The ABCs of Human Behavior

Albert Anker Schreibender Knabe

Albert Anker Schreibender Knabe



One of the most scientifically validated therapies for autism is Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA). For the purposes of this post, I'm not going to describe the methods or philosophies of ABA in detail, I'm only going to tell you how one aspect of this approach has helped me in my writing. 

The part of ABA I want to focus on are the ABCs of behavior. The ABCs are very helpful in describing a behavior, understanding why that behavior is happening when and how it does, and adjusting the behavior in a desired direction. 

In this context, ABC translates as follows: 

A = Antecedents
B = Behavior
C = Consequences

Antecedents are things that happen, or environmental conditions that exist before the target behavior occurs, and influence the behavior. The behavior is the action that's being examined; in therapy, a behavior should be described specifically and concisely (not "he was mean," or "she was good," but "he hit another person," or "she complied with a request the first time she was asked"). Consequences are things that happen, or ways in which the environmental conditions change after the behavior occurs.

Therapists observe and record ABC data, then look for patterns. When a pattern is identified, often either the antecedents or the consequences can be adjusted in a way that influences the behavior. Sometimes, the patterns can be surprising.

I remember a conversation I had with my son's first grade teacher in which she explained that she had tried keeping him in from recess as a negative consequence for a particular "challenging behavior", but that the behavior only seemed to be escalating. I explained to her that this was likely because recess wasn't a pleasant experience for him. Being forced to participate in unstructured time with out of control children in an outdoor environment where the light was too bright and everyone was being too loud wasn't a "reward," and being allowed to avoid it wouldn't seem like a "punishment." And if all he had to do to avoid a painful, frightening situation was to behave in a "challenging" way, he was smart enough to do that. We came up with some other options for positive and negative consequences for the behavior, and it quickly improved. 

It turns out that the same ABCs are useful tools for writing.

On the macro level, a story generally revolves around some kind of interesting, exciting, life-changing climactic event, the "Behavior" --although, maybe for writing we want to say B is for "Battle" instead; it sounds more writerly. But to make it convincing, and to give it the desired impact, it's important to show the Antecedents--the conditions that existed before the climactic event, and the actions and events that led up to that climax. Readers won't tolerate a climax that seems to just randomly happen out of the blue for no reason at all--that's called deus ex machina, and it hasn't been popular since ancient Greece. Furthermore, readers won't really care about the Battle until they understand the possible outcomes of the Battle, and theConsequences that could happen depending on which outcome triumphs. And the story won't feel complete until the reader sees, at least briefly, how the Consequences played out after the Battle was won or lost. 

On the micro level, readers want stories in which the actions taken by the characters make sense in the context of the story. They want to know what led up to (antecedents) the hero jumping in the car and driving halfway across the county to crawl down the mine shaft (behavior) where he happens to discover the next clue to the mystery (consequences). 

Another way to use this tool is to use your character's "quirks" to push behaviors in unexpected directions without destroying the illusion of reality. My son's behavior seemed irrational to his teacher until she understood the reason for it. Additional information and a slight adjustment in perspective (in writing this is called a "reveal"), made his unexpected behavior seem not only rational, but inevitable. And that's what we want in our stories.

Keeping in mind not only what happens in your story (the "behavior" or "battle"), but the things that led to it happening (antecedents) and the things that will happen as a result (consequences), can help you, as the author, create a story that flows naturally and logically from beginning to end, with characters that act rationally, and events that make sense.