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The Four Functions That Drive All Behavior

Tuesday, August 10, 2021

Colin Turpin, MA, LPC-C

As a therapist, I often see the everyday challenges of unexplained or spontaneous behavior: “He hit his sister for no reason”, “I got up all of a sudden and had to run”, or “They are being disrespectful just out of the blue”. Unexplained behavior is quite common and can be a significant frustration for relationships with friends or family. To a trained observer, however, it quickly becomes clear that humans do not act for no reason. It is easy to miss or misidentify WHY people do what they do. Understanding the ‘function’ of behavior can often be a good starting point to identify unmet needs or to explain strange behavior.

One explanation to understanding common reasons for behavior comes from a field of psychology called behaviorism. In behaviorism, there are four primary functions that govern most of the things that we do throughout our day. One typically only does things for one of four reasons: to ESCAPE unwanted things, to gain AUTOMATIC rewards, to obtain a TANGIBLE item, or to access SOCIAL interaction. Some people remember these by using the mnemonic device: everybody EATS. Understanding each of the four functions will aid in identifying them whenever they appear in daily life.

First, ESCAPE helps one flee from uncomfortable situations or space out unwanted tasks over time. This can literally mean running away from others, avoiding unpleasant conversations, or procrastinating assignments. Most people use some form of media, literature, or activity to escape the stresses of life. Escape is helpful and healthy when it’s done intentionally over a short period as people cannot be “on” 100% of the time. However, escape can be dangerous when used for longer durations or when used indiscriminately in reaction to stressors (watching another episode of The Office every time you get stressed out).

Next, people use AUTOMATIC behaviors often without thinking due to inherent rewards. When an action is rewarding on its own, one will often engage in it without thinking. No one convinces a toddler to eat goldfish or has to give them money to scratch at a bug bite. These kinds of behaviors are self-sustaining and are often the hardest to change. Automatic behaviors can be helpful when they promote bodily functioning (stretching, eating) or relieve stress in a non-harmful way (listening to music, hobbies). They can be unhelpful when they cause bodily harm (skin-picking, nail-biting) or impede your daily functioning (excessive substance use).

The third main function of behavior is to obtain a TANGIBLE item. A tangible item could be any desirable physical thing from a cool toy to a shiny new car to money in one’s bank account. The easiest way to understand this function is to think of all of the things worth giving something up for. These items are influenced by one’s values and can act as motivation or drive to work hard. Unfortunately, they can also act as an incentive or justification for cutting corners, cheating, or violence.

Finally, people engage in SOCIAL behavior to get interaction and connection from others. Social interaction is important for everyone to function at their best. This could be spending time with others, having a conversation, or even as small as a look from others. Seeking social interaction from others can be helpful when it allows for meaningful relationships or encouragement from others. It can be unhelpful when used to manipulate others or when used to seek connection in negative ways.

Most everything one does throughout their day will fit into one of these categories. Understanding which function of behavior is at play can be a helpful tool in identifying unknown behaviors, but this is only the first step in making changes for the better. While a behaviorist would argue that all behavior is unlearnable, it is typically easier said than done. Oftentimes in therapy clients work to find alternative replacements to switch unhelpful behaviors for their more adaptive counterparts; for example, one could intentionally file their nails instead of absentmindedly biting them. Behavior change can be a lifelong process, but using this system of identifying WHY someone is acting the way they are can help illuminate our daily needs and find healthier ways to fulfill them.

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