Note: This article originally appeared in Vol. 2(1) of Behavior Analysis Quarterly.
By Benjamin N. Witts, PhD, BCBA-D
St. Cloud State University
People and other organisms do not always act according to some predetermined standard. When our learner’s responding is not as we would expect, we often tact such responding in a number of ways. We might say that a child’s biting is inappropriate, that marking “A” on a multiple-choice question is incorrect, that our excessive snacking is perhaps unwanted, and that one’s cursing is seen as being negative. Examples of behavior deviating from some standard and their related terms continue on and on. In fact, the title for this piece offers only a few choice selections that appear in casual and professional conversation, professional presentations, and in our peer-reviewed literature. These terms continue to be produced as they hold meaning in our field, in the sense that we tend to use them under similar conditions. However, the meaning might be less accurate or at least inconsistent with a behavioral approach to behavior when we stop to break down their meaning and compare it to how we conceptualize behavior.
We must start our discussion by recognizing that all behavior is, for lack of a better term, correct. The organism does as it does because it is the only way it knows how to behave. A thought experiment might be useful here. Let us consider a young child who is learning to point to picture cards as someone calls out the picture’s name. In this example, we will say there are three animal cards: a pig, a duck, and a cow. When instructed to touch the cow, the child points to the pig. We can all agree that this answer is incorrect; yet to the child, the response was the only one that could be given. So now the thought experiment. Imagine we can rewind time by say, 10 seconds. If we were to loop the scenario of the child touching the pig for a thousand times, would we ever expect the child to produce a different response? Of course not. Give that child’s history, current environmental factors, and the instruction delivered, the child has but one response to give and it will be the same response every time (assuming our time-looping ability).
So, is behavior ever incorrect? I would say ‘no’ to this. It’s not the behavior that is incorrect, but rather the environment, current and historical, that are incorrect.
But what of our other terms, like inappropriate? To this we have similar problems of reference. Inappropriate behavior is based on someone else’s standards, and not the learner in question. The behavior is certainly appropriate for him or her at the time it was produced. We must recognize that this behavior is only inappropriate so far as we have provided inappropriate environments and learning opportunities.
Perhaps the most irksome of tacts is negative behavior. ‘Negative’ is accompanied by the issues of incorrect and inappropriate, but added to it is the confusion of how it should be interpreted. Consider that many of us struggle to help others understand that the term ‘negative reinforcement’ does not mean anything bad. In our field, the term ‘negative’ often denotes removal. Consider how confusing the following sentence is to the young behavior analyst or layperson: “His negative behavior was altered with negative reinforcement.”
Perhaps the safest tact we can select is aberrant. The term aberrant denotes reference to some standard. The standard, of course, is free to change from person to person, context to context, and across time. Aberrant seems to imply a type of deviation without any value judgment. Consider that Usain Bolt’s running is aberrant, as was David Bowie’s musical ability. Aberrant does not mean “bad,” but rather “different.” Anecdotally I find aberrant to be used in place of incorrect, inappropriate, unwanted, etc. in our field, but it need not be restricted to those conditions. Though perhaps my concerns of word choice are a bit aberrant…