Behavior – It’s As Easy As A-B-C!

Over time all of us in the learning industry are introduced to countless models, processes, theories, and practices related to Human Performance Improvement.Some stand the test of time, and some are discarded almost as quickly as they’re learned. When we’re introduced to new concepts, we all have a tendency to compare them to things we already know or believe to be true because of our education or our experience.

I’d like to share a model with you that I truly appreciate. I think you’ll find it easy to use and remember – it’s the A-B-C Contingency Model used in Behavioral Science. It’s literally as easy as A-B-C!

A Is For Antecedent

The first step in the model is A, which stands for Antecedent. This is the context in which everything else occurs. It’s the scenery on the grand stage of life. It’s what’s happening in the environment right before we spring into action. Generally, there are two classes of antecedents:

  1. General circumstance (in the car, at a meeting, at a traffic light)
  2. Specific trigger events (someone says, “no”, the traffic light changes, or a supervisor issues a command)

Let’s say you’re participating in an important conference call with a prospective client and your CEO, VP of sales, direct supervisor, and project manager are all in the room with you. That’s one seriously powerful antecedent! I’d bet my last dollar you’ll try to be on your best behavior during that call.

B Is For Behavior

The next step is B, which stands for Behavior. This is whatever you do, whatever action you take. You’re more or less likely to do this behavior based on the antecedent conditions. You’re less likely to take a drink of water when you’re not thirsty and vice versa. While driving, you’re more likely to brake at a red light and more likely to accelerate at a green light. The antecedent is the color of the light and the behavior is either applying the brake or stepping on the accelerator.

In our conference call example, let’s also say you’re a bit of a busybody – normally you’re always doodling or clicking your pen during the downtime of these calls. About two-thirds of the way through the call, you start clicking your pen like nobody’s business – a nervous habit you have. In this example, clicking the pen is our behavior of interest.

C Is For Consequence

The final step is the payoff, your “just” desserts. The C stands for Consequence, and this is simply the result of the behavior. When you apply the brake, the car stops. When you hit the gas pedal, your car accelerates. Stopping or accelerating is a consequence. The consequences of our behavior determine how likely we are to repeat that behavior in the future. If we get a consequence we appreciate, such as a friendly smile after telling a joke, we’re more likely to tell jokes in similar future situations.

To continue our conference call example, you’ve started clicking your pen like your life depends on it. The sound and feel of clicking helps you relax – automatic reinforcement – which makes you more likely to click your pen when you’re feeling anxiety in the future. Then your VP of sales gives you a look that would freeze Medusa herself. The VP doesn’t say anything, but the look says it all, “If you keep clicking that pen, I’ll find a less anxious person to bring in on these calls, and you’ll be out in the cold.” This death stare, and the rush of fear and anxiety that fill your mind are considerably more punishing consequence than the clicks are soothing, so you stop. You’re now less likely to click your pen around your VP of sales, especially while on those important conference calls.

See, it’s as easy as A-B-C. Do you have a model you use more than others? Have you ever used the A-B-C Contingency Model?


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