Overt behaviors are actions which are visible and can be seen directly, such as physical movements and verbal statements.
Psychologists can compare behaviors in two broad buckets: overt and covert. Covert behaviors are hidden actions and processes that occur inside the mind and cannot be directly observed by others. Overt behaviors are visible and measurable.
Behavioral psychologists primarily study overt behaviors, while cognitive psychologists primarily study covert behaviors. Behavioral psychology argues that only behaviors that can be observed should be the subject of study. This excludes covert behavior such as people’s thoughts and feelings.
Overt Behavior Definition
Overt behaviors include all our external actions and movements that are noticeable and measurable, such as walking, talking, laughing, or any physical activity. They’re directly measurable by psychologists, especially via quantitative means of analysis.
Outside of psychology, we observe overt behaviors every day of our lives when reading body language or observing using our senses. This helps us to understand and interpret our world directly.
Covert Vs Overt Behaviors
It is hard to discuss overt behaviors without discussing covert behaviors, as these are contrasting ‘buckets’ of behaviors that psychologists look at.
While we can directly observe overt behaviors, we must infer covert behaviors through indirect signals, because they’re by definition not directly observable.
This is because covert behaviors are those that occur inside the mind, hidden from our view. Covert behaviors include thoughts, feelings, and emotions, as well as certain cognitive processes such as reasoning, decision-making, and memory recall.
While covert behaviors are not measurable and not visible directly, overt behaviors are visible and can be observed by others.
Comparison table of overt and covert behaviors:
|Overt Behavior||Covert Behavior|
|Definition||Observable actions and movements that are noticeable and measurable by others||Hidden actions and processes that occur inside the mind and cannot be directly observed by others|
|Examples||Walking, talking, laughing, running, jumping||Thinking, feeling, reasoning, remembering, dreaming|
|Observability||Can be observed and measured by others||Cannot be directly observed by others|
|Measurement||Can be quantitatively measured (e.g., speed of running, volume of speech)||Can only be qualitatively measured, often through self-report or inference|
|Impact on Others||Can directly impact others (e.g., shouting can disturb others)||Can indirectly impact others through the overt behaviors they influence (e.g., anger can lead to shouting)|
Overt Behavior Examples
- Speaking: The act of talking or verbal communication is a clear example of an overt behavior. It can be easily observed and measured in terms of volume, tone, speed, etc.
- Walking: This is a visible action that involves the movement of the body from one location to another. It can be observed and quantified in terms of speed, gait, distance, and so on.
- Eating: The physical act of consuming food is an overt behavior. It can include the actions of cutting food, lifting it to the mouth, chewing, and swallowing.
- Writing: Whether it’s handwriting on paper or typing on a computer, the physical action of writing is an overt behavior that can be observed and measured.
- Laughing: This is a physical response to something amusing or funny. It is an overt behavior that can be seen and heard.
- Running: This is a more vigorous form of movement than walking, involving a specific gait where both feet are off the ground at the same time. Like walking, it is observable and measurable.
- Dancing: This involves various body movements, usually performed in response to music. It’s a very observable behavior, often used in social or performance contexts.
- Reading aloud: While reading silently would be a covert behavior, reading aloud is overt because it involves verbalization that others can hear and observe.
- Crying: This is an emotional response that includes observable elements such as tears, sobbing sounds, and certain facial expressions.
- Playing a musical instrument: This behavior includes a variety of actions, such as strumming a guitar, blowing into a trumpet, or striking keys on a piano. These actions produce sounds that are observable, making it an overt behavior.
The Benefits of Naming Overt Behaviors
Many practitioners are taught to name and focus on overt behaviors to improve their communication, and receive better outcomes.
For example, a teacher is encouraged to create learning outcomes that name specific overt behaviors called behavioral objectives (rather than covert behaviors that are less easy to measure) in order to make clear and explicit what needs to be demonstrated to pass a course.
Other examples can include:
- Naming On-Task and Off-Task Student Behaviors: Instead of using terms such as “showing interest” or “being distracted” (which are covert), teachers often use terms that describe overt behaviors such as: “taking notes” (on-task) or “playing with their pencil” (off-task).
- In Job Performance Evaluations: Instead of terms such as “lacks motivation” or “seems disinterested,” most managers are trained to use overt descriptors such as “is often late to meetings” or “rarely volunteers for assignments.”
- Disruptive Classroom Behavior: The term “disruptive” is too vague for scientific purposes. Instead, the specific behaviors that can be categorized as disruptive are preferred, such as “speaking out of turn” or “pushing others in line.”
The Psychology Debate over Overt vs. Covert Behavior Analysis
Overt behaviors were once considered the only legitimate behaviors for psychologists to study. This was because behaviorists of the early to mid 20th Century were of the belief that psychologists should only study what is measurable. Otherwise, psychology would not be taken seriously.
Behaviorists such as Pavlov and Skinner believed that in order for psychology to be a respected realm of scientific study, then it should focus on observable behaviors.
The behaviorist Watson (1913) illustrated this philosophy succinctly:
“Psychology, as the behaviorist views it, is a purely objective, experimental branch of natural science which needs introspection as little as do the sciences of chemistry and physics” (p. 176).
The behaviorists were directly at odds with smaller, but not insignificant fields of psychology (including the psychodynamic theory of Freud and Jung, and the fledgling field of cognitive psychology). These smaller fields attempted to study the subconscious mind, notions of ids and superegos, and cognitive processes, were all constructs which could not be directly observed.
By the mid 1960s, however, with the rise of Albert Bandura’s concept of observational learning (i.e., learning by observing), it became increasingly accepted that covert behaviors should be studies.
