Everyday, I help break down a confusing ABA term and put it in plain English! Whether you are studying for your BCBA exam, explaining ABA to parents or are a student, there is no reason to be so confused over ABA terms. While “behavioral language” is very confusing, these concepts don’t have to be.

In this blog article, we will define contingency-shaped behavior in comparison with rule governed behavior and examine examples of each as it is important for you to distinguish between them.

According to Cooper, Heron and Heward, rule-governed behavior is “Behavior controlled by a rule (i.e., a verbal state- ment of an antecedent-behavior-consequence contingency); enables human behavior (e.g., fastening a seat belt) to come under the indirect control of temporally remote or improbable, but potentially significant consequences (e.g., avoiding injury in an auto accident).”

Put simply, rule governed behavior is when you do something because of a rule. 

For example, you wear a seat belt because you know there is a fine for not wearing it. You change the oil in your car every 6 months because your father told you when you were a teenager that if you didn’t your car engine would die. You pick up your dog’s poop because there are signs that warn you can receive a summons for not doing so. 

All of this is rule-governed behavior IF you have never actually been fined for wearing a seat belt, had a car fail because you didn’t have the oil or received a summons for not picking up dog poop. 

When you behave because of a previous past experience, it is contingency-shaped behavior. 

According to Cooper, Heron and Heward, contingency-shaped behavior is “Behavior acquired by direct experience with contingencies.” 

Using the same examples, contingency shaped behavior would be that you drive down a street at the speed limit because you have gotten a speeding ticket before, you religiously change your oil every six months because when you didn’t your engine failed and you pick up your dog poop because you received a summons in the past. 

If you act in a way because it is a rule, it is rule shaped behavior and if you act in a way because of a past experience, it is contingency shaped behavior. 


Cooper, J. O., Heron, T. E., & Heward, W. L. (2019). Applied Behavior Analysis (3rd Edition). Hoboken, NJ: Pearson Education.