So many people in ACT are attracted to its focus on values and connecting to what matters that it can be a surprise to learn of its roots in behaviour analysis. After all, isn’t that what they do with rats?
After attending an excellent talk on this subject by David Gillanders, I wanted to write a short series on how behaviour analysis might help in coaching.
In behaviour analysis, “A” refers to the antecedent, or the event or activity that immediately precedes a behavior. The “B” refers to the observed behavior, and “C” refers to the consequence, or the event that immediately follows a response.
Insight from Behaviour Analysis:
If an event (Antecedent) leads to a Behaviour whose immediate Consequence is less negative than alternatives, the chain is strengthened.
Clients who are really stuck.
Brief Example Completely Unrelated to Me:
OK so let’s imagine that someone feels anxious before going to a party. This someone always fears being judged and found wanting by those around
To be clear, this never actually happens to me, but let’s go ahead and imagine anyway. And let’s get behavioural and call this the antecedent…
*Pause to high-five my bad inner behaviour analyst self*
This person then decides to stay in and watch Netflix instead (House of Cards since you ask). This is the behaviour.
The consequence is immediate feelings of relief – no more anxiety – and this therefore acts as a reinforcer of the behaviour, making the chain stronger.
Another example – Duncan – had been experiencing career paralysis for a few years. His work in finance brought acute feelings of meaninglessness. At the end of the week he consoled himself by going out and getting hammered. This was reinforcing because 1) he had a great time with his friends and 2) he forgot about his job.
Whilst there was plenty of good stuff going on (Duncan was popular) he was also anaesthetising himself from his feelings of meaninglessness. As the chain got stronger he also started to drink during the week, especially if he’d had a bad day.
In the short term this meant he could solider on whilst ‘living for the weekend’. But in the long term this pattern was reinforcing his stuckness, eroding his spirit, and draining his energy.
Helping to Unravel Clients who Feel Stuck
By viewing stuck patterns through the lens of behaviour analysis, clients can make more sense of their experience and see how avoidance behaviours provide immediate, short term reinforcement that easily become entrenched into habit.
Another client, Mia, has been stuck in her law career for over 5 years. She’s seen many coaches in her time with always the same pattern: initial hope and excitement, followed by lots of research and analysis, but then slowly tailing away. This she puts down to ‘laziness’.
In this case we see that antecedents, behaviours and consequences can take some teasing apart – but that it can be revealing to do so:
Mia feels like a ‘cog in a machine’ at work. Her feelings are most acute when she reads articles about people working for themselves and when she meets her friend Katherine who seems to have loads of autonomy as a freelance graphic designer.
Mia’s behavioural pattern then is to research alternative careers – from yoga teacher, to charity worker and in-house lawyer. This phase feels rich with possibility which is highly reinforcing.
However, as she then moves further into analysis mode, she begins to find problems with each option…. Yoga teacher? No proper pension. Charity sector? Badly paid and badly run. In-house lawyer? Same lack of autonomy.
Each option is analysed and rejected.
The consequence is that she begins to experience acute disappointment and loss of hope. This acts as another antecedent, which cues a period of plunging herself back into her work, trying to forget how miserable she feels.
Teasing out the antecedent from the behaviour (and exploring the consequences in each case) helps clients make sense of seemingly ingrained or embedded patterns of behaviour that are keeping them stuck.
This approach can also help coaches make more accurate case conceptualisations, and to track interventions more accurately from moment to moment.