Jun 27, 2012

Behavior Analysis is Not Boring

by Nikki McBride Spencer

This whole autism thing has been an adventure for sure. This month, I have been required to attend behavior classes in order for my daughter to receive behavior therapy services. Although it’s only been two weeks, I have learned loads. For instance, yesterday we learned this truth:

All behavior serves a purpose, a goal, or fulfills a need.

All. That’s everything, bar none. Seems simple, right? Uh, yeah, not so much.

Our instructor went on to inform us that there are four and only four causes of all behavior. They are:

Attention-gain access to attention of a peer/adult
Tangible-access to a desired item/activity
Escape/Avoidance-a difficult or aversive demand, task, or activity is removed or avoided
Automatic-provide oneself with stimulation that is pleasurable or to avoid a painful sensation

Ahhhh, now we’re getting somewhere. Every behavior under the sun can be categorized by these four causes—and we’re not talking just autistic children, either. This is EVERY behavior, which includes adult behavior.

So my little writer’s brain was naughty and wandered a tiny bit during class (um, OK, it might have had something to do with ADHD or the fact that a three hour class is waaaaay to long for this rear end) and it started to piece together motivations for characters.

Human nature fascinates me to no end and what I had just learned about causes of behavior hit home. Think about it. The guy who cut you off in front of Ralph’s “just to be a jerk” now has an entirely new reason why he did this. It could be attention (impressing his girlfriend), tangible (he has to make that red light), escape/avoidance (fast driving symbolic of escape from the reality of his mother's death), or even automatic (fast, unsafe driving gives him a rush).

Next time you need a reason why one of your characters does something (or needs to do something) and you are stumped, think about the four causes of behavior. Get crazy with it. Write down what your character just did, and below that the four causes. Plug in four or more behaviors next to the appropriate cause. See how fast your eyes and mind opens to the possibilities of your plot!


  1. I love that. For daily life and writing. Thanks.

  2. That is fascinating! I've never looked at the reasons people do things from those angles before.

  3. Love this post, Nikki! On all levels!

  4. Yep I learned a lot about autism and behavior in my Exceptional Children's class this past spring. Could see a lot of all of us in the information. But three hours...that would tax even the most patient of us.

  5. Love, love, love this. Oh the possibilities...


Thank you for visiting. Feel free to comment on our blogger's posts.*

*We do not allow commercial links, however. If that's not clear, we mean "don't spam us with a link to your totally unrelated-to-writing site." We delete those comments.