Concurrent Operants and Self-Control

My favorite graduate school professor used to say “Life is a concurrent operant.” In my early days of graduate school, I was fascinated by the use of technical language, and found poetry is this definition of life. In life, we are presented with many options, and like a pigeon in a chamber, must choose which key to peck on. pigeon-1386088_640Our choosing leads to our learning, and the environment’s response to our choices will in turn shape our future choices. As live beings, our constant choice of behaviors in which to engage, not only affects our lives, as it affects the lives of other live beings, in a perfect behavior web. How can this not be poetry?

tumblr_npqriuC1zD1slhhf0o1_1280In this sea of multiple behaviors, how do we commit to choices that we know will lead to improvement in the long run? Behavior analysis teaches us that self-control happens when you make a choice and commit to a behavior that will lead to a delayed reinforcer, rather than the immediate gratification. In essence, self-control happens when the individual engages in a behavior that will increase the chances of choosing the large-delayed reinforcer, over the small immediate reinforcer. For example, when you have a goal of losing weight (a delayed reinforcer of large value) and you plan to achieve that goal by exercising before going to work, every morning you are faced with a choice: stay in bed or get up and exercise. Self-control happens when at night, before you fall asleep, you set you alarm clock for a time earlier than you are used to getting up, and you place it far away from the bed, so that you’ll have to get up to hit the snooze button. That way, you’ll increase your chances of getting up and exercising, at a time when staying in bed seems like a larger, more immediate reinforcer.


This past month (July) has been really busy for me. Between barbeques, guests from overseas, and a remodel project, I barely did the things I had planned to do. There were too many things going on, and I felt overwhelmed with so many choices of behaviors in which to engage: should I go to the beach? Should I write another blog post? Should I go exercise? With so many concurrent operants screaming for my attention, I took care of what I could eliminate off the list first, and things that would have an aversive effect if not completed. I chose the immediate smaller reinforcer.

Now August just started, and I am trying to avoid falling in the same trap as I did in July.  This time,  I am setting a schedule for work on things that have a delayed pay off, but are very valuable to me. I arranging my environment so that I have fewer distractions from these goals (I am placing prompts to go to work on the goals near places where I usually engage in competing behaviors, like the TV and the hammock), I am counting on behavior momentum to make sure that as I start my day engaging in behaviors that will lead to these high-valued delayed reinforcers I will be more likely to continue with them. Most of all, I am “doing as I preach”, using behavior analysis on myself, to help me achieve my goals. What a novel idea, huh? now-1272358_640

How about you? Do you use your behavior analytic skills on yourself? How do you navigate all the concurrent operants around you?

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