It became increasingly popular in psychology to study cognitive processes such as problem-solving and the formation of attitudes and judgment. This eventually led to the ascendance of the field of cognitive psychology in psychology departments worldwide.
Ulric Neisser, sometimes referred to as the “father of cognitive psychology,” facilitated the emergence of this discipline in his 1967 book Cognitive Psychology.
He once stated:
“Cognitive processes surely exist, so it can hardly be unscientific to study them” (p. 5).
His somewhat elaborate definition of cognitive psychology is presented below:
“The term cognition refers to all processes by which sensory input is transformed, reduced, elaborated, recovered, and used…Giving such a sweeping definition, it is apparent that cognition is involved in everything a human being might possibly do” (p. 4).
Applications of Overt Behavioral Analysis
1. In the Study of Attitudes
The ability to predict behavior from attitudes has been a subject of study, and frustration, for social scientists for nearly 100 years (Wicker, 1969; Ajzen & Cote, 2008).
Beginning with the classic study by Stanford psychologist Richard LaPierre in 1934 in which he found that the attitudes people expressed had virtually no relation with their actual behavior, the link has been studied exhaustively ever since.
Thus far, the research indicates that several factors can improve the correspondence between attitude assessed and actual overt behavior. For example, Fazio and Zanna (1978a) found that attitudes that people hold with confidence and have direct experience with are better predictors of behavior (Fazio & Zanna, 1978b).
Assessing a specific attitude toward an issue is more predictive of behavior than assessing a general attitude (Davidson & Jaccard, 1979). For example, Nigbur et al. (2010) found that asking questions about a person’s attitude towards the environment was not a very good predictor of specific behaviors such as actually practicing recycling.
In a meta-analysis of nearly 200 studies, Armitage and Conner (2001) assessed the Theory of Planned Behavior (TPB) and found that the model was a strong predictor of self-report behavior, behavioral intention, and objective measures of observed behavior itself. A strong predictor, but not a completely accurate predictor.
Glasman and Albarracín (2006) reported that there have been at least 10 meta-analyses of research examining the link between attitudes and overt behavior.
Based on their additional meta-analysis, the authors conclude that the link between attitude and behavior is strongest when: the attitude is easy to retrieve from memory, is stable over time, involves direct experience with the attitude object, and when the individual believes that their attitude is correct.
2. In Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA)
Leaf et al. (2017) stated that “ABA research is behavioral in that the subject matter is observable, objectively defined, and measurable” (p. 25). It is heavily rooted in the work of Edward Thorndike, John Watson, Ivan Pavlov, and B.F. Skinner, just to name a few.
ABA is practiced in a range of settings, and especially in school classrooms to decrease socially unacceptable behavior and increase socially acceptable behavior (Madden, 2012).
It is often used with autistic children, children with learning disabilities (Eikeseth, 2009), or children of more typical learner profiles (Riley et al., 2011).
At the heart of ABA’s effectiveness is the goal of replacing the undesirable behavior with its constructive, functionally equivalent behavior.
D’Eramo (2013) defined functionally equivalent behavior as “desirable/acceptable behaviors that achieve the same outcome as a less desirable problem behavior” (p. 1379).
So, if an autistic child throws a tantrum because they get anxious when faced with a challenging lesson, then a functional analysis will result in teaching the child to expel that nervousness through a more socially acceptable channel, such as asking for help or taking a short break.
This is accomplished by the teacher and the school’s behavioral analyst or school psychologist conducting a functional behavioral analysis (FBA).
The chart below identifies different ways to perform an FBA.
Indirect methods include examining school records or conducting interviews with teachers and parents. Teachers and parents can often provide valuable insight into what is driving the child’s actions.
Direct methods include observing the child in a naturalistic setting such as the classroom or playground. The teacher utilizes an ABC recording form to help the teacher identify specific antecedents that occur just prior to the child’s disruptive behavior and the consequences of those actions.
This video demonstrates how an ABC form is used in an actual classroom.
Experimental analysis is less common, as it involves the teacher formulating a hypothesis and testing different triggers and antecedents. This is quite time-consuming and there are numerous practical limitations.
Once the FBA has been completed, the teacher and other school professionals devise and implement an action plan. A follow-up analysis will reveal if the plan was effective or if modifications are needed.
Warren et al. (2011) reviewed the literature regarding ABA and concluded that it can help improve cognitive performance, language skills, and adaptive behavior.
Eldevik et al. (2010) stated: “Recent narrative and meta-analytic reviews suggest that EIBI (early intensive behavioral intervention) may meet criteria as a “well-established” intervention…effect sizes for Intelligence quotient (IQ) and adaptive behavior outcomes are in the medium to large range” (p. 17).
Overt behavior refers to behavior that can be seen, measured, and recorded.
Examples of overt behavior include tracking a person’s physical activity through an accelerometer, asking a patient to keep a daily record of specific behaviors, or analyzing the verbal interactions between parent and child to understand language acquisition.
One of the biggest challenges psychologists have encountered is that there can be a big gap between an individual’s expressed attitude and their actual behavior.
On the other side of the coin, focusing on overt behavior has allowed teachers and school practitioners to help children with learning difficulties exchange their disruptive behaviors for more socially acceptable actions that can help them function better in the classroom.
Extensive research has revealed that early interventions utilizing ABA can have significant effects on children’s cognitive performance, language skills, and adaptive behavior.
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Appendix: Graph Reproduced As Text
Functional Behavioral Assessment Methods:
1. Indirect methods
1.1 Behavioral checklists and school records
1.2 Interviews and surveys oft eachers and parents
2. Direct Methods2.1 Descriptive naturalistic observation
2.2 ABC recording form
3. Experimental functional analysis
3.1 Identify and maipulate antecedent triggers
3.2 Identify and manipulate maintaining consequences