Traveling Between Behavioral Science’s Language-Games: A Guide for Students

Dear blog reader, this week we have a contribution from Dr Jesús Alonso-Vega. Having recently received his PhD (congrats!), Jesús has written a fantastic reflection “dedicated to all type of students, but particularly to behavioral scientists”. Jesús chats to us about the tips and tricks he has found particularly useful when navigating his way through different silos in behavior analysis, learning what he can in the service maximizing development in the field, all through encouraging integration and cooperation in the community. And what’s more, for any Spanish speaking readers, you can find a version in Spanish here.

We hope you enjoy reading it as much as we did!

Colin and Dermot

About the author: 

Jesús Alonso-Vega is a postdoctoral researcher at the Autonomous University of Madrid. He received his Ph.D. in Clinical and Health Psychology for his thesis entitled “Functional analysis of the verbal interaction between therapists and clients diagnosed with serious mental disorders” supervised by María Xesús Froxán Parga. His work as a PhD candidate focused on the applications of contextual behavioral science to the treatment of psychological problems, specifically problems related with serious mental disorders and the analysis of the verbal interaction between clients and therapists. Jesús has also visited numerous international researchers in behavior analysis over the course of his training to date. He visited Erik Arntzen’s lab at Oslo Metropolitan University to receive specific training in experimental behavior analysis, leading to experimental work analyzing equivalence class formation performance in people with serious behavioral problems. He also visited Dermot Barnes-Holmes at Ulster University during which time he focused on conceptual developments in behavior analysis to study complex behavioral phenomena. As a result, he is currently arranging experiments to explore how speaker coherence can influence rule following behaviors. In general, Dr Alonso-Vega is interested in improving clinical psychology with conceptual, experimental, and applied behavior analysis, and in the dissemination of behavior analysis in Spain.

Travelling Between Behavioral Science’s Language Games: A Guide for Students

“Sadly, none of them defined terms in exactly the proper way. For that, they had to be my students” (Poling, 2010, p. 14)

Surely, many of us can relate to this opening quote. As professor Poling has sarcastically written, some of us have felt that certain technical terms were not being used in the most appropriate way when we have collaborated with other professionals or when we have attended to an oral communication in a congress. I assume that this effect is even greater when we read literature that is outside our field.

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The term “language-game” was coined by Wittgenstein (1953) to bring attention to the fact that language is part of an activity and the context in which it is woven is essential for its understanding. This term probably does not bring anything new to a well-trained behavior analyst in verbal behavior, but I have found it useful to draw attention to the same aspects of scientific technical terms. These terms and scientific jargon are indeed also part of an activity, and they need to be understood in relation to the context in which they were created. This blog is dedicated to all type of students, but particularly to behavioral scientists. Its purpose is to discuss important attitudes that I have found useful when traveling between behavior analytic terms used in different behavioral labs (i.e., to understand the terms, to use the terms to create new research, to apply these terms in new contexts). I’m not going to solve any debate about the “best” definition for a term, neither am I going to discuss the “proper” use of these terms. However, I would like to share with you a list of attitudes that I have found useful to comprehend different uses of technical terms in behavioral sciences.

Behavior analysts are usually proud of the precision of our technical terms – I think we have good reasons to feel in that way – and we usually see them as one of our major strengths. In fact, one of the characteristics of behavior analysis that I personally enjoy is its special care for the development of technical terms. I have found articles or journal special issues dedicated to discussing the use of technical terms very useful to understand the specific meaning of each term (e.g., Catania & St. Peter, 2019; Poling & Li, 2020; for an example in Spanish see Pérez-González, 1995). As a community we care about it because, among others, these technical terms have allowed us to achieve experimental control of complex human behaviors (e.g., Barnes-Holmes et al., 2005; Donahoe & Palmer, 2004; Sidman, 2009); they have allowed us to communicate precisely with other behavior analysists; and using them we have avoided suffering from the replication crisis that is affecting mainstream psychology (Perone, 2018).

But if technical terms have been useful then what’s the point of this blog? I think there are at least three issues with technical terms that need to be addressed in our community. First, students and professionals have nervously told me that they have found several definitions of the same term in two different textbooks. Second, I have noticed that the use of new technical terms derived from different behavioral perspectives have served to boost conflicts between people who prefer to use them and people who do not. Finally, I have experienced a trend among some students and professionals to reify technical terms, which as a result systematically hold a strong position against new meanings, further developments, and the establishment of new technical terms.

