Understanding Behavior: Basics of ABA

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Functions of Behavior: The Reason

Whenever we start talking about behavior, there is always one question that comes to mind; why do we do what we do? It’s a common question, especially when working with individuals with bizarre or dangerous behavior.

But for every behavior, there is a reason, and that reason has its foundation in the function of behavior. For a behavior to occur and be maintained over long periods of time, the behavior has to have a history of reinforcement (we’ll discuss reinforcement and punishment later). Anything that is reinforcing, however, is tied to one of four (of five) functions. All human behavior occurs based on four (with a controversial fifth) reasons. Listed below are the functions (or why) behind behavior:


Simply put, this function is clearly explained in its title. Some behavior is reinforced by attention from others. Whether it is good or bad attention is of no consequence. So often, we hear parents say something along the lines of “yelling just doesn’t work anymore” when the reality is that the kid behaves inappropriately because they wanted attention, regardless of its form.

Example: A young lady wears a certain dress more because a romantic interest told her how great she looked in it.


This particular function refers to tangible items or preferred activities. Food is a major part of this function. Access simply means that the individual gets something for the behavior. A toy, food, money, going out to eat, etc. may all fall under this function.

Example: A child throws a tantrum because they weren’t allowed to have candy.


Escape refers to how an individual gets away from something they don’t like or something that is aversive to them. We all procrastinate on work we don’t want to do from time to time. We avoid situations, tasks, or people that make us feel uncomfortable.

Example: I go to a different grocery store because there are employees who are unfriendly at a store I used to go to.


It just feels good. This function refers to behavior we do simply because it feels good to us. Biting our nails, hand-flapping, masturbation, or singing to ourselves all fall under this particular “why” of behavior.

Example: You put lotion on your skin after taking a shower.

Signs of Damage:

Let me preface this entry with this warning; research done on this function is sparse, and this is still yet to be completely confirmed. I do feel, however, that it is important to note for the sake of the present state of ABA.

Signs of damage refers to behavior related to hiring other organisms and/or seeing damage/ destruction after a behavior occurs. From my understanding, the preceding condition of the organism includes some type of pain. Essentially, an organism in pain will engage in signs of damage behavior.

Example: A child is abused at home and goes to school to bully another child.

NOTE: I have little to no experience with signs of damage, do feel free to correct any mistakes I’ve made.

When you read this, think about why you do it. Is it access to information? Or are you procrastinating and this was simply available?

Filed under aba applied behavior analysis science behavior analysis psychology

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