Antecedents Have Last Names

Jose Martinez-Diaz HeadshotIn the latter years of his life, Dr. Jose Martinez, the founder of ABA Technologies. Inc., and the driving force behind the creation of the School of Behavior Analysis at Florida Tech, was heard to utter the title of this blog in every one of his presentations relating to the influence of antecedent conditions on behavior, “Antecedents have last names.” This may have initially sounded odd to many students and even some colleagues – as perhaps a clever turn of a phrase to merely introduce one of Jose’s legendary stories. But to Jose, this phrase was not a simple verbal gimmick – this statement lies at the heart of a conceptual insight he considered key to our understanding of the interaction between the environment and behavior – that every antecedent is directly and functionally linked to the environmental consequence that that led to its formation. And in fact, every consequence is linked to whatever antecedent condition was in effect prior to the last occurrence of the behavior in question. This may sound like circular reasoning at first, but you will soon realize that this is, in fact, a key to a comprehensive analysis of the functional relations between environmental events and the occurrence of any behavior. 

One of the defining features of any natural scientific discipline is a necessary focus on clearly defining the terms of the science. In behavior analysis, we strive to employ these terms to clearly identify functional relations between events – how do environmental events exert control over behavior, whether in the immediate present (right now) or in the foreseeable future (at some later time). In our basic analysis, antecedents affect whether behavior occurs right now. Consequences, on the other hand, determine whether or not the behavior they follow is more or less likely to occur again at some later time. But while many clinical analyses focus on the effect that antecedents and consequences have on the immediate (now) or future (later) likelihood of behavior, they often fail to fully account for the interaction between consequences and antecedent environmental events.

Girls playing with their tracherThe functional approach to behavior taken by ABA produces a broad array of positive clinical outcomes. It is often used to teach an individual new and socially valid responses to replace problem behavior. Socially valid responses are those behaviors which are seen by the social community around the individual as being appropriate and within the bounds of local cultural norms (or at least not too far beyond those boundaries, which may be acceptably challenged by artists, comedians, and other iconoclasts). Newly learned effective and socially valid responses taught through behavior analysis serve to replace other responses exhibited by the individual that have been effective (functional) but are not considered “appropriate.” Such inappropriate responses were learned (slowly strengthened) over the course of an individual’s idiosyncratic learning history. In other words, people learn to do inappropriate behavior because it works – it is reinforced by immediate changes in the person’s environment. 

But what has been learned can be unlearned, so long as the new replacement behavior is (1) just as easy to do as the inappropriate behavior (equal or lower response effort) and (2) more effective (i.e., functional) than the inappropriate behavior at obtaining the valued outcome (especially once the inappropriate behavior is rendered no longer effective at obtaining that outcome). 

Two girls fighting in a sandboxBehavior we term as “inappropriate” almost always falls into a category that begins with the letters “dis-;” disturbing, disruptive, disgusting, disagreeable, dishonest, destructive, dysfunctional, or possibly even a behavioral artifact of one’s “disability” (and we have to be very careful here not to stigmatize behavior over which the individual has little physiological control, and to even categorize certain behavior as a “disability” – a topic for a much longer blog). But an individual’s learned problem behavior is never truly dysfunctional, or for that matter, functionally “mal-adaptive;” every problem behavior is an adaptation to the environmental conditions in which it was learned. It IS functional –for that individual, in that setting, and under certain conditions. Our job as behavior analysts is to analyze those conditions and change them such that over time, the individual will have experienced a NEW learning history as we restructure their environment to respond differently to the behaviors we have targeted for change.

In that you are reading this, many of you are almost certainly aware of all or most of this. But how does the phrase “antecedents have last names” relate to our ability to do a comprehensive analysis of the controlling variables of behavior? 

The answer is simple: the two primary classes of antecedent conditions in our contingency analyses are (1) discriminative stimuli (i.e., the SD, SDP, and S-Delta – and Jose would argue a fourth, the S-Delta P, but that is also a topic for a different blog!), and (2) motivating operations (i.e., the UEO, UAO, CMO, and CAO). Jose argued that these terms should only be seen as the “first names” for the antecedents in our analysis. To fully complete an analysis, Jose argued we should be expanding these terms to include the specific type of consequence which had led to the development of the antecedent stimulus’ functional effect on behavior, whether that effect is evocative (i.e., makes a behavior more likely to happen, right now) or abative (makes the behavior less likely to happen now). 

Discriminative Stimuli

A drinking fountainFor example, a water fountain functions as a discriminative stimulus (SD) that “signals the availability of cold clean water” as a positive reinforcer. It does not make water more valuable, but it is correlated with the delivery of water in its presence in the past. But of course, this was not always so! The fountain became an SD due to the individual’s learning history. The person experienced that in the presence of the fountain, clean cold water was delivered following the chain of behaviors we might call “drinking water from a fountain” (walk over, press the button, lean over, lower lips to the water stream, drink, and swallow). That behavior chain was positively reinforced by the introduction (addition) of drinkable water into that individual’s immediate environment. Thus, for that individual, the water fountain now evokes the chain of responses that constitute “drinking water from a fountain” behavior. 

