Understanding The Antecedent Behavior Consequence Model
Updated May 05, 2020
Reviewer Kelly Coker, M.B.A., Ph.D., LPC, NCC
The Antecedent-Behavior-Consequence (ABC) Model is a tool that can help people examine behaviors they want to change, the triggers behind those behaviors, and the impact of those behaviors on negative or maladaptive patterns. In this article, we'll take a closer look at this model, and we'll talk about how you can apply it to help you manifest the change you want in your life.
It Is Never Too Late to Change
Regardless of your circumstances, change is possible. You should never feel discouraged about where you are or worry that you can't get where you want to be. Plenty of people have been in your shoes and have managed to make changes, so they could thrive and achieve success. Once you know where you are and where you want to be, you can start implementing the steps you need to take you from point A to point B. That's where the ABC Model can help. First, let's look at each of the three parts of the model. When you use these three concepts to understand your behavior, you can make adjustments that will help you change your behavior.
Some also refer to this as the "setting event." Essentially, the antecedent is anything that triggers the behavior. It could be anything from a teacher's question to the presence of another person or even a change of environment.
When attempting to trigger a positive outcome, antecedents can be manipulated to foster certain behaviors. Alternatively, if the antecedent is part of daily life, a different approach will be required to stop a behavior.
Behavior can be classified as positive, problematic, or pivotal. Positive behavior is one that benefits the individual and those around them. On the other hand, problem behavior is behavior that is causing a problem; it could be anything from distraction to actual danger. A pivotal behavior is one that contributes to separate problematic behavior. For example, going to a party is not problematic behavior by itself, but going to a party is a pivotal behavior when doing so leads to drunk driving because drunk driving is a problematic behavior.
The final part of this model is the consequence. Since the term "consequence" often carries a negative connotation, think of the consequence as the outcome instead. If you engage in a behavior that's bad for you, you're going to have a negative outcome or consequence, but if you engage in positive behavior, you're going to have a positive consequence. Whether it's negative or positive, the consequence is important because it determines whether or not you continue to engage in certain behaviors.
For children in particular, the consequence is crucial. Through the lens of this model, children frequently experience consequences that inadvertently extend undesirable behavior. For example, many parents tend to quiet their child by offering toys or sweets, but this reinforces the behavior they're trying to stop.
Why Use the ABC Model?
People use the ABC Model because it's relatively simple and can offer insight into behaviors that might otherwise be confusing. You can use it by yourself to think about your behavior and attempt a change. It's also required for a functional assessment of behavior; in other words, it can assist professionals in creating a hypothesis for why a complex problem behavior is occurring and how to slow or put an end to it.
The ABC Model is also one of the simplest methods of behavioral observation. It allows someone who is making observations to record behaviors easily and clearly in a manner that can be easily communicated to people who are not present. Furthermore, it offers insight into the individual's environment.
How to Collect ABC Data
If you want to use the model for behavior change, you first need to collect data, so you can establish a pattern. To collect ABC Data for yourself or others, you'll need to record multiple instances of behavior over time. For each incident, write down what occurred leading up to the behavior (the antecedent) and what happened right after it (the consequence). Then write down specific details regarding the behavior. Be sure to collect the data more than once; it's important to be diligent and write down ABC information whenever the behavior occurs. This will not only strengthen your notes, but it will also aid you later in analyzing whether or not a behavior plan is effective.
Are you a visual person? You can create an Antecedent-Behavior-Consequence chart by drawing a table with four columns. Each time the behavior occurs, you'll fill out a new row and date each entry. This will make it easier to compare each event. Here is a sample ABC Chart:
When Have I Collected Enough Data?
This is a tough question because it depends entirely on the situation. In general, you'll want to continue collecting data until you're confident that you understand the function or functions keeping the behavior alive. Sometimes, it will be clear after 3-5 sessions if the situation is relatively simple and the hypothesis is straightforward. However, you'll need to make observations in different settings over long periods of time to understand more complex behavior.
What Happens If I Still Cannot Understand the Behavior?
