Navigating the Waters of Behavior Analysis and Social Psychology in the Pursuit of Answers

Dear blog reader,

You are in for another treat with this next contribution from Dr. Táhcita Mizael. Táhcita has produced nothing short of an impressive body of important, socially relevant work in her academic career to date. She received her masters and PhD degrees from the Federal University of São Carlos under the supervision of one of the behavior science greats (and Colin’s current mentor), Professor Julio de Rose, exploring race relations through the lens of stimulus equivalence. But her contributions to behavior science and its application span much further, exploring topics such as gender, sexuality, feminism and autism. Táhcita is a perfect example of the kind of effort we are looking to promote during our time curating this blog series. That is, encouraging cooperation and collaboration across different “silos” of behavioral science. As a field, we have so much to learn from each other, within and across approaches and sub-disciplines, that will surely be more to our strength and advantage than if we instead decide to stay locked safely away in our respective silos. And we think you will get a good sense of this quite quickly from reading about Táhcita’s rich and vibrant research journey to date below. So sit back and enjoy!

Colin and Dermot

About the author:

Táhcita M. Mizael is a visiting academic at the University of South Australia, under the supervision of Professor Bernard Guerin, and a lecturer at the University of São Paulo (USP), the Brazilian Center of Contextual Behavioral Science (CECONTE), and Brasília’s Institute of Behavior Analysis (IBAC). She holds a BSc, an MSc, and a Ph.D. in Psychology, and is also an expert in Gender and Sexuality. Táhcita Mizael is also a licensed clinical psychologist and a trained Process-based Behavior Therapy (PBBT) therapist. Táhcita’s main interests lie in Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion issues, especially race relations, prejudice, gender, sexuality, autism, Relational Frame Theory and behavior analysis more generally.

Navigating the Waters of Behavior Analysis and Social Psychology in the Pursuit of Answers (clique aqui para a tradução em português deste blog)

Imagem de Arek Socha por Pixabay

I like asking questions and I have always been curious about how things work. I can certainly tell countless times when I was punished for asking questions that were “too difficult”, “too complex” or “too weird”. To be honest, I heard the phrase “you don’t have to know everything” more than I would like to admit and, on several occasions, people responded to me as if I was being confrontational with my questions when I was genuinely interested in getting to know something.

I started studying psychology because people have always puzzled me, and I have always struggled trying to understand them. I thought that by becoming a psychologist, I would be 1) able to understand why people do what they do and why I feel what I feel, 2) able to make the world a better place, and by that, I mean a place with fewer inequalities and more social justice, and 3) to better communicate my desires and needs to people around me. However, during college, there was I, a poor Black woman from Brazil, part of the LGBTQ+ community, in a class full of colleagues and professors from the upper middle class, most of whom were also straight and White.

I did not feel comfortable in that place most of the time, but this is a topic for a different text. Apart from these difficulties, I was there focused on learning, getting my degree, and finding a job so that I could help my family financially. During college, all those different theories of psychology did not relate at all to my upbringing, to the lives of my family or my neighbors. I could not understand why I was learning things that made sense only if you were basically White and rich (and European), especially because, in quantitative terms, we (Black and poor people) are the majority of people in Brazil, so it was very worrying for me to be in a place where most of what I was being thought was about a privileged numerical minority.

One of my main questions during this period was “what is the psychological account that makes the most sense to me, and that I’m going to use with the people I interact with professionally and in my life in general?” During my second or third year, I found out it was behavior analysis (BA). I’m not going to get into details here, but BA looked good for giving me an experimental way to assess my hypotheses, and because the whole ‘every individual has a unique history’, and the whole ‘antecedents, behavior, consequences’ was not a fixed “formula”, which seemed, therefore, a promising way to understand not only the lives of rich White people but of everyone.

On some occasions, as I was learning about the psychological theories of human development and the like, I asked my professors things like ‘what if a person cannot afford that?’ or ‘how is the development of that person if she is gay?’. It was very frustrating to see that they just ignored me or changed the subject. I believe it’s totally fine if you do not know something; after all, we cannot know everything, but the fact that they did not even address my question was very invalidating to me.

After realizing that I was not going to get the answers that I needed, I decided to do a Master’s, and my main question, at that moment, was “how can we reduce racial prejudice?” At that time, I had taken some courses on BA, and I fell in love with stimulus equivalence, so my project aimed to use it to make new relations between pictures of Black individuals and positive stimuli in children who demonstrated racial bias.

I did not notice then, but what I was doing (putting together BA and social psychology) is something that is not common in our field and, sometimes, it even gets criticized. But I guess I was lucky enough since my supervisor, Professor Julio de Rose, thought my project was interesting and accepted to supervise me in this endeavor.

Image by Mario Aranda from Pixabay

Another thing that I did not know on that occasion was that BA had almost no literature on race relations, which forced me to go to other kinds of literature to discover what had been published on the subject. I use the word “forced” here but, actually, it was a blessing and I never saw this as something aversive. Neither did my supervisor. Júlio has always encouraged me and my colleagues to pursue other interests and fields that could improve our understanding of the topics we were studying. So, there I was reading about neuroscience, anthropology, sociology, but mostly, social psychology. I found it fascinating how much social psychology relates to BA and I was surprised that I had not seen a collaboration among those fields, especially when it comes to complex phenomena such as prejudice. So, I tried somehow to start some type of collaboration or, to be more precise, to point out to a few social psychologists and behavior analysts that our science can be an ally in the efforts for a better world.

