Bizarre behavior makes sense!

Sometimes, our animals engage in behaviors that just seem really odd. You may find yourself shaking your head and thinking, “Why would my dog (or horse or parrot or other pet) ever do that??”

(Alternatively, you may find yourself thinking the same thing when you are looking at a behavior that your co-worker, spouse, child, or friend is engaging in!)

When we see a bizarre behavior, we often label it as abnormal, weird, silly, unusual, or annoying. If the behavior is irritating or dangerous, we start looking for ways to make the behavior stop. 

However, rather than getting frustrated by a crazy behavior, do the following, instead. Stop, take a deep breath, and spend a bit of time trying to figure out what’s going on. 

Behavior analyst Dr. Israel Goldiamond was fond of saying “People make sense!” This sentiment applies to both people and animals. 

When a behavior looks unusual, odd, or even completely bizarre, it looks this way because you don’t understand the reinforcers the individual receives (or has received in the past) for this behavior.

Usually, the stranger the behavior, the more powerful the reinforcers.

When a behavior looks completely out of place, it is often because the individual does not know how to do behaviors that would be deemed more appropriate, or more appropriate behaviors may have been punished in the past. This strange behavior may be the individual’s only way to access a certain reinforcer.

I understand the behavior, but I still don’t like it!

This idea that “behavior makes sense” applies to the behavior of both people and animals. If you encounter a bizarre behavior, start by trying to understand why it is occurring.

However, even if you understand a behavior, you still may not want the behavior to occur, particularly if the behavior is dangerous, stressful, or inappropriate for the individual.

In these situations, you can help the individual learn other, more appropriate, ways to access important reinforcers.

Here are two examples to further illustrate this concept that behavior makes sense. 

Example 1: Lick, lick, lick

I worked once with a dog who licked her owner’s forearms incessantly. The dog would sit in the owner’s lap while she was reading or watching TV and lick, lick, lick, lick…..

The owner hated this behavior and attributed the licking to the dog’s anxiety.

During our conversations, I observed that the owner would often absentmindedly pet the dog when the dog licked her. The dog would stop licking when the petting started. 

The owner was completely unaware of any connection between the petting and the licking. However, this arrangement paid off for both of them. 

The dog was using the licking to ask for the petting she wanted. At the same time, the owner could make the licking stop by petting the dog. The owner got relief from the licking when she petted the dog.

This situation was solved by teaching the dog several additional ways to ask for the owner’s attention. The owner did not have to punish the licking or stop giving her dog attention. Instead, the licking went away on its own, once the dog had other ways to ask for attention. 

Example 2: I don’t want to wear a shirt!

I had an undergraduate student some years ago who told me the following story. 

The student worked as a caregiver for a nonverbal teenager with special needs. At one point, the boy went through a phase during which he refused to wear most shirts. His parents and caregivers would plead with him and try to reinforce when he kept a shirt on for even a short period of time. However, almost always, as soon as a shirt went on, he would take it right off.

Some careful analysis revealed that his parents had recently replaced most of his old t-shirts with new t-shirts. The new shirts had much larger tags in the collar, and the tags were rubbing and irritating the back of the boy’s neck.

His parents cut all of the tags out of his new shirts, and the problem was solved immediately. 

The boy was not going through a rebellious teenager stage. Instead, he was just trying to escape from an uncomfortable situation.

Brainstorm about bizarre behaviors

Can you think of any odd behaviors?

Perhaps you can think of one of your own behaviors that someone else would consider odd. Or, a strange behavior that a friend or family member sometimes performs. Or, a behavior that one of your pets frequently does. 

Now, can you make sense of this behavior? Can you brainstorm some possible reinforcers that could be maintaining this behavior?

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