While the ABC Model can offer insight into a wide range of behaviors, sometimes a behavior is too complicated to assess on your own. In this case, find a professional in your area who has a background in applied behavior analysis or positive behavior support. If you're bringing in an expert, it doesn't mean you've collected data for nothing. Often, experts will be able to analyze the ABC charts you've created and see a pattern that you couldn't see before. At the very least, it will offer a helpful background.
Disadvantages of the ABC Model
One disadvantage of the model is that it takes time and patience; recording single instances of the behavior will only begin to yield results after multiple entries. Occasionally, patterns in antecedents and consequences will be unclear or could lead you to draw the wrong conclusion. Furthermore, the ABC Model data is only correlational, meaning that it's not possible to confirm causation. If further certainty is required, functional analysis can be used.
Common ABC Samples
Much of the behavior that parents and professionals choose to analyze revolves around how children perform in school. Within a classroom, small changes to antecedents and consequences can change a student's behavior entirely. For example, if a child is struggling to participate in class, teachers and parents can implement slight alterations to make a big difference.
For example, if the teacher reminds students to raise their hand to answer a question, this can spark a desire to participate (altered antecedent). In addition, ample positive feedback after a student responds to a question (altered consequence) may instill a desire to participate more often.
In adulthood, the same concepts can apply. Many adults struggle with inactivity and poor diet, but few people realize that antecedents and consequences are affecting their choices. An antecedent may be having a cake in the house or not giving yourself enough time to exercise. As a result, you sit around and eat. However, if you alter the antecedent by removing unhealthy foods from your home or changing your schedule to make time for physical activity, you will be more likely to engage in the active behavior. You can also adjust consequences. If you work out alone or have a trainer who is not invested in your progress, there are no positive consequences (except maybe the end of the workout). Alternatively, if you work out with friends or a trainer who is constantly offering praise, the consequences are positive, and the behavior will be reinforced.
The ABC Model for Positive Behavior
Some people only use the ABC Model for problematic behaviors and miss out on the benefits of triggering and prolonging positive behaviors. Antecedents like positive or welcoming environments can be very helpful, especially when followed by consequences like verbal praise or rewards. This combination instills a desire to repeat positive actions and behaviors.
Additional Tips to Help You Change Harmful Behaviors
Changing the way you think and act can be difficult, especially if you've been engaging in certain behaviors for years or don't feel the urgency to make an immediate change. Wherever you are in your growth process, here are some additional tips to help you while you build new habits.
Understand That Change Will Take Time
People who want to change their lives often think that it will happen immediately. Then, they become discouraged when they slip back into their old habits, so they give up on personal development entirely. Know that change is a slow process, and it will require your intent and willpower. Don't give up if you make a mistake. Instead, stay focused on your end goal.
Provide Yourself With Consequences That Will Drive You Forward
Motivation is one of the key factors that drives change. If you have no reason to create new behaviors, you will have no reason to follow through with the changes. On the other hand, if you have powerful consequences, either positive or negative, you're significantly more likely to do what you're supposed to. Provide yourself with strong negative consequences and positive rewards to encourage change.
Know That Behavioral Change Is Possible
Many people believe that people can't change. However, there is research that proves change is possible. As long as you apply the right practices and maintain the right mindset, you can change. Don't let a limiting belief hold you back.
Consider Counseling for Additional Support
Are you or a loved one struggling with a problem behavior? Are you looking to foster and prolong positive behaviors? Change can be difficult on your own, but a therapist can hold you accountable, support you, and drive you forward as you work toward the new you. Online mental health professionals can even work with you from the comfort of your own home.
BetterHelp connects you with helpful, certified counselors who can guide you through the process of change and help you with any problems that pop up along the way. It's easy and affordable because you can meet with a therapist online and on your schedule. If you're curious about online therapy, read reviews of BetterHelp counselors below.
"Jeni has such simple and direct ways of getting to the heart of the matter and such great suggestions for changing behaviors through acknowledging and understanding feelings. I found it especially helpful to write to her, and her written responses have been timely and to the point. I so appreciate being able to work with her."
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If you have negative behaviors that are stopping you from being your best self, know that change is possible and help is available. The ABC Model is a good place to start. Take the first step today.