For this month’s Owls podcast episode, we discussed overt and covert behaviours. In case you’d like to listen, you can go to our podcast page or use your preferred podcast app and search “Chirping with ABA Owls” – we’re on iTunes, Podbean and other platforms.
If you prefer to read rather than listen, carry on with this post.
What are Overt and Covert behaviours?
Let’s start with some definitions.
Overt behaviour, which we can also call “actions” is “Behaviour that can be observed by someone other than the person performing it” (Chance 1998, p.7)
Covert behaviour, or private event, is described as “behaviour that can be observed only by the person performing it”. (Chance 1998, p.7)
Skinner did consider thoughts to be important, but as he couldn’t measure them, it was harder to use it in a scientific manner. There have been many people misinterpreting Skinner’s views on feelings, thoughts and psychology. Here’s part of an article that combined Skinner’s views with the criticism he received: “Skinner (1956) himself opposed attempts to restrict scientific practice with preconceived rules or maxims. When placed in historical context, Skinner did not criticize neuroscience, he criticized the misuse of pseudo-physiological theories in the explanation of behavior. In addition, Skinner assumed that many questions about behavior, from the mechanisms of reinforcement and motivation to perceptual processes and private events, would be at least in part explained by neuroscience (Zilio 2013a).” (Zilio 2016)
In ABA we work with what we can see, the actions an individual performs – but that doesn’t mean we should ignore what the person might be thinking and feeling.
With thoughts and feelings, we enter a dicey and tricky area sometimes. There is quite a lot of debate on what is considered to be behaviour and what is not. For example, not all behaviour analysts take into account the importance of private events, the same way not all psychologists consider thoughts to be behaviour.
Honestly, we aren’t even touching that because there’s no point in starting a whole discussion. Bottom line is, we all perform actions and we all have thoughts and feelings.
Since covert behaviour can’t be seen, there is a tendency for it to not be considered as important in ABA – but there are a lot of professionals changing this approach. Just because a person doesn’t convey their feelings, doesn’t mean they don’t have them. This can be especially hard for autistic people, and if you add an inability to speak or the inability to express yourself well into the mix, you can potentially have a recipe for challenging behaviour.
Where and When do they occur?
Both covert and overt behaviour happen all the time and everywhere. Anything can trigger actions and thoughts: things we see around us, things we remember, smells, sounds etc.
In ABA we say that behaviour doesn’t come from air, and that is true, but we think people should consider that thoughts can also cause behaviour.
We’ve all heard the expression “train of thought”, and we’ve all experienced remembering an event because something else triggered it. We can be talking about a flower we saw, and the other person listening to us can then think of a memory associated with flowers, that is associated with something else and so on. This train of thought can put us in a good or a bad mood, or have no impact on us.
We know that in ABA we don’t use terminology such as “good” or “bad” mood, because it’s hard to measure and it’s not an accurate definition, but they are terms that the majority of people will understand. We shouldn’t ignore how these thoughts can influence our behaviour – just because a person is not able to communicate their emotions and mood, doesn’t mean that those feelings are not occurring.
Think about your behaviour when you are trying to fall asleep. You’re lying in bed, the room is dark, the bed feels comfortable and your to-do list for tomorrow pops up in your mind! That alone can trigger other thoughts and memories, and slowly you lose sleep. What prompted this? It wasn’t anything around you, it was simply a thought you had.
But what happens between remembering your to-do list and losing sleep? You think about the actions you need to do to perform your tasks, you think about the level of difficulty those actions require, that alone can be quite demanding.
Personally, we think thoughts and behaviours are connected. Just because we can help someone change their behaviour, doesn’t mean we’ve changed their thoughts and feelings. To change the latter, you need a different skill set and procedures.
How do these behaviours occur?
How do we identify covert and overt behaviour? Overt behaviour is easier, it can be seen, observed, measured. Overt behaviour is where behaviour analysts are very comfortable as they are able to observe and determine a function or a reason behind the behaviour, this way they may be able to help that person find another way to get their needs met without having to do it in
Covert behaviour is so much harder because only the person experiencing these events knows if they are real or not. Maybe in the future we will be able to measure them – for example, using brain scans that light up when someone lies. Maybe that technology already exists, but it’s not available for the masses at the moment.
For now, we work with what we got: overt behaviour. The way ABA professionals attempt to understand covert behaviour with their clients is by using things tools such as interviews, preference assessments, providing choice, etc. We do try to fill that gap as much as possible, but it can be difficult.
Why do these behaviours occur?
It’s important to understand the difference between these two types of behaviours, because it will affect how we react to others behaviours. What can happen quite a lot is that people will associate certain behaviours with emotions and feelings, and make assumptions about it.
Here’s a situation we do come across quite regularly: We go to a client’s school and ask “why do you think he/she doesn’t sit at the table to do work?” and they will reply “because they feel anxious about work”.
We enquiry further by asking “how do you know? Have they said work makes them anxious?”, to which a lot of the time people will reply “no, but we can tell because he/she gets very distressed during class”.
They’ve associated behaviours that they call “distressed” with “anxiety” without having any way of confirming it. And yes, potentially school work might make the person feel anxious, but it can be equally true that they are using their behaviour to escape doing work – and they do this because it has shown results, that is, escaping school tasks. It can happen that the work is too hard and if the student displays problem behaviour, the work is then removed so they are able to avoid it.
A lot of people will be able to understand and relate to this, we avoid situations that are too difficult and unpleasant, we may not have problem behaviour to such a disruptive level but we will use other behaviours, e.g.saying we have a headache.
We can’t ignore the possibility of anxiety, but in ABA, as we mentioned, it’s harder to work with what we can’t see. This is when ABA could benefit from contributing with psychologists, and develop an intervention that can support the person as best as possible. These collaborations already exist but maybe they need to happen more frequently.
End Thoughts and Resources
Learning and adapting is something that can be celebrated, we are fortunate in having the means to be able to explore and learn, this wasn’t a possibility in many other generations.
As we move forward in the human behaviour field, learning what best suits our clients and ourselves, learning to be more aware of our own behaviours – how they are influenced by others and our environment – the better we will be at adapting and improving as people.
For this episode and blog post, we used the following resources:
– Chance, P 1998, First Course in Applied Behavior Analysis, Brooks/Cole Publishing Company, U.S.A.
– Zillo, D. (2016). Who, What and When: Skinner’s Critiques of Neuroscience and His Main Targets. Association for Behaviour Analysts International, 39 (2), 197-218. doi: 10.1007/s40614-016-0053-x
We hope you’ve enjoyed this post (and the podcast episode, if you’ve listened to it).
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Thank you for reading,
Carla and Lauren