5 Perspectives on the “Betterness” of Behavior Analysis

Here are the finalists in the “Is Behavior Analysis BETTER?” contest. After reading them (a couple of minutes per entry, tops), and considering the purposes of the contest (summarized here), follow this link to vote on a contest winner:


Voting deadline is February 14

Everyone who votes will be entered into a drawing for a separate prize! Please spread the word!

FINALIST #1: The Wrong Target

The question “Is behavior analysis ‘better’?” as my favorite Catholic apologist, Patrick Madrid says, is hitting the bullseye on the wrong target. And, to continue in the borrowing tradition with the approach of my favorite writer on Catholicism and modern science, Fr. Robert Spitzer, I will give three reasons: different approaches are necessary for the scholarly endeavor, different approaches can lead to better meeting needs, and seeking improvement within a discipline does not require competition with other disciplines.

Let’s dive-in to the first reason: different approaches are necessary for the scholarly endeavor. At the beginning of the blog, Critchfield (2023) stated behavior analysis has taken a “separatist” stance, which misses the mark for two reasons. First, this is not unique to behavior analysis. The proof is in the proliferation pudding: 900,000 scientific journals (e.g., Larsen & von Ins, 2010). An approach, a topic, etc. that varies from others, at a certain magnitude from other, will produce new organizations, journals, conferences, etc. This may, paradoxically, facilitate acceptance. By establishing their own conferences, journals, etc., disciplines create boundaries that respect other disciplines. Second, and perhaps most importantly, variance is at the heart of the scholarly endeavor. Note Critchfield’s decades-long question from a “developmental psychology colleague.” Without questions, the scholarly endeavor stagnates. Within empirical science, questions ceasing would produce something far worse: death. Our empirical study produces approximations. By asking questions, with different tools and perspectives, we are able to refine our approximations toward a better/fuller/clearer understanding of the world. The continued questions about our approach does not indicate lack of acceptance but the opposite: we have something valuable that others are interested in changing.

I’ll now address the second reason: different approaches can often lead to better meeting needs. At the core of Critchfield’s (2023) description of potential mechanisms for apparent lack of acceptance is a unique belief of being “better” led to widespread rejection. And yet, an increasing number of people are asking for behavior analysis in an increasing number of ways. First, there has been exponential growth in job opportunities. In 2022, there were over 55,000 job postings for behavior analysts (BACB, 2023). Second, government, at multiple levels, accepts behavior analysis. As of 2023, behavior analysis is codified into law in 37 states, either as a licensed discipline or a regulated practice. Third, there are a growing number of quality-assurance programs for behavior analysis. ABA:I offers nationally recognized academic program accreditation and several organizations (e.g., BHCOE, ACQ, etc.) certify quality clinical programs. Taken together, as a separate, established discipline, caregivers, governments, and other stakeholders can now identify a distinct discipline and arrange contingencies to more comprehensively meet the needs of those they serve.

And that leads me to my final reason: seeking improvement within a discipline does not require competition with other disciplines. At the end of the blog, Critchfield (2023) said, “Indeed, I hope we all agree that this is the goal and that we have an ethical duty to try to achieve it.” I agree, but I doubt many, or anyone, entered a discipline simply to be “better” than other disciplines. I was interested in understanding behavior and producing behavior change. I took a class from Sam Leigland and his descriptions and explanations of behavior hooked me. He set me on a path that led to blessings of exceptional mentoring from Rick Smith and Claudia Dozier, with one unifying principle: experimentally analyze and do what works. That necessitates change over time and insofar as that change produces improved outcomes, that change is “better,” (i.e., Skinner’s pragmatic truth criterion). Colleagues in other disciplines take the same approach (albeit using different terms). The danger comes, however, if our improved practices come to mean we must compete with other disciplines to be the “best.” At the very least, it’s a self-defeating approach – myriad topics are simply outside the scope of behavior analysis (physics and chemistry). At worst, we are trying to win a competition that no one else is interested in playing.

  • Behavior Analyst Certification Board. (2023). US employment demand for behavior analysts: 2010–2022. Littleton, CO: Author.
  • Larsen, P. O., & von Ins, M. (2010). The rate of growth in scientific publication and the decline in coverage provided by Science Citation Index. Scientometrics, 84, 575–603. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11192-010-0202-z

FINALIST #2: Is Behavior Analysis Really Better?