At this point and before going into the main attitudes that I have found useful to appreciate the use of different technical terms in behavior analysis, I would like to briefly consider how technical terms are formed in our community. This will serve to establish a common framework to understand the rest of this blog.

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Typically, technical terms in behavior analysis are developed in an inductive fashion; from the data to the terms that serve to grasp that behavioral event. For example, the concept of an equivalence relation is the result of a line of research that began with the observation of a specific behavioral event – a child initially unable to read showed reading comprehension and oral reading abilities after being trained to match spoken to printed words (Sidman, 1971). From the observation of this event in a controlled context, different technical terms were developed that would be useful (i) to refer to this phenomenon in different contexts (Sidman, 1994), (ii) to define the procedures derived from this research (e.g., Fienup et al., 2015) and, above all, (iii) to have more control over the variables that influenced this phenomenon (Arntzen, 2012). Historically, therefore, technical terms in behavior analysis are developed using an inductive method derived from the observation of a behavioral event in a specific context and that development then allows the behavioral scientist to achieve greater precision and control over that particular event.

Of course, the development of a new concept starts from previous technical terms and depends on the acceptance of the scientific community in which the researcher works. For example, technical terms have been proposed that have not been widely used within the behavior-analytic community — that is the case with the term deinforcement proposed by Yulevich & Axelrod (1983). Also, and most relevant to this blog is the fact that several technical terms derived from different behavior-analytic approaches have been developed to account for similar phenomena (e.g., equivalence class and coordination frame; Critchfield & Rehfeldt, 2020); that the same term may have different meanings (e.g., strength of behavior; see Palmer, 2021; Simon et al., 2020); that the same term has evolved within the same behavioral approach to refer to different things (e.g., stimulus equivalence have had different meanings over the years; Sidman, 1994); or the fact that that some terms were not specific enough to increase precision and experimental control over the phenomenon they were intended to study (e.g., pliance, tracking and augmenting to the study of rule governed-behavior; Harte & Barnes-Holmes, 2021).

This could confuse students that have read two uses of the same term in different handbooks. This could also increase communication issues between different behavioral labs or make more difficult the integration of different studies of the same behavioral event. This could lead to a creation of silos formed by students and professionals highly specialized in a type of technical terminology without communication with the outside. To avoid these problems, I think it would be useful to increase respect and approval of diversity in behavioral analysis, flexibility in the use of different terminology in different contexts, the rejection of the ‘hot take’ culture in academia and to embrace the study of science as the behavior of scientists.

Students should know that trying to solve a practical problem from another perspective is not inherently bad. Sometimes the events that we want to study are complex and different perspectives may be needed for a better understanding of the phenomenon (Burgos & Killeen, 2018). At this point it seems important to explain that I am not advocating for an eclectic position inside behavior analysis, nothing could be further from the truth! Indeed, behavior analysis has made great advances with its methods and technical terms. What I am arguing is that behavior analysts should not rule out studies that use other technical terminology by default. For some behavior analysts to understand what other professionals are trying to grasp with these terms could be useful. That implies asking what they are really measuring? What variables are they controlling? How can their results be explained with our basic concepts?

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Understanding the technical terms derived from another approach is costly, it requires to read literature that is unfamiliar, requires knowing the technical jargon of these types of publications, and requires a translation to the technical terms that we already know. The reader may be wondering “But, is it worth to invest such efforts? For what? What is the benefit?” First, I would like to emphasize that as students, part of our job is to introduce ourselves to new technical terminologies and to understand different approaches to the study of the same phenomenon that interests us. On the other hand, as researchers it can be beneficial in contributing new ideas. That is, it is possible that these studies may be exploring some aspects of the phenomenon ignored from our perspective. Moreover, it can build a bridge to establish new collaborations between different researchers. After all, science is a human activity in which communication between different approaches is necessary. Finally, it is reasonable that some researchers do not want to invest the time and effort that it takes to introduce themselves to a new terminology and prefer to invest in digging further into the study of this phenomenon from their own technical terms. That decision is totally legitimate and respectable. However, these researchers should recognize that researchers who are trying to bridge the gap for an integration between different approaches to the study of a behavioral event are not committing any kind of heresy. Both efforts, the integrator and the specialist, are necessary and compatible. Agreeing with this also requires another attitude: openness to diversity.

