Differential Attention

Nirbhay N. Singh, Bethany A. Marcus, and Ashvind N. Singh

Virginia Commonwealth University and Central State Hospital

I. Description of Treatment II. Theoretical Bases III. Empirical Studies IV Summary

Further Reading

GLOSSARY

attention The description of a procedure involving certain therapist behaviors that either precede or follow an individual's behavior. Attention is not a priori a reinforcer. Although it can be a powerful reinforcer for some individuals, for others, it can be a punishing stimulus or even a neutral event. extinction A behavioral procedure that weakens a response by the consistent withholding of a reinforcer following the occurrence of an operant response that had previously produced that reinforcer. functional analysis An experimental investigation that identifies the maintaining variables for a specific target behavior emitted by an individual; that is, it is based on the assessment of consequences maintaining a target behavior.

Differential attention is a procedure that helps a person to discriminate between a specific behavior and all other behaviors. The procedure can be used in a learning context for skill acquisition or in a treatment context for the reduction of a problem behavior.

I. DESCRIPTION OF TREATMENT

Differential attention involves two inextricably involved processes, reinforcement and extinction. Differential attention is a variant of generic differential reinforcement procedures that involve withholding reinforcement for a specified response from a response class and reinforcing other responses, depending on the reinforcement schedule. The typical outcome is response differentiation. In skill acquisition, there is an increase in the rate of the reinforced response relative to the rate of other members of the response class, and, in behavior reduction, there is a decrease in the rate of the problem response relative to the rate of other members of the response class.

II. THEORETICAL BASES

Contingent attention is typically used to increase responding. When used in a skill acquisition paradigm, attention is delivered following approximations to or the occurrence of a specific behavior while simultaneously withholding attention following the occurrence of all other behaviors. The basic process is one in which attention is differentially delivered only on the occurrence of a target behavior, resulting in skill acquisition or an increase in the rate of the behavior. For example, when increasing the social interaction of a socially withdrawn child, the teacher would provide at tention when the child was socially interacting with other children and not when the child was socially withdrawn, thus differentially reinforcing social interaction with attention.

When used in a behavior reduction paradigm, attention is delivered following the occurrence of socially acceptable behaviors while simultaneously withholding attention following the occurrence of a specific problem behavior. The basic processes involve both withholding reinforcement contingent on a target response (extinction) and delivering reinforcement contingent on other or alternative responses. For example, if a child engages in temper tantrums, his parents would withhold attention (i.e., ignore the temper tantrum) and only provide the child with attention when he is quietly playing with his toys and not engaging in the problem behavior.

Theoretically, the delivery of contingent attention can be on one of three basic schedules—continuous, ratio, and interval schedules—although in real life attention is usually delivered on a mixed schedule of reinforcement. To enhance rapidly the discrimination between a target and all other behaviors, attention is delivered on a continuous schedule; that is, attention immediately follows each occurrence of the target behavior. Continuous schedules of attention are used in the early stages of learning when a new skill or behavior is being acquired. Furthermore, continuous schedules of attention may be used for all socially acceptable behaviors, while a specific problem behavior is being ignored—that is, while the problem behavior is on an extinction schedule.

Once discrimination between the target and all other behaviors has been established, attention can be delivered on increasingly intermittent schedules, that is, on ratio and interval schedules. In skill acquisition, the target behavior is reinforced with attention after a fixed or variable number of times the behavior has been emitted (ratio schedules) or after fixed or variable intervals of time (interval schedules). In behavior reduction programs, the problem behavior is always ignored, and other behaviors may be reinforced with attention on ratio or interval schedules. For example, if attention is delivered when a specific problem behavior has not occurred for a prescribed interval, it is an instance of differential reinforcement of other behavior where attention is the reinforcement.

Theoretically, when attention is withheld from a behavior that was previously reinforced by attention, the behavior is said to be on an extinction schedule. Sometimes, putting a behavior on an extinction schedule re sults in an initial increase or burst of the behavior. Thus, extinction may not be a suitable procedure for reducing some behaviors, such as aggression or self-injury. Furthermore, regardless of the nature of the behavior being targeted for reduction, occasionally the extinction period is accompanied by an initial outburst of aggression by the individual. Therapists need to be prepared to deal with extinction-induced aggression should it occur. In addition, extinction is associated with a phenomenon known as spontaneous recovery, when the behavior briefly recurs spontaneously after a long period of its absence. Again, therapists need to be aware of this possibility and to be prepared to deal with it. A final consideration is that extinction requires consistency of application; that is, no instance of the target behavior must be followed by attention. Inadvertently attending to some instances of the target behavior may make the behavior more resistant to extinction and, theoretically, strengthen the behavior.

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