The Behavior Analyst

, Volume 14, Issue 2, pp 157–169 | Cite as

Distressed Behavior and Its Context

  • Anthony Biglan


Behavior that is commonly labeled as indicating distress may have an important function in certain clinical problems. Evidence suggests that “distressed” behavior is displayed more frequently by persons who are depressed or experiencing chronic pain. Such behavior includes nonverbal facial expressions and body postures which are typically labeled as “sad,” and verbal responses involving self-denigration or complaints. Such behaviors appear to form a functional response class which has a unique impact on others. The behavior appears to be more likely among persons who are receiving aversive stimulation. Recipients of distressed behavior are more likely to experience negative emotion, yet be solicitous toward the person who displays distressed behavior. Under circumstances where distressed behavior is unsuccessful in reducing aversive stimulation, the behavior may be shaped and maintained by the fact that it temporarily reduces the probability of others behaving aggressively toward the person displaying distress. Thus, the development of a pattern of high rates of distressed behavior that characterizes clinically depressed persons and persons in chronic pain may be partly a result of the unique social contingencies that surround this behavior.


depression distressed behavior negative reinforcement chronic pain social behavior mental discord 


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Copyright information

© Association for Behavior Analysis International 1991

Authors and Affiliations

  • Anthony Biglan
    • 1
  1. 1.Oregon Research InstituteEugeneUSA

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