Topic Tuesday: Revisiting The Functions of Behavior

What is behavior?

Behavior is defined as anything a living organism does that results in a measurable change in at least one aspect of the environment.  In other words, if a dead man can do it, it’s not behavior (Cooper, Heron, and Heward, 2007).  The function of behavior is the reason that people do the things that they do.


What are the main functions of behavior?

People engage in millions of behaviors all day long.  The reason for these behaviors fall into one of these four main functions; social positive reinforcement, tangible reinforcement, automatic reinforcement, and social negative reinforcement.

Social Attention

  • The individual engages in a behavior to gain access to social attention from people around them.

Tangible Reinforcement

  • The individual engages in a behavior to gain access to a preferred item or activity.

Automatic Reinforcement

  • The individual engages in a behavior to gain access to an internal sensory stimulation that feels good to them or to remove an internal sensory stimulation that feels bad to them.


  • The individual engages in a behavior to escape or avoid an activity that they do not want to do.


How do we determine the function of behavior?

Functional assessments are used to determine the functions of behavior.  These assessments are conducted by a Board Certified Behavior Analyst.  BCBAs will gather information about the what happens immediately behavior the before occurs (antecedent) and what happens immediately after the behavior occurs (consequence) in order to determine a probable function of the behaviors.


Brianna Fedolfi, M.Ed., BCBA, LABA



Cooper, J., Heron, T., & Heward, W. (2007). Applied Behavior Analysis. New Jersey: Pearson Education.

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