Combatting Creeps with Behavior Analysis

We’ve all been there. We’re going about our daily lives, maybe hanging out at the local bar, a fun concert, or even just shopping for groceries in our yoga pants, when someone has decided to encroach on our day and let us know that he. is. there. Often, this is done in the form of a catcall. Urban Dictionary defines a catcall as: “A loud whistle or a comment of a sexual nature made by a man to a passing woman.” It’s always so charming. Right? No, not really.

These comments can make us feel small and insignificant. We often freeze in the moment (or is that is just me?) and later on become angry and sullen – how dare this person make us feel so unimportant when we’re simply trying to pick up some ingredients for dinner? While there are many reasons that might make this person behave so rudely, I would like to offer insights from my experience in the field of applied behavior analysis as a means of determining the ultimate ‘reason’ (or function) for this person’s behavior in this moment. We can determine the function of the person’s behavior and respond accordingly in order to decrease the abhorrent behavior’s future frequency.

The field of applied behavior analysis works to improve ‘socially significant behavior’ —that is, only the behaviors that actually have an impact on one’s everyday life — by looking at the ‘function’ of the behavior. Basically, we are looking at the ‘why’ of behavior, and then we can modify behavior by appropriately responding, either before or after the behavior occurs. Cooper (2007), who wrote what is considered to be the ‘bible’ of behavior analysis, states that there are four functions of behavior: Attention, Tangible, Self-Stimulatory, and Avoidance/Escape. This means that every form of behavior (that is anything that one can see, which is observable and measurable) can fit under one (or sometimes, more than one) function of behavior. When we determine the function of behavior, we can determine an appropriate response depending on if we want to increase or decrease a particular behavior.

More than likely, most catcalls fall under the ‘attention’ umbrella of behavior. That means that in this moment, the person is looking for your attention and this is how he receives his reinforcement. The most effective way to deny him reinforcement is to use a strategy called ‘active ignoring.’ This means that while the unlucky recipient is more than aware of his ugly advances, they would actively ignore his comments. Ignoring is the most high-impact manner of denying reinforcement to this jerk. While this may not seem satisfying, behavior analysis tells us that ‘punishing’ the behavior by removing the reinforcement from the situation is the most effective way of extinguishing it.The most effective manner in which to respond might be to ignore the behavior altogether, while you may not necessarily ignore the individual. This removes the reinforcing contingency of the situation.

Despite these strategies, the plain truth is that the burden of teaching jerks to change shouldn’t be placed on the victims of their behavior. Creepy people should be the ones to use these skills on their own inner voice! However, in our current reality, there are still and will always be creeps who will violate space and try to take people’s power away. Next time you are feeling helpless and creeped on, take a page out of the psychology textbook and give behavior analysis a whirl.

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