While costly signaling theory may indeed provide some influence in behavior treatments, there is no reason to believe it mediates all behavior treatments. Of course, behavior analysis is a better way to solve people’s problems because behavior analysis utilizes science—behavior science.  But behavior science can create its own problems.

Shimp (2020) shows in detail how our field’s view of the demonstrated operant (a molecular explanation) often conflicts with our field’s view of that operant behavior after it extends in time such as in matching law (a molar explanation). Shimp’s reasoning is not that either of these explanations are wrong (i.e., practicing linguistic sacrilege), but that our behavior science has not yet completely explained what goes on between those events, so there should be a respect for any group doing good science. Shimp’s solution (Usage #10) would be to accept what each behavior science sub-discipline demonstrates, if it answers the asked-question, and the study was done in an experimental way.

I believe a critical issue of this extended operant for most people is the influence of intervening private verbal behavior, and that includes the verbal behavior of scientists themselves.  Ivancic and Belisle (2020) suggest philosophical, theoretical, and verbal behavior (language-learning) remedies that may help behavior scientists to be more accepting of each other’s research.  Briefly, rather than requiring the totally public truth criterion (methodological behaviorism) that successfully kept mentalism at bay during the formative years of behavior analysis, they suggest a pragmatic truth criterion would increase the value of other types of research (functional contextualism / radical behaviorism). Reticulated inductive theorizing allows more behavior science hypotheses than requiring all information be consistent with animal research (bottom-up theorizing). Finally, they recommend using derived verbal behavior rather than relying strictly on the research changes occurring with verbal operants. Elementary verbal operants are needed for the language-challenged, but derived verbal operants may be better for addressing the problems of verbally able people. My view of this is that emphasizing a verbal influence in behavior will decrease influence of skill acquisition in behavior analysis and provide a greater emphasis on maintenance– or behavior that, after frequent contact of verbal reinforcement under multiple schedules, maintains and becomes highly resistant to extinction such in the literatures of behavior momentum and relapse. Relational density theory (Belisle & Dixon, 2020) is another interesting molar explanation.

Science is needed to arbitrate the human tendency to make and follow ineffective verbal rules, but there is a humility required in science (see Shimp, 2020). Just because we know some things about behavior does not mean that we know everything. However, just because we do not know everything does not mean that we don’t know some things—and know them very well.  Contextual behavior science predicts behavior based on public behavior and context– often with an inferred private function. Based on what is known about behavior up to this point, it seems reasonable to conceptually infer that the same principles known for public behavior also occur for private behavior or automatic (private) language contingencies.

Such inferences could be made in clinical treatment, literature (narratives), or cultural evaluations, but they need to be conceptually systematic so that if presumed functions are not effective, other treatments can be tested. For example, in clinical treatment, if negative reinforcement or escape from a private punisher is assumed, and escape-extinction (i.e., acceptance) is tested to be ineffective, then another function, such as positive reinforcement or attention-extinction can be tested.

Costly signaling theory may be superfluous to the failure of behavior analysis to save the world.  I think many of the problems people have accepting behavior problems will go away when behavior analysts begin to successfully address the problems of most people—people with language. But behavior analysts should not handicap each other by bickering among themselves.

  • Belisle, J., & Dixon, M. R. (2020). Relational density theory: Nonlinearity of equivalence relating examined through higher-order volumetric-mass-density. Perspective on Behavior Science, 43, 259-283. doi: 10.1007/s40614-020-00248-w
  • Ivancic, M. T., & Belisle, J. (2019). Resolving barriers to an applied science of the human condition: Rule-governance and the verbal behavior of applied scientists. The Analysis of Verbal Behavior, 35, 196-220. doi: 10.1007/s40616-019-00117-x
  • Shimp, C. P. (2020). Molecular (moment-to-moment) and molar (aggregate) analyses of behavior. Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior, 114, 394–429. doi: 10.1002/jeab.626

FINALIST #3: Consequences, Not Causes

Modern astronomy, modern physics, modern chemistry, and modern biology are really better than their alternatives. In the histories of these sciences, though, they were not obviously always really better than their alternatives (e.g., than heliocentrism, vitalism, creationism). They had to struggle. They still have to struggle (e.g., in evolutionary biology, medicine, public health). What “really better” means really depends on historical context.

As for modern psychology, is it really better than its alternatives? In its epistemology (e.g., a form of methodological behaviorism), yes. It has made advances. In its ontology (e.g., agency, mentalism), less so, if any. Its ontology is the philosophy and psychology that our culture – our folk philosophy and folk psychology – wants, so that is what it gets. Is behavior analysis really better than this? Yes, even if in its infancy, which is now, it stumbles.

