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Social Behavior

child parent aversive reinforcement crying parental control response stimulus repertoire

Even though social behavior consists of very complex interactions among groups of people, many social behaviors can be analyzed by looking at the specific reinforcement contingencies affecting the behavior of each individual. The social interaction is, then, the change in the reinforcing practices of one individual as his behavior is affected by a second individual, or group of individuals, and vice versa. The relations between a parent and a maturing child illustrate a fairly complex social interaction which may be profitably analyzed by looking at specific rein-forcers maintaining the behavior of each individual in turn.

If the child's behavior supports some performance of the parent, the particular way the child responds will greatly influence the specific form of the parent's behavior. Consider, for example, the development of baby talk. The young infant is especially reactive to only certain kinds of sounds, particularly higher pitched sounds, rapid changes in inflection, and, in general, the speech characteristics called baby talk. If the parent is reinforced by the child's smiling and vocal responses, the child's reactions will differentially reinforce these manners of speech and gestures which are most relevant to his repertoire. The special characteristics of the child's reactivity will contain an inherent differential reinforcement of the parent's behavior. For example, the parent who says to the child, "Good morning, young man," in an even tone may have little effect on the child. Anytime the parent modulates his tone and speaks in a high pitch, the child will react. As a result, the parent's behavior is shaped continuously. Before very long the parent acquires a very strong repertoire of baby talk by which he has maximum effects on his child.

The extent to which a parent is susceptible to this kind of differential reinforcement depends first on how strongly the parent's behavior is maintained from reinforcements by the infant. For many reasons, the behavior of parents varies greatly. Mild social censure may come when a parent engages in too much baby talk, particularly in the case of a man. Occasionally, however, very strong and large baby talk repertoires develop. Consider, for example, a kindergarten teacher, much of whose behavior is under the control of children. Frequently, the reinforcement of these "petite" speech forms is so pervasive that it carries over into other audiences, and she talks baby talk to the parent or other adults, particularly in the school room or in the vicinity of children.

In a similar fashion, the child "teaches" the parent many other repertoires by which the parent, in turn, may have maximum reinforcing effects on the child. The performances involved in picking up a child, holding it, cradling it, or rocking it are actually quite complex and are successively approximated by the infant's reaction. So long as the infant continues to squirm, the parent shifts it about. An effective manner of holding the child is differentially reinforced from the range of parental performance that occurs. Why some parents are less, and others more, reactive to the infant's response is a more complex question. This differential reaction reinforces and successively approximates changes in the way the parent holds the child in the direction of forms most comfortable and reinforcing to the child. For example, the new parent usually does not have the ability to hold the child in a way in which the child relaxes, has maximum body contact, and ceases movement.

AVERSIVE CONTROL The crying child is an aversive state of affairs for most parents and, hence, provides a possible reinforcement for any parental behavior which will terminate the crying. Why crying should be so aversive to most parents is probably a complex question related to the phylogenetic history of the species, practices of the general community, and the nature of the parental repertoire. We have already pointed out that essentially identical response topographies of crying may occur in two cases: as reflex effects of trauma, food deprivation, extremes of sensory stimulation, and so forth; and as essentially an operant response maintained because it results in parental reinforcement of some response relevant to a current deprivation of the infant. However, the forms of the behaviors are very similar, and the effects of the crying on the parent identical. Usually, determination of the variables controlling the child's crying are possible only if the relevant variables are manipulated.

The termination of pain and suffering is, in general, socially determined, at least in this culture; and most individuals who grow into adulthood have a history of reinforcement in which they have frequently terminated other people's sufferings. Furthermore, pain and discomfort in others may serve as a conditioned aversive stimulus because of stimulus generalization (empathy). The amount of stimulus generalization is the same whether the crying is reflex or operant, and discrimination becomes possible only as the parent can identify the variables of which the crying is a function. The phylogenetic history of the species probably provides a strong component in the parental reaction to crying. In the phylogenetic history of the organism, any child in distress who could present an aversive stimulus to a parent, as for example hunger, cold, or sickness, has a repertoire which has survival value. Of course, there would be great latitude in the behavioral process through which natural selection would modify the behavioral properties of the species. Any stimulus under the control of the child and aversive to the parent can possibly maintain: (1) the parental behavior toward the child because it terminates the crying; (2) the infant's behavior toward the parent because it produces such comforts as food, warmth, or dry clothes.

