An Object Lesson in Effective Communication


If you care at all about disseminating behavior analysis — particularly the challenge of talking about what we know and what we do in ways that non-behavior-analysts can understand and use — then here is some food for thought. I strongly recommend a recent short piece in Psychology Today discussing the science of self-control. It provides, I believe, one model for our own efforts.

Before discussing that article, though, here’s a little tidbit from a clinician I know who, on a daily basis, works to get parents to reinforce alternative behaviors rather than punish unwanted ones. This clinician tells parents to give children reasons to make good decisions. Never mind that, taken literally, this statement is conceptually bankrupt (in truth, much of what people do doesn’t run through conscious decision-making). Never mind that it doesn’t invoke any of our carefully-crafted technical definitions of processes that shape the dynamics of behavior. The advice simply works. Parents immediately understand that for every moment in time there are many possible behaviors, and the ones that pay off best are going to predominate. They become better at reinforcing alternative behaviors.

With this example in mind, when we think about how to talk to people who aren’t behavior analysts, the guiding principle should be “it works.” What we say should enable people to do things that make themselves and others happier, healthier, safer, and/or better adjusted. No matter what words are employed toward this end.

That’s precisely what the Psychology Today article accomplishes. It starts by explaining that a conventional way of thinking about self-control, as resulting from “will power” that may be strong or weak at different times, fails to help people “make good decisions” that emphasize long term benefit at the expense of immediate gratification. Research backs this up, but the article doesn’t get too bogged down in those details. The article then moves on to say that what does work is recognizing and avoiding “temptation situations.”

The article’s advice is consistent with the science of self-control as behavior analysts know it (particularly the strategy of pre-commitment; see this seminal study)… but what’s noteworthy is what the article doesn’t say. It doesn’t spend a lot of time explaining why “willpower” is an epistemologically problematic concept, i.e., a hypothetical construct of the worst sort. It doesn’t go on about how talking and thinking about fallacious constructs distracts people from a functional analysis of behavior. And it certainly doesn’t delve into the rather complex science that has informed behavior analytic thinking about self-control (you’ll find no mention of hyperbolic discounting or the magnitude effect or preference reversals). What IS said is what needs to be said to promote constructive reader action: Situations that tempt us with immediate gratification are going to win, so act in advance to avoid them.

Over the years I have seen many, many attempts — beginning with Skinner himself — to win non-behavior-analysts over to our way of thinking. Too often this means brute-force explanations of why our conceptual system is superior to that of other disciplines and of lay people. I’m not sure I have ever seen one of those efforts succeed. I have, however, seen those efforts convince people that we are idiots or hopelessly out-of-touch eggheads. And I think I know why.

A friend of mine recently returned from a work conference where he was surrounded for three days by swaggering narcissists, all hell bent on demonstrating why they were superior to all of the other swaggering narcissists. “Why,” my friend asked upon his return, “do people expend so much energy trying to be the smartest person in the room when everyone hates the smartest person in the room?” I think that captures our cardinal sin: In our efforts to persuade people that we are useful, we get caught up in being the smartest ones in the room. We make the explanation about us (tacting the superiority of behavior analysis) rather than about helping them (establishing beneficial behavior).

Perhaps as a way of short-circuiting that “smartest person” impulse (itself representing a failure of self-control… think about it!), the Acceptance and Commitment Therapy folks talk about using middle-level concepts: ways of speaking that translate equally easily to scientifically precise accounts and lay conceptualizations. In other words, middle-level concepts are “close enough” to scientifically precise explanations but understandable by people who aren’t scientists. With this in mind, I suggest redefining middle-level concepts as ways of speaking that connect non-scientists with behavior principles — using words that are already in their vocabulary or words that, based on their non-specialist verbal histories, are easily mastered.

Critically, middle-level concepts might not be “correct,” but they occasion correct action in the listener.

Just about every effective clinician I know, by the way, is already using something like middle-level concepts. Like my “good decisions” colleague, they have to in order to be effective. The problem as I see it is that many of these people have had to craft their own middle-level concepts by trial and error. And different clinicians have arrived at different client-friendly ways of talking. And I’m sure some of these ways of talking are more effective than others.

There’s no reason we can’t have standard, evidence-based practices involving middle-level concepts, but so far we lack the systematic science that would make that possible. To date, we have a smattering of studies suggesting that jargon is confusing and/or off-putting, a problem that “lay descriptions” tend to avoid. But best practices? Hardly. There are numerous ways to translate solid behavior analysis into everyday language, but we just don’t know which ones work best to spur beneficial action. When we do, we’ll be a more mature, and more impactful, discipline.