Evaluating self-control and impulsivity in children with severe behavior disorders

Author/Creator ORCID





Citation of Original Publication

Vollmer, Timothy R.; Borrero, John C.; Lalli, Joseph S.; Daniel, Dency; Evaluating self-control and impulsivity in children with severe behavior disorders; Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis 32(4): 451–466 (1999); https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1284208/


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Impulsivity and self-control involve a choice between a smaller, more immediate reinforcer and a larger, more delayed reinforcer. Impulsive behavior occurs when responding produces the more immediate, relatively smaller reinforcers at the expense of delayed larger reinforcers. Self-control occurs when responding produces delayed larger reinforcers at the expense of immediate smaller reinforcers. Recently, researchers in applied behavior analysis have suggested that evaluations of self-control and impulsivity are relevant to socially important behaviors. Further, common behavioral treatments such as differential reinforcement may be influenced by variables such as reinforcer delay. In this study, we showed that aggression, reinforced by access to food, could be maintained as impulsive behavior. The participants were 2 young boys with severe developmental disabilities. For both participants, descriptive observations, care provider report, and functional analyses suggested that aggression was reinforced by food access (and television access for 1 participant). Next, we introduced a differential reinforcement procedure in which appropriate mands were reinforced. After various manipulations, we showed that aggression occurred when it produced immediate but small reinforcers even though mands produced larger, more delayed reinforcers. However, both participants displayed self-control when the delay to reinforcement was signaled (with a hand gesture or a timer).