How Is Behavior Studied

The simplest way to study the effects of drugs on behavior is to pick a behavior, give a drug, and observe what happens. Although this approach sounds very easy, the study of a drug's effect on behavior is not so simple. Like any other scientific inquiry, research in this area requires careful description of the behaviors being examined. If the behavior is not carefully described, it is difficult to determine whether a change in behavior following drug administration is actually due to the drug.

Behavior is best defined by describing how it is measured. By specifying how to measure a behavior, an operational definition of that behavior is developed. For example, to study the way in which a drug alters food intake, the following procedure might be used: First, select several people and present each with a box of cereal, a bowl, a spoon, and some milk after they wake up in the morning. Then measure how much cereal and milk they each consume within the next thirty minutes. To make sure the measurements are correct, repeat the observations several times under the same conditions (i.e., at the same time of day, with the same foods available). From these observations, determine the average amount of milk and cereal consumed by each person. This is the baseline level. Once the baseline level is known, give a small amount of drug and measure changes in the amount of milk and cereal consumed. Repeat the experiment, using increasing amounts of the drug. This concept of baseline level and change from baseline level is common to many scientific investigations.

In addition to defining behavior by describing how it is measured, a good behavioral procedure is also (1) sensitive to the ways in which drugs alter behavior and (2) is reliable. Sensitivity refers to whether a particular behavior is easily changed as the result of drug administration. For example, food consumption may be altered by using cocaine, but other behaviors may not be. Reliability refers to whether a drug produces the same effect each time it is taken. In order to say that cocaine reliably alters the amount of food consumed, it should decrease food consumption each time it is given, provided that the experimental conditions surrounding its administration are the same.

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