John A. Nevin Behavioral Moment Theory

I’ll start with a very simple question. One that we’ve all considered at some point: What makes behaviors more and less easy to change or even eliminate?

Readers will think of examples of acquaintances, or even themselves, in which they may have changed behaviors that others cannot change, such as stopping nail biting, quitting smoking, or resisting compulsive shopping.

Theory of behavioral moments: what is it exactly?

Here comes into play one of the proposals to respond to our concern: the John Anthony Nevin Behavioral Moment Theory (1988)But first, we’ll explain some basic concepts of learning psychology to prepare the mind.

  • learning: It is the conscious or unconscious acquisition of knowledge and / or skills through study or practice. It can also be defined as a relatively permanent change in behavior due to reinforcement.
  • reinforcer: This is anything that increases the likelihood that a behavior will repeat itself. (For example, giving our pet a treat when it responds to a command we gave it will cause it to start over in the future)
  • continuous reinforcement: It consists of granting a reinforcer each time the desired behavior is emitted.
  • partial reinforcement: It consists in granting the reinforcer sometimes yes, sometimes not in front of the same behavior. It can be set every 5 correct (fixed) or random (variable) answers so that reinforcement can be given in behavior number 3, and in the next one in 15 without a fixed number.
  • extinction: This calls for the abandonment of the reinforcement to eliminate a conduct that has taken place thanks to it.

With those terms clear, we can begin to describe Nevin’s Behavioral Moment Theory, or TMC from now on.

Explain resistance to change

Nevin proposed the Behavioral Moment Theory to explain resistance to behavior change that in many people becomes automatic either through training or through massive practice of the same. Therefore, he proposed a concept: the behavioral moment, defined as the susceptibility of a behavior to be interrupted.

But what is it that creates this susceptibility? What makes one behavior more resistant than another when it comes to eliminating it? The answer lies (among others) in the forms of reinforcement with which the behavior was acquired.

Research that supports this theory

We think of two mice that we have trained to press a lever. Every time they did, they got a food bulletin. The behavior is to press the lever and boost the food ball.

Mouse 1 has always been reinforced after pressing the lever, while Mouse 2 has been partially reinforced (sometimes yes, sometimes no and without a fixed pattern). At this point, when the behavior is fixed, we want to eliminate it in our little rodents. Therefore, we stop dispensing food balls every time the lever is pressed (turning off the behavior).

I ask you, dear readers: which mouse will take longer to switch off its behavior, that is to say by stopping the lever: the number 1 or the number 2?


Mouse # 1, which learned through continuous reinforcement, will die out very quickly behavior because you will notice that no more food falls into your dining room, no matter how many times you press the lever. In other words, if he was always given food and not given it, he would make a few attempts which, after failing, would abandon him for good.


What about mouse number 2? It will undergo a paradoxical effect explained by the theory of frustration (Amsel, 1962) so that their behavior not only does not begin to die out immediately, but increases.

Why is this happening? Mouse number 2 has been reinforced sometimes yes, sometimes no. He doesn’t know when a bullet will land in his dining room, but he does know there must be a few lever presses he won’t fall into and others he will fall into. Therefore, press the lever 20, 100, 200 times until you finally understand that there will be no more balls in the dining room if it emits the behavior and it ends up going down. switch off.

Or what is the same: the number 1 mouse had less behavioral moment than the number 2.

How does this phenomenon affect us in our lives?

If we look away from the mice ourselves, it explains a multitude of daily actions:

  • Look at the cell phone every now and then to see if we have any messages or calls.
  • Refresh social networks looking for a Like.
  • Often look in the direction we know someone has been waiting for us for a while on the street.
  • Look at the mailbox until the holidays (maybe the postman wanted to work …) in case there is a letter.

Disorders in which it influences

But it can not only be applied to such everyday behaviors, but also to disorders such as gambling, addictions, eating disorders … in which continuous “reinforcement” is apparently generated, but in reality it is not so. A gamer does not always manage to squeeze money out of the machine, a cigarette produces instant pleasure, but it stimulates areas of the brain that demand more and more, and more stimuli to satiate, a person suffering from binge eating can fill up – to eat and be assailed with great discomfort by his little control that dispels this “little pleasure” …

The difficulty of giving up an addiction or overcoming an eating disorder is well known, and therein lies the resistance to the extinction of the behaviors emitted, in relation to the way in which they were acquired.

Still, you need to make a careful note. Behavioral Moment Theory provided an excellent framework for studying resistance to change. and the extinction of behaviors, but logically, the complexity that characterizes us, especially human beings, makes it unlikely that only the behavioral moment alone explains the extinction. In any case, it is a very interesting theory to take into account for our knowledge.

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