Another source of the aversiveness of crying is the threat of loss or damage to the child. The child represents the product of much behavior on the part of the parent. One might say that raising a child is a very large fixed-ratio schedule of reinforcement; and a sick or damaged child is, functionally, a preaversive stimulus, in which the aversive event would be the loss of the child. The general inability to distinguish between the occasions when the child is well and when it is, in fact, in danger may make crying a preaversive stimulus for the parent whatever the cause of the child's crying.

Nagging And Teasing

As with crying, a major effect of the child's nagging and teasing on the parent is to strengthen behaviors which, in turn, increase the frequency and persistence with which the child continues to nag and tease. In the social effects of control, it is paradoxical that the parent will often reinforce the very behaviors in the child which are most aversive. Consider, for example, the simple requests that the young child makes of the parent: May I have a cookie? May I have 5 cents? Can I go to the movies? I want to go outside to play! Pick me up! Read me a story. Sometimes, when the child emits some response which has been reinforced in the past by the parent, the behavior goes unreinforced because the parent is indisposed for some reason, such as being occupied with another activity. The nonreinforcement of the child's verbal response by the parent will not substantially weaken the child's behavior until the child emits the response many more times without reinforcement. However, one of the early results of nonreinforcement is increase in the intensity of the vocal response, as well as a change in its topography in the direction of an "emotional tone." The new, more intense form of the verbal response has a higher probability of affecting the parent. And, if the parent still does not respond, the continued emission of the child's request increases the probability of the response from the parent until the child receives the cookie. The repetition of the command by the child constitutes an aversive stimulus in the sense that it controls the attention of the parent and represents a discontinuation of the normal parental activity so long as the child's request is being made. Similarly, the increased intensity and emotional tone also constitute aversive stimuli because, by this time in the child's development and by generalization with the behavior of other individuals in the culture, such responses precede temper tantrums or periods of extreme anger. The parental reinforcement of the child's second or third request changes the child's repertoire in two ways: first, a differential reinforcement of extreme verbal forms has been reinforced differentially, and, on subsequent occasions, there will be a higher probability for the child to emit these more extreme forms; secondly, the reinforcement of the request only after it has been repeated several times is effectively a variable-ratio schedule of reinforcement. The number of times the request has to be repeated varies from time to time, depending upon how preoccupied the parent is with other matters, the general state of reactivity of the parent to the child, and other similar factors already discussed in the previous analysis of crying. As the parents reinforce forms of commands which are maximally aversive and increase the persistence of the commands by intermittent reinforcement, they develop forms of behavior in the child which will become progressively more and more aversive. This occurs because each time the parent is indisposed to reinforce for some reason not relevant to the dynamics of the child's behavior he has established conditions which are maximally effective in reinforcing the form of request which is maximally aversive to him. After sufficient intermittent reinforcement, the child's disposition to repeat the command may become so strong that the child will inevitably be able to repeat the command a sufficient number of times to create a state of affairs aversive enough to compete with any other concurrent performances in the parental repertoire. The limiting factor in this autocatalytic process is the satiation of the relevant deprivation supporting the child's behavior, or the development of self-control on the part of the parent. Self-control develops. when the whole situation becomes so aversive to the parent that he endures a long tantrum or punishes the child in lieu of reinforcing the demand. The repertoire is a relatively complex one for the parent because his strongest behavior involves those responses which terminate the immediate aversive stimulus. However, this behavior has long-term aversive consequences for the parent because it perpetuates the aversive control of the parent by the child. Self-control becomes possible only when the parent is more concerned with the long-term aversive consequences of his current practices instead of the immediate control of his behavior by the current reinforcers.

As with crying, the factors defining the schedule of reinforcement by which the parent reinforces the child's atavisms are highly complex, determined by many other factors in the parental environment that are not under the child's control. Nevertheless, in analyzing the effect of the parental practices on the child, it is enough to note simply the parent's actual reinforcing practices without explaining the various causes in his total environment that are responsible for these practices. For the purposes of the effect of the parent's behavior in reinforcing, extinguishing, or shaping particular forms, the main facts that are necessary are simply the contingencies between the child's behavior and his environment. The relevance of the extra-familial factors affecting the parental behavior are, of course, necessary for an analysis of the parent's total repertoire.

Parental Control Of The Child - Social Behavior [next] [back] Alternatives To Aversive Stimuli Astechnics Of Controlling Behavior - Interrelations Among The Processes

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