Of course, it does. In their infancies, the other natural sciences stumbled, too (e.g., Newton and his alchemy), even when they were really better. Behavior analysis in good company. However, it is at the grave disadvantage of having more cultural opposition and inertia to overcome than they had. This is why a naturalized science of psychology – call it behavior analysis, interbehavoral psychology, functional contextualism, behaviorology, or something else — is the last (or the latest) of these fields to emerge as a natural science.

In the process, it did invent scientific methods and terms (but began by assimilating them), did withdraw (but not everywhere) from mainstream psychology’s conferences and journals (or were unwelcome in them; e.g., see the history of the experimental analysis of behavior), and did estabilsh professional credentials (albeit hardly perfect) expected in the application of a natural science of behavior.

If these are the variables that control “swagger” and “separatism,” that’s fine, but swagger and separatism are consequences, not causes. If they are causes, then we are blaming the organism (and its organizations) for their swagger and separatism. We are being mentalistic. We are not applying the behavior-analytic maxim that the organism (and its organizations) is (are) aways right (albeit not thereby necessarily correct, moral, or ethical). If we conducted functional analyses of our behavior of inventing, withdrawing, and credentialing, we might discover their causes and even better ways of behaving. Claiming that behavior analysis is behaving badly (or the sky is falling) does not, in itself, discover anything or promote more effective action in its science. Behavioral interpretations notwithstanding, is there any proof that it does? What would a functional analysis of those claims tell us about their controlling variables — conscious and unconscious — without blaming the organism?

FINALIST #4: We All Want the Same Things

Assuming (and teaching) that our science is “better” is short sighted and potentially harmful. I was “raised up” in two of the most well-known, successful programs in the history of Behavior Analysis (a great education from great people). I left those programs believing that “we” were better, and I was ready to show students how and why, but the last decade of teaching and conducting research at a liberal arts college where I am the only Behavior Analyst has taught me that I have an incredible amount in common with my colleagues of cognitive, developmental, neuroscience, etc. persuasions. They are not evil. I am not always right. We all want the same things.

We share approaches and methods with other areas of psychology and neuroscience more than we realize. We consider success in similar terms. We want clients to live better lives. We want our students to think critically and apply knowledge to solve problems. We want to find out how independent variables impact dependent variables. And here’s a really important thing: we all are studying behavior! In his essay “What Happened to Behaviorism?,” Roediger (2004) discusses possible reasons for the down fall of our science, but in the end offers an unusual argument: Behaviorism actually won because, ultimately, almost all psychologists study behavior. Whether it is self-injury, lever pressing, neuronal firing, verbal report, or filling out a survey, it is behavior in the broadest sense, and because we are all studying behavior, Behavior Analysts have something great to offer across psychology and neuroscience. Jump in… just be ready to admit you might be wrong or that your understanding and approach can be enhanced, not degraded, by thinking in different ways, using different experimental designs, and possibly embracing alternative, effective means of practice. It is not a fault to recognize our limitations in addition to our strengths, nor does it mean abandoning a radical behaviorism approach, it just means integrating, applying, and combining that approach in new ways.

One great example of this comes from the avoidance literature. If you teach a course on learning and behavior, then you, like me, likely discuss one- and two-factor theories of avoidance, spend some time discussing the possible mechanisms of escape and avoidance, how learning progresses, and how different theories account for such learning. Where you and I likely differ is that I finish with recent work from behavioral neuroscience showing that our traditional understanding of discriminated/signaled avoidance (and probably non-discriminated, Sidman avoidance) is partially wrong (Oleson & Cheer, 2013). The signal does indeed become a conditioned aversive stimulus that elicits freezing, but only during escape trials during which the signal elicits a reduction in firing of midbrain dopamine neurons. After avoidance is learned (i.e. the rat escapes the signal and avoids the shock), the conditioned aversive signal isn’t aversive at all. The signal now elicits increased firing in dopamine neurons—what looks more like a positive reinforcement kind of brain response to facilitate avoiding! We understand the learning mechanisms better, and our science is enhanced.

Finally, an example of our theoretical approach from popular culture. Robert Sapolsky (2023) recently published a book titled, “Determined: A Science of Life without Free Will.” His book is elegant, funny, and completely in line with a radical behaviorist, deterministic view (though he takes more of a biological position, he certainly includes behavioral histories as important determinants of behavior). He never mentions behaviorism, Skinner, or anything remotely resembling credit to our science.* Millions of people will read his book. We could think, “well, whatever dude, we’re better, we thought this first, you’re late to the party” and move on. What we should do is hold it up an example of how our theoretical views are actually widely held and gaining traction. Ask him to come give a talk. Sapolsky is not our enemy, he is our hero.