Drinking water from a fountain So, the water fountain functions as an SD: It’s a discriminative stimulus (SD) that evokes the “drinking water from a fountain” behavior chain in its presence due to the individual having experienced past availability of cold, clean water (SR+) in its presence. “SD” is this antecedent’s common designation, but one which Jose would argue is incomplete and is really only its first name. This first name is, of course, important in that it clearly indicates a learned discriminative function (for example, you would not attempt to drink water from a doorknob, which is not correlated with the past availability of water, so does not function as an SD that evokes the “drinking water from a fountain” chain of responses). But the question must also be asked, “discriminative of what?” And in this case, that “what” is the consequence, unconditioned positive reinforcement, “SR+,” in the form of cold water. Therefore, by Jose’s reasoning, the label for the antecedent should include “SR+” as its last name—i.e., the water fountain functions as a discriminative stimulus for unconditioned positive reinforcement for that particular behavior chain: It is an SD for SR+. 

Again, for an SD for SR+, SR+ is the consequence to which the SD is functionally related because without the reinforcement (that is, without the delivery of water), the water fountain would never have obtained the function as an SD for “drinking water from a fountain” behavior. In this way, the consequence (the delivery of water following a particular chain of behavior) has exerted a function-altering effect on the water fountain as an antecedent stimulus. Originally the fountain could NOT evoke “drinking water from a fountain” behavior. Someone who had never seen a water fountain before would not approach the fountain to get water, even if they were dying of thirst. But once the person experiences water delivery from a fountain, the fountain becomes an SD. Its function in relation to evoking specific behavior has been altered by delivery of the high probability consequence, cold water. And so again, the consequence (unconditional positive reinforcement) is the appropriate last name to complete a function-based categorization of this antecedent stimulus in relation to “drinking water from a fountain.” 

The fountain is an SD (first name) for drinking behavior – by signaling the availability of cold water, the SR+ (last name). The fountain functions as an SD for SR+

Motivating Operations

Continuing our same example, let’s begin with a question: Do you drink water from every fountain you see, every time you see one? Of course not. Why? In common parlance, we would say, “because I am not thirsty right now.” Behaviorally, we would say that we are satiated – we are not experiencing a derivational state in relation to our body hydration. But as time passes, our body is using up fluids, and soon, we begin to experience the sensation we call “thirst,” which is really just a consciousness of an increasing state of water deprivation. This state of deprivation is called a “motivating operation” and, more specifically, an “establishing operation” because the increasing duration of water deprivation establishes the value of water (aka its effectiveness as a reinforcer). Other events (other than the passage of time) can also establish (increase) the value/effectiveness of water as a reinforcer – excessive external temperature, robust exercise, or ingestion of salt can all have the same establishing effect. 

Now, look at that last paragraph. What does deprivation establish? The value of water as a positive reinforcer. And there you have it. Deprivation of water is an establishing operation (EO) that establishes the effectiveness of water as a reinforcer (SR+). “EO” is the term we commonly use in ABA for this antecedent condition, but Jose would argue that this term is incomplete. EO is only a first name for this motivational state, which leaves out its functional effect. Fluid deprivation has the functional effect of establishing water as a positive reinforcer, so it is actually an EO for SR+. 

Every antecedent evocative or abative stimulus/condition can be similarly analyzed and named to include the consequence to which its functional effect is directly linked.

Tying It All Together

Jose Martinez-Diaz HeadshotJose put it this way in an interview he gave about a year before his untimely passing: 

Antecedents in operant relations are always dependent on their relation to consequences. Discriminative stimuli and motivating operations never have an effect independent of the consequences to which they are directly related.”

He went on to state that accurate behavioral assessments and effective behavioral interventions depend upon how well our defining terms account for the environment in which the behavior was learned and continues to operate. 

Simply changing behavior is not enough. We need to address the context in which that behavior occurs – the real-world contingencies that maintain, strengthen, or weaken different behaviors. Unless we do this, any behavior change we produce will not endure or generalize to new settings…Change in behavior is insignificant if we do not help the person achieve meaningful outcomes in the real world!

For the quarter of a century that I was lucky enough to work with Jose, he was consistently dedicated to both deep conceptual analysis and the use of precise language in our science, both in the academic sphere and in the realm of clinical services. He was convinced that this dedication was necessary to insure the development of proper and effective intervention strategies. By adopting the use of what Jose defined as both the first and last names for the antecedents we find in the contingencies mediating any behavior we target for change, both in terms of discriminative variables and motivating operations, behavior analysts are better able to develop function-based strategies that clearly match the contingencies in play, and thereby improve the efficiency and effectiveness of their delivery of ABA services. 

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