by John Wesenberg, M.S., BCBA, LBA

                                                                                         The Four-Term Contingency

Behavior analysis has long been known as a field studying the three-term contingency (antecedent-behavior-consequence). More specifically, behavior analysis has tended to focus on overt/ observable behavior and how idiosyncratic reinforcement schedules (i.e., fixed, ratio) and the immediacy of reinforcement impacts behavior. Skinner has written extensively about the conceptual underpinnings of private events, although, experimental analysis of covert behavior has had a difficult journey into the scientific literature. Due to this, behavior analysis has been come to be known as the field in psychology that has neglected the study of thoughts, emotions, and cognition. For this reason and a few others, behavior analysis has ultimately been pigeon-holed into a field known as “autism therapy.” For behavior analysis to persevere and account for thoughts, emotions, and cognition, they must go beyond the three-term contingency and account for contextual variables within a person’s environment.

Establishing operations (EOs) were described most specifically by Michael (1993) as environmental situations that momentarily establish or abolish the effectiveness of potential reinforcing events, people, things, etc. and discriminative stimuli that evoke behaviors most likely to gain access to those potential reinforcers. The three-term contingency, since then, has evolved into the four-term contingency (EOs-antecedent-behavior-consequence).

When a person is deprived (motivating operation) of attention, they will engage in behaviors that have been previously reinforced with attention (e.g., conversing about symptoms of distress). The evocative effect of a therapist (discriminative stimuli) has now been conditioned as a reinforcer because it is now associated with the availability of social attention. Being satiated (abolishing operation) on attention has the opposite impact on behavior. Behaviors previously associated with access to attention (e.g., conversing about symptoms of distress) will temporarily not be evoked by the same discriminative stimuli (therapist). In clinical practice, it is important for the clinician to consider what their role is in these terms with clients as they may find that they are conditioning a socially deprived person to talk about symptoms to maintain social connection – with the therapist. A therapist should keep in mind whether they are shaping skills that transfer well into the world and whether the therapeutic relationship is continuing for reasons best in the interest of the client.

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Micheal, J. (1993). Establishing operations. Behavior analysis. 16(2), 191-206.


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