Openness to diversity can be beneficial for a particular field. But again, before continuing, I would like to make a few things clear. I am not defending a naive eclecticism in which everything goes. I am endorsing an openness to diversity from a field of study in which the essential conceptual foundations are clear. For example, supporting the idea that the behavior of living beings has a functional relationship with certain environmental variables is an essential assumption of behavior analysis. Rooted in this conceptual core of our discipline, different professionals can allocate their efforts to different purposes. That diversity will make our field of study alive, rich, and diverse. As Professor Matt Normand excellently have explained in his video “Variety is the Spice of Life” (The Skinner Box, 2022), some behavior analysts may have the goal of avoiding the use of technical terms and other behavior analysts may have the aim of increasing the number of technical terms. Both are fine and both are necessary.

Furthermore, the same researcher may use different terms in different contexts. This requires a certain flexibility to recognize the context and adapt to its characteristics. It is good for students to have the ability to recognize their audience and being able to adapt the use of a certain terminology should be within the repertoire of a professional. I think any behavior analyst working in applied contexts can agree with me that adapting technical terminology to clients is essential (Morris, 2014). Using a less technical, and therefore less precise, methodology does not imply that the professional does not know that methodology, but rather it may be a well-considered decision. At this point, I think it is important to recognize that the use of more or less precise terms must also be analyzed for their effects on the audience. It is possible that the use of certain intermediate terms in some contexts could lead to confusion or unwanted effects (e. g., the reification of clinical diagnoses, the reification of psychological interventions, etc.). The evaluation of these less specific terms must also be subject to the evaluation of the effects they produce, but their use is not intrinsically bad and can be beneficial (Becirevic et al., 2016; Rolider et al., 1998).

In turn, recognizing that science is the behavior of scientists and that it is subject to the same laws of learning as other behaviors gives us a different perspective on the use of technical terms (Normand, 2017). As previously mentioned, technical terms are used by researchers to generate greater experimental control over a phenomenon; to predict the occurrence of an event more accurately; to generate explanations that can serve to better understand how this phenomenon can be generalized to other areas, etc. Also, technical terms are created, accepted, and used in a specific verbal community. Therefore, technical terms can be evaluated by their usefulness, which implies the possibility that some terms may be useful to study one phenomenon and less useful to study another. For example, Are the technical terms developed for the study of individual behavior useful for the study of cultural behavior? We have recently seen the development of a new terminology for the study of this type of behavior (e.g., Glenn et al., 2016). The future will tell us if that terminology achieves better levels of control and precision over the phenomenon they aim to study. But back to the main point, technical terms can evolve over time to better adapt and achieve greater precision and control over the phenomenon under study. We should explain this to our students; the change of meaning of a technical term is something that can occur, that is not inherently bad and that is associated with the development of our discipline.

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In addition, it is good to explain that the academic debate must be far from the ‘hot take’ culture. Debates about the appropriate use of a certain terminology or perspective are a source of progress for the discipline, they are not a battlefield in which academics fight to ridicule the arguments of another professional and should not be read in that way. If we give the impression that we can control and predict every behavioral event with the already coined technical terms to our students we are giving a counterproductive impression, since technical definitions and terms can and probably should always evolve to reach higher levels of behavioral prediction and control.

Finally, we must recognize that within our community different perspectives coexist, each with its own philosophical characteristics, diverse purposes, and different research methods (Araiba, 2020; O’Donohue & Kitchener, 1998; Zilio & Carrara, 2021). This makes philosophical training for new behavior analysts even more important (Leslie, 2021) and makes training for the development of the discussed attitudes (i.e., respect and openness to diversity, flexibility, avoiding hot take culture, etc.) useful to generate integration and communication within our community (Fienup, 2019) and thus to a greater development of our field.

“Perhaps we are being overoptimistic, but we prefer this potentially more fruitful attitude than the poverty of disunity. What do you think?” (Burgos & Killeen, 2018, p. 22).


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