In most social psychology conferences that I attended and presented my research, I was bombarded with questions. Of all of those questions, I noticed that there were three main themes: 1) questions that were not even questions but an assertion that BA is not suitable for human problems because “it is too mechanistic”, “it only deals with mice”, “stimulus-response is too simplistic” and similar statements, 2) questions from people that were concerned with how much I actually know about race relations since I was in an experimental psychology program, and 3) questions regarding the utility of my study for Black individual’s current problems. I like questions so I saw those as a challenge and as data that helps me understand why we still do not have a collaboration between those fields. It also helps me to wonder how we can teach in a more precise way what BA is[1] as it is today, with its roots in radical behaviorism, adding the advances that came with stimulus equivalence and relational frame theory (RFT), and mostly, they made me think about how indeed the research that I was doing could help the problems Black people are facing today.

I spent my Master’s and my Ph.D. doing experiments, using stimulus equivalence with different parameters of training and testing and the results were pretty exciting: with a brief training that lasted 15-20 minutes a day for five to six days, we were able to see that most children that were recruited precisely for demonstrating a negative racial bias towards faces of Black people were relating those same faces with positive stimuli after being indirectly trained to do so. This is an exciting study for me personally because, as a Black person, I have experienced racism throughout my life and I do imagine a world where people do not prejudge me negatively or mistreat me based on my skin color, origin, and physical features, but also because looking at behavioral processes that are amenable to change and investigating relations among stimuli, their functions and how they can transform is a feasible way for understanding the many types of prejudices that exist in the world, and of course, to try reducing them.

Image by Florian Westermann from Pixabay

Going back to those three questions, I would love to help answer all of them. I do know however, that I’m just one person, and I do not even have a steady job [yet] as a professor or researcher, and perhaps that’s why I am writing about this subject, in the hope that some of the readers find questions like these interesting too and join me in this huge endeavor. In summary, I honestly believe the question, “how can we teach BA in a more precise way?” can be addressed in research. I also think this question is related to the answer as to why BA and social psychology are not collaborating, and I have been trying to make very small steps in that direction, such as presenting on BA and prejudice at social psychology conferences, having discussions with social psychology professors, and openly trying to show them how I believe BA can be an ally to social psychology and how together, we may be in a better position to both understand and change behavior towards a more equitable world.

The concerns about if I have racial literacy since I was in an experimental psychology program makes me think that certain topics should be given to all students. To talk about racism, sexism, ableism, and the like should not be subjects that pertain to only certain fields. Those should be common knowledge.

Finally, the question about how my research on stimulus equivalence or, to be more general, on relations among stimuli, can help people today is a complex question that got me thinking for months. I still think about that question, and I confess that it made me more interested in clinical behavior analysis. It got me thinking about the need for therapy that is concerned with the well-being of minority groups. That is the reason why I edited a book with colleagues that is going to be published soon on a psychological practice focused on Black people in Brazil. That is the reason why I have been studying and publishing some chapters and papers that are focused on the clinical field, and that is the reason why I am in Australia right now, working with Professor Bernard Guerin, who has an interesting account of antecedents (historical, cultural, economic, social, and environmental opportunities) and how they relate to mental health problems.

I know that the path I have made so far was paved by the pursuit of answers that I had throughout my life. I also know that, by looking for those answers, I have discussed my concerns with many researchers. In this text, I described a few of my experiences with social psychology, but I did, and I still do look for learning and collaboration opportunities from researchers within the different research “silos” in BA. I have talked to researchers that study BA in a strictly Skinnerian way, researchers that are focused on metacontingencies, that work with RFT, researchers from the clinical field who use Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, researchers that use social contextual analysis… Those exchanges were and are very important and some of them resulted in papers that could serve as 1) invitation for students and other researchers interested in those topics, and 2) examples of how it is possible to have exchanges that could, possibly, benefit our community and, perhaps, even the society.

Image by 🆓 Use at your Ease 👌🏼 from Pixabay

I am very lucky to be able to work and study the things that really interest me and that are aligned with my values. I do hope that the constraints that come with being part of intersecting minorities do not hinder me the chance to continue this endeavor of trying to make the lives of people that are like me a little bit better. I do hope this text sparkles some kind of interest in the possibilities of advancing science through research collaboration among behavior analysts with different views and among different fields. And, finally, I do hope that people stop thinking that questions are always some kind of confrontation and see them as what they might be sometimes, a genuine interest in some topic and, perhaps, a possibility, such as the one that occurred to me, that makes you not only think about a certain topic but to act on it.

[1] A hypothesis as to why many students are learning BA in an imprecise way in Brazil is the fact that, sometimes, professors whose field of inquiry is not BA have to teach a few classes from fields in which they are not familiar, BA is one of them. Misinterpretation of the concepts and not knowing the best sources of information can lead to passing on imprecise or completely wrong information.