Why synthesize contingencies in a functional analysis?

For years, most people conducting functional analyses have been careful to isolate tests of negative and positive reinforcement in functional analyses. Why then is a social negative reinforcement contingency often combined with a social positive reinforcement contingency in an IISCA?

There are several reasons why social negative and social positive reinforcement contingencies are synthesized into a single test condition in IISCAs.

  1. There are very few situations in which children engage in problem behavior to terminate some ongoing mundane interaction such as academic instruction only to remain motionless and inactive, satisfied with the relief associated with the negative reinforcement. Most children we serve, as well as most of us, escape not only from things but also to things. When we isolate negative from positive reinforcement, we are probably creating test conditions that do not emulate the ecology from which problem behavior developed or is maintained (i.e., that do not exist in nature). Because we are attempting to build treatments that will fit within the homes and schools in which problem behavior was presumably acquired and strengthened, we feel it is important to closely emulate that ecology in the functional analysis.
  1. In a functional analysis, we are attempting to emulate the specific situation parents and teachers describe as evoking problem behavior and the specific consequences parents and teachers describe as turning off problem behavior at the moment thereby inadvertently strengthening problem behavior in the long term. If parents and teachers describe situations that involve multiple establishing operations (EOs) as evoking problem behavior (e.g., problem behavior is most likely when an iPad is removed, adult-led activities are initiated, and the child’s requests are not honored), then these EOs are simultaneously arranged in the analysis just as the child experiences them on a daily basis. If parents and teachers describe situations in which multiple reinforcers (e.g., access to the iPad, termination of adult-led activities, and a period of time in which child request are honored) have been provided following problem behavior (aggression) or its precursors (whining or threatening), then these reinforcers are simultaneously provided following problem behavior or its precursors in the test condition of the analysis, just as the child experiences them on a daily basis.
  1. When contingencies are isolated, we sometimes do not see effects of those isolated contingencies. But, we then see behavioral sensitivity to the contingencies when they are combined (see Gail’s data in this study or see Dan’s data in this study). We often see that toys are more reinforcing when someone is available with whom to play and attention is more valuable when there is something with which to play. We often find that a break from instructions is more reinforcing when preferred items are available during the break and preferred items are more reinforcing when the alternative is work. In other words, interacting contingencies seem to influence behavior even when each contingency may not have an effect in isolation, thus our preference for evaluating synthesized over isolated contingencies.
  1. When contingencies are isolated in functional analyses, we sometimes do not see problem behavior abate when the programmed reinforcement is provided (both in the test condition as well as during control conditions), which occasions unwanted levels and intensities of problem behavior. The prevalence of unsafe levels and intensities of problem behavior occasioned by isolated contingencies is unknown and is deserving of future research, but the probability of behavioral persistence during reinforcement periods (both in the test condition as well as during control conditions) is certainly lower with synthesized contingencies. For instance, breaks to nothing during isolated tests of negative reinforcement are more likely to result in the continuance of problem behavior than are breaks to tangible items and compliance with the child’s requests during tests of synthesized contingencies.
  1. Perhaps the most important reason for considering synthesized contingencies is that their adoption in analyses has allowed for the development of function-based treatments capable of meaningful (socially validated) behavior change (see Hanley, Jin, Vanselow, and Hanratty, 2014; Santiago, Hanley, Moore, & Jin, 2015).

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