Jarring Jargon or Tender Terms?


Co-Authored by Matt Hayes, Graduate Student, University of Massachusetts Lowell

Photo by Adam Muise on Unsplash

Behavior analysts have expertise in evaluating the impact of environmental variables on the behavior of human and non-human animals. However, we tend to forget how our own verbal behavior interacts with the wider culture. When behavior analysts interact with non-behavior analysts, all is well until the behavioral jargon starts to flow. The great contributions of our field will not be effectively disseminated if our audience rejects the jargon itself, and this is likely to happen since many of the terms in our vernacular carry negative connotations in English-speaking humans’ learning history. “Extinction” is what happened to the dodo, the dinosaur, and the woolly mammoth. “Operation” is someone going under the knife. “Discrimination” is illegal. “Manipulation” can lead to exploitation, so why would a parent consent to a treatment plan that includes this term?

Where’s the Data?

Although the topic of jarring jargon in behavior analysis has been addressed time and again; it was only recently that Dr. Tom Critchfield and colleagues set out to empirically investigate the aversive nature of our terminology. An initial study published in 2016 systematically evaluated the social acceptability of behavior analytic terms when they were directly compared to lay language in the context of applied behavior-analytic services. A more recently published study by this group of researchers made use of the Warriner corpus, a public domain of 13,915 words in the English language, each rated on factors of pleasantness (valence) and emotional intensity (arousal). The Warriner corpus was first evaluated for words that the authors “recognized as important in behavior analysis technical discussions” (p. 98). If a term had an exact match with a word in the Warriner corpus, the authors assigned the valence and arousal ratings listed for that word. Then, the terms were placed into four categories: 1) behavior analysis technical terms, 2) general science terms, 3) behavior assessment terms, and 4) general clinical terms. Here is the take home point of their results: most of the words from the last three categories were rated as pleasant, while 60% of behavior analysis terms were rated as unpleasant, and only 28% as arousing.

While it is true that scientific jargon, in general, may not evoke feelings of excitement (present company excluded), these findings tell us that behavior analysis claims some of the most unattractive jargon out there. The authors acknowledge that these ratings are self-reports and therefore suffer the inherent weaknesses of this form of data collection. They note that even though these findings imply that non-behavior analysts are more than hesitant about our terms, it is not a measure of complete rejection of behavior analysis, only of valence and arousal for certain words. So, maybe there is hope yet.

Dissemination is Key to our Survival

Sounds made by humans have no inherent meaning, but a verbal community creates meaning for words. The function of the verbal behavior performed by a speaker is to relate to the listener. If an attentive listener cannot relate, then the words have not done their intended job. More than a decade ago, Dr. Richard M. Foxx said that behavior analysts had been deaf to the fact that many of our terms do not hold the same meaning to the non-expert public as they do to us. In 2003, Dr. Bobby Newman and colleagues, wrote a book to help parents and other professionals wade through our technical language. What else can be done?

Behavior analysis holds dissemination as one of its pillars, but historically we have done a poor job of marketing ourselves. This does not mean that our vernacular needs to be changed to exciting and novel nonsense words with no history, but that there should be care in explaining the science of behavior to those that do not know about it. To this end, we agree with Dr. Andy Lattal’s suggestion of finding a “sweet spot in communicating language to the lay public.” Behavior analysis prides itself on manipulating environments to change probability of behavior. The field has had a weak showing in sharing the fruits of our science. It is time we use our strengths in environmental arrangements to share the tasty fruit of behavior analysis with others; lest we become like the dodo, the dinosaur, or the woolly mammoth.