals (e.g., those with ADHD, Down Syndrome, TBI, etc.) to benefit from this experimentally-validated treatment approach.  


Yes, ASD is the population for which I am most passionate, but I cannot help but ponder our potential to do more. In this single population of opportunity, behavior analysis has consistently demonstrated to be the most effective intervention within the empirical literature. In my personal experience, I have seen children with ASD say their first word. Eat their first vegetable. Tolerate a demand for the first time. Share a toy with a peer for the first time. Look someone in the eye for the first time. Imagine what else behavior analytic science has to offer (spoiler alert: in states where behavior analysts practice with other populations, there is a burgeoning literature showing behavior analysis is still effective).


My mentors and fellow behavior analytic scientists bestowed upon me a toolkit. I seek to have the largest positive impact possible with this toolkit. I only hope that my future colleagues and I are given the opportunity to open our toolkit to others who can benefit from it and show them how we may lend our tools and methods. We are behavior analysts. Our expertise is behavior. Let us show you all the ways our tools may help.

Dancing With Single Case Design

May 5, 2019  Summer Bottini  


Sunday Scaries

Let’s face it, single-case design is awesome. It’s simple. It’s logical. It’s an elegant way to determine probable causation without relying on p-values (bye-bye 5% chance that a single result is false). What’s more? We informally use the logic of singe-case design all the time without realizing. I’d argue that single-case design is the shining jewel of behavior analysis, so why stop at using it without realizing? Here are a few amusing ways you might squeeze extra single-case design logic (and music) into your day.  


We’ll start off the day with the basics: reversal designs. On your way to work, throw on your favorite playlist. Swap between playing it for a couple minutes and driving in silence for a couple minutes. Notice any differences in nodding your head or drumming your steering wheel when the music is playing versus not? That could be a functional relation. Moreover, try adding Leave by REM or Ring the Alarm by Beyoncé to the playlist. With those songs, you might need to use reversal logic to determine if it is the song or a police car on the road when you hear a siren. Simply turn the sound up and down to see if the siren only occurs when the song is audible.  


Once you get to work/school, it’s time to switch to the pump-up music. So many songs to choose from, why not rapidly alternate through them? That’s right, time for the logic of alternating treatments designs. Pick three or four different songs and rotate playing them. See which songs make you dance the most or the hardest (you’ll have to individualize the operational definition per your own dance style, of course). Why not try it out in your office or classroom? Perhaps use a PLACHECK to see which song reliably evokes the most dancing behavior of your friends. And if you like typing up behavior programs while listening to music, maybe even compare how many words you can write while each song is playing. Find your way to increased word counts with the alternating treatments design.


Now let’s wrap up the workday with some classics and multiple baseline designs. There are certain songs that seem to always evoke singing or dancing behavior; for example, Sweet Caroline (BA BA BAAA). Find a few friends friends, wait different amounts of time, and then play Sweet Caroline. Do your friends only belt out song lyrics when Sweet Caroline is playing? Or for some reason is it your presence that has control over this singing behavior? You could also try a multiple baseline across songs. Play a few different popular songs in your office before playing the specified classic song (Bohemian Rhapsody by Queen? Bennie and the Jets by Elton John?).  See if only the classic songs reliably increase singing and/or dancing.


 To mellow out from work/school, you can try logic from the changing criterion design to decrease the incessant singing and dancing behavior you’ve engaged in all day. Perhaps see if the volume of music is functionally related to how loud you sing or how much you dance. Start by blasting music and then incrementally decrease the volume as you play the music. See if your singing reliably incrementally decreases in decibels too (yes, there is an app for that). If so, you’ll be whispering and calm in no time.


And there you have it. Although best when using rigorous behavior measurement and precise definitions, the logic of single-case design can be applicable to daily life. Have fun with it.

March 17, 2019  Summer Bottini  

[suhn-dey  skair-eez]



  1. A term used within popular culture denoting an aversive physiological state that recurs on Sunday evenings and is associated with regret due to unproductiveness and thoughts that the upcoming week will be miserable.


Ah yes, the oh-too-familiar Sunday Scaries. There is no worse way to end your weekend. One minute you are throwing caution to the wind having a great Friday and the next you are wrapped in a blanket, worried about everything you have to do, and catatonic in your bed. How did this happen to you again? Just like the week before. And before. And before.


Let us consider one behavior analytic perspective on the Sunday Scaries:


The Sunday Scaries begin on Friday with the matching law. You have a multitude of choices to make. For example after work, you can make a nice dinner, watch a show, go out with friends, write that manuscript, or grade those papers. Each activity is associated with its own respective consequences. Going out with friends is immediately reinforcing; whereas, the preferred consequences of writing a paper is likely delayed. Not to mention, the physiological consequences of leisure activities, like eating, can be of higher quality compared to the consequences of work. Voilà, you choose to engage in leisure activities on Friday that result in immediate, high quality reinforcement.


Let us not forget about motivating operations (MOs). By the time you get home after a week of work/school, you might be tired and hungry. These physiological states are MOs. For example, being tired increases the value of activities that are relaxing (e.g., watching television) or that provide energy (e.g., eating), and decreases the value of activities that can cause fatigue (e.g., writing papers). Thus, these MOs often abate work behavior and evoke leisure behavior.


As the weekend progresses, something interesting happens. Deadlines begin to loom. Perhaps it is a note on your calendar, a conversation with a colleague, or an email from your supervisor that prompts you review these deadlines. A radical behaviorist might even say this evokes a thought—maybe, “Oh no, I gotta get that done.” That stimulus prompt might even elicit aversive physiological sensations due to your learning history with deadlines and/or rules (e.g., I will get reprimanded if this paper is late). And like that, there is a new competing MO: an establishing operation for completing work. The value of negative reinforcement increases, such that completing your work results in a decrease in the aversive physiological state. For many, the reinforcement of work behavior still does not compete with the immediate reinforcement of leisure activities. At least it does not effectively compete not until Sunday. Not until you are experiencing full-blown Sunday Scaries. Finally, the availability of high magnitude negative reinforcement competes with the reinforcement of leisure activities and you complete your work. Of course, this sets up and maintains a learning history in which you successfully procrastinate without contacting any concrete negative consequences (e.g., a bad grade, a reprimand, etc.), thus reinforcing your behavior to choose the leisure activities throughout the weekend until you once again experience these Sunday Scaries.


And what if you experience the Sunday Scaries despite not procrastinating? Well, perhaps that is because you have had noncontingent access to reinforcement all weekend and “Sunday” signals the impending extinction of such during the workweek. Oh, that pesky emotional responding.


So, what should you do to stand against the Sunday Scaries? Why not use your behavior analytic skills for that as well? Find what works for you- perhaps set up other contingencies, use the Premack Principle, break larger projects into manageable steps via a task analysis, make a contingency contract, or pair your workweek with preferred activities. Be creative in using your ABA knowledge. Just don’t forget that leisure is also important. A socially valid goal is to achieve your own valued work-life balance, even if that means enduring the Sunday Scaries each Sunday so that you do the things you love on the weekend.

Summer is a student of Binghamton University, Clinical Psychology; and Florida Institute of Technology, online BCBA course sequence.

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The New York State Association for Behavior Analysis Inc. (NYSABA) is the state chapter of the Association for Behavior Analysis International (ABAI), an international organization devoted to the study of the experimental analysis of behavior.


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The New York State Association for Behavior Analysis is proud to be an Affiliate Chapter of the Association for Behavior Analysis International and the Association for Professional Behavior Analysts