Behavior Analysis is great, but not “better.” We have views and approaches that are important, helpful, and complimentary to others. We have a contribution to make. We stand to gain a lot by approaching our science from this perspective, as do the people we collaborate with outside of our science, because in the end, we all want the same things.

*As an interesting aside, Sapolsky has actually been an outspoken critic of behaviorism and Skinner, but, that seems to come from a fundamental misunderstanding of Skinner’s radical behaviorism (as can be best determined by watching this clever YouTube video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W9Tq_ijscWQ). If Skinner were alive to have a conversation with Sapolsky, I think they would agree on a lot. In fact, I will go farther and suggest that if Skinner were alive today, he might have more in common with behavioral neuroscientists than many modern Behavior Analysts. I worry that some in Behavior Analysis, like Sapolsky, buy into a fictional history of our field that suggests we think genes, biology, and brains don’t matter. They do. Skinner thought they did. We should too.

FINALIST #5: Applied Behavior Analysis is a Technological Failure

‘‘I used to believe that a science of behavior could show us how to solve the problems confronting us—pollution, overpopulation, poverty, the threat of nuclear war. But I am forced to conclude that what the science of behavior shows us is that we can’t solve these problems.”

A pessimistic opinion, to be sure, spoken by B.F. Skinner in 1989 (as reported by Chance, 2007). Approximately 50 years after publishing The Behavior of Organisms, and approximately 40 years after publishing the utopian vision of Walden Two, Skinner perhaps was appropriately pessimistic. His life was an episode of The Twilight Zone: you discover a cure that nobody will take.

In Beyond Freedom and Dignity, published in 1971, Skinner wrote: “The environment will continue to deteriorate until pollution practices are abandoned.” In the 70s and 80s, behavior analysts were tackling this complex issue. 40 years later, it appears that those decades were the “peak.” There has been some success in reducing pollution, though notably in the richest countries.

Overpopulation and poverty perhaps share a loose relationship. While America has avoided the most extreme Malthusian concerns, even China, with its one-child policy and booming economy, has been unable to exert sufficient control from a remarkably centralized government.

In 1968, Skinner wrote that we need to “teach more in the same time,” recognizing that the science of teaching had scarcely made an impact on the profession of teaching. In a cinematic irony, that same year Zig Engelmann was teaching kids more in the same amount of time using Direct Instruction, a teaching method that would be shown to be superior to 8 other models in virtually every measure in the largest education experiment ever conducted. Yet it goes without saying there has not been widespread adoption of his model; as late as 2007 Zig was writing detailed defenses, despite superior outcomes 40 years prior. In fact, it appears even Skinner may not have been aware of Direct Instruction, repeating “using time more efficiently” in a 1984 publication.

Ironically most readers will find themselves here, reading this, not due to any of the issues Skinner references (unless you’re that behaviorist stopping the nuclear wars), but due to the success of ABA in autism treatment. ABA in autism treatment, specifically EIBI, has been undoubtedly effective. In fact by most measures, demand for intervention far outstrips supply, and in many cities there are waitlists at every clinic. All the same, treatment adherence to medical treatment is typically measured at approximately 50% – “effective treatment is not enough.” In life and death circumstances, people don’t take their insulin. While it is clear that more clinicians provide more ABA services than ever before, there is no great cultural adoption. Even behavior analytic language evokes mixed reactions; some research finds it to be aversive, while some finds it neutral. Social validity of the treatments themselves would be valuable information, to have data on whether people approve of the treatments or outcomes, but is reported in approximately 12% of articles in JABA from 1999-2016. Meanwhile the success of ABA in autism treatment has paradoxically narrowed the employment opportunities for a Board Certified Behavior Analyst, who is most often expected to work with the autistic population. This is important work, but is akin to defining an engineer as the person who paved the streets.

Readers who have made it this far are familiar with Baer, Wolf & Risley’s seminal 1968 article, an accounting of behavior analysis as it existed and as the authors hoped it would continue. It was followed 20 years later by the same authors with many of the same admonitions. One in particular stands out today: “It is worth asking first if technological failure is the same as theoretical failure.” The theory remains effective, but so far the technology has failed to change the world.