In a previous post I asked readers to comment on the relative status of behavior analysis among the sciences that focus on what we behavior analysts call behavior. I received some very thoughtful entries, and now it’s time for YOU to vote on the best contribution (and maybe win a prize yourself).
Below is a quick refresher on what we’re discussing, with a link to the five finalists.
The Question at Hand
The objective fact to be explained is that behavior analysis has evolved into something very different from other sciences concerned with behavior. Our scientific methods, our technical language, and our philosophical assumptions are not embraced by many other than us. So, we’re different, but Is different better? You don’t have to spend much time around behavior analysts before hearing one of them claim that it is. And this is expected given that behavior analysts have committed themselves fully to the cause. One doesn’t consciously commit to fool’s errands.
The key follow-up question concerns WHY behavior analysts committed to the behavior analysis. More than one explanation can account for this datum. It is entirely possible that we chose behavior analysis because it is truly an improvement over all of the alternatives. But it’s also possible that our discipline’s unusual customs are simply a kind of social adhesive that helps hold the behavior analysis clan together. This is the Costly Signaling Hypothesis, which proposes that
- Within a group, unusual customs serve a virtue-signaling function, meaning they declare the individual’s in-group bona fides.
- Outside the group, unusual customs look… weird, and thereby reduce the odds of competing groups caring to poach the individual from the in-group.
- In-group members have explanations (like “Behavior analysis is better”) for their customs that don’t necessarily correspond to the real, social-adhesive function of those customs.
How to Answer the Question
An obvious way to refute the Costly Signaling Hypothesis is to produce evidence of the superiority of behavior analysis. But it turns out that behavior analysts aren’t very good at this, at least not in casual conversation. We often invoke things that aren’t actually evidence of superiority. For instance, behavior analysts often cite:
- Our philosophy of science (e.g., behaviorism vs. mentalism). But this is simply one way of restating that we are different. All philosophies of science are predicated on certain assumptions that are held to be canon, but by definition assumptions cannot be better or worse — only a given in some system of thought.
- The weakness of some other approach to science. To show that another approach is flawed doesn’t verify that we are awesome. For instance, I can expound on why smelt tastes disgusting, but this doesn’t make chicken livers appetizing. Similarly, the fact that, say, sensory integration therapy is not evidence based cannot by itself make ABA the treatment of choice.
- The success of our science and practice in some isolated area. To show superiority, I think you’d have to verify that we’ve been extra-successful across many areas of study, and that wherever we and some other science studied the same thing with equal gusto, we got better outcomes. In the latter case, citing schedules of reinforcement or early autism intervention merely identifies something we tackled with gusto when basically nobody else even tried.
We should expect a little more from the contest entries.
Vote for a Winner, and Maybe Win a Prize for Yourself
So, I invited readers to write short essays on the question of whether behavior analysis is really BETTER. I assumed that most would argue in the affirmative, but that wasn’t a contest requirement.
I’ve selected five finalists (not easy) and now want YOUR vote on who should receive a pretty-okay prize package consisting of author-signed copies of selected books and some fun merchandise (see here for details). One vote per customer, but please forward this to your colleagues so we can get as much input as possible!
Follow this link to the entries and a super-quick Qualtrics survey in which you say which entry should be heaped with glory.
Deadline to vote is February 14.