Understanding The Antecedent Behavior Consequence Model
By: Dylan Buckley
Updated February 19, 2021
Medically Reviewed By: 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. This article will take a closer look at this model and discuss how you can apply it to make changes in your own life.
It Is Never Too Late to Change
Regardless of circumstances, change is possible. Try not to feel discouraged that you haven’t yet reached a goal or made a desired change in your life. Frustration is a common feeling for anyone when they think about what they haven’t achieved, but it does not need to stop a person from moving forward and finding new ways to thrive. If you can recognize where you are and where you want to be, the ABC Model can help you move toward your goal. By looking at each component of the ABC Model, you will be better able to understand a behavior and make the necessary adjustments to change it.
The antecedent, which means “something that comes before,” can be anything that triggers the given behavior. Environments, social settings, and even specific topics of conversation or word choices can drive someone to initiate a behavior, perhaps even without realizing it. If you are attempting to trigger a positive outcome, you might manipulate the antecedent/s in the situation to foster certain desired behaviors instead. However, if an antecedent is unchangeable or unavoidable, like weather patterns or required daily tasks, then a different approach may be needed.
Behaviors can be classified as “positive,”“problematic,” or “pivotal.”Positive behaviors are those that benefit the individual and those around them. Problematic behaviors do the opposite—causing problems that could range from counterproductivity or distraction to physical danger. A pivotal behavior is one that contributes to a separate problematic behavior. For example, attending a party where alcohol is served could be a pivotal behavior if it leads to problematic behaviors like drinking to excess or driving while intoxicated.
The term “consequence” often carries a negative connotation, but consequences—or alternately, outcomes—can be positive or negative. Positive behaviors often result in positive consequences, while problematic behaviors can result in negative consequences. As the third component of the ABC Model, the consequence is essential because it impacts a person’s decision making in continuing or ceasing to engage in a behavior.
The consequence is particularly impactive for children, and it is often inadvertently misused. For instance, if a child is engaging in a problematic behavior, such as whining or throwing a tantrum, a parent might try to pacify them by offering a toy or a treat. This action is intended to stop a problematic behavior, but it actually reinforces it—the child may learn that if they misbehave in a certain way or for a long enough period, their parent will give them what they want. For this and many other reasons, it is important for everyone to understand the impact of consequences.
Why Use the ABC Model?
Many 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 evaluate 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 problematic behavior is occurring and how to correct or change 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 ABC 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 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, an expert may be able to analyze the ABC charts you've created and identify a pattern. At the very least, it will offer a helpful background.
Disadvantages of the ABC Model
One disadvantage of the ABC 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 anincorrect conclusion. Furthermore, the ABC Model data is only correlational, meaning that it's not possible to confirm what is causing a behavior. Functional analysis by a mental health professional may be able to determine more information.
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. If a child is struggling to participate in a class, teachers and parents can implement slight alterations to make a big difference.
For example, if a 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 apply. Many adults struggle with physical inactivity and poor diet, but few people realize that antecedents and consequences are affecting their choices. An existing antecedent may includekeeping unhealthy snacks in the house or not allowing enough time to exercise. However, altering the antecedent by replacing unhealthy snacks with healthier options or designating times for physical activity in a schedule may encourage a person to engage in those positive behaviors. A person can also adjust consequences by working out with friends or a trainer to provide positive feedback after a session.
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 how you think oract can be difficult, especially if you've been engaging in certain behaviors for years or don't feel the urgency to make a 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. They become discouraged when they slip back into 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 or backslide. Instead, stay focused on your end goal and reset.
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 change behaviors as needed. Provide yourself with clear negative consequences as well as positive rewards to encourage change.
Know That Behavioral Change Is Possible
Many people believe that they can't change things that make them dissatisfied or unhappy. However, there is research that proves change is possible. If you apply the right practices, maintain the right mindset, and seek out the right support, you can change. Don't let preemptive feelings of defeat or fears of failure hold you back.
Consider Counseling for Additional Support
Struggling to change problematic behaviors is a common issue that many people face. If you or a loved one want to make a change in problematic behaviors, or if you want to foster positive behaviors, you may want to seek the assistance of a mental health professional. A great,flexible way to receive additional support and guidance while working toward your goals is to connect with a therapist through BetterHelp. Research into online therapy shows high levels of effectiveness; in a large, recent study, almost 90 percent of participants receiving online therapy indicated that they would recommend it to others. Online therapy can provide you with accountability, encouragement, and expert advice, and you can access it in a variety of ways.
BetterHelp can connect you with a certified counselor or therapist who will work with you according to your schedule and lifestyle; whether you prefer to discuss behaviors and issues via text message, email, phone, or video chat, your counselor can accommodate your needs. Online therapy is alsomore affordableand more private than in-person therapy, allowing it to fit into your life in ways that support growth. If you are looking to modify a behavior or component of your life, you should consider the 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."
"Mollie is an amazing counselor and professional. She's empathetic, caring, a great listener and she provides real insight into situations and experiences. She has helped me work through several big challenges that I had been carrying with me for a long time. She has been so patient and thoughtful in providing the "why" and helpful in sorting through the "how" to alter my behavior and perspective. I'm so thankful for her expertise and she has really helped me to change my life in this past year."
If you have identified problematic behaviors that are keeping 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.
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