No One Wants to Watch This Cage Match

In the grand theater of professional wrestling, there is a stock character known as the “Heel” who exhibits unpleasant behavior, breaks rules, and regardless of wrestling skills is generally unlikeable. Part of the drama of a wrestling match is the good-versus-evil tension of seeing whether the Heel’s clean-cut, noble opponent (the protagonist, called a “Face”) can prevail over this unsavory antagonist.

In a previous post about the place of behavior analysis amongst the sciences, I introduced what I thought would be a compelling Heel — a Costly Signaling Hypothesis proposing that the unique methodological and linguistic rituals of our discipline are not better ways to do science, but rather merely costly signals, which can be thought of as similar to fraternity rituals that serve to band members of the group together. According to this hypothesis, the practices of behavior analysis make us different, but not demonstrably better. Sure, we have elaborate stories that we tell ourselves (and anyone else who will listen) about the advantages of our approach, but so does every religion, every political party, every culture, probably every scientific movement. Telling those stories doesn’t make them true.

The Costly Signaling Hypothesis was offered in response to the often-encountered claim by behavior analysts that they have developed superior ways of doing science and practice. I explained, in some detail, why much of what behavior analysts call evidence for their superiority is in fact either irrelevant or unpersuasive. With so much of the identity of behavior analysts wrapped up in assumptions about superiority, I thought readers would be itching to verify why behavior analysis is, in fact, better. I mean, history suggests that nothing riles up behavior analysts like needing to defend their discipline. In the intellectual cage match of ideas, criticism of behavior analysis is the ultimate Heel.

So I invited readers to be the Face, to critique the Costly Signaling Hypothesis with a short essay, and received a number of thoughtful submissions. Five semifinalists were posted for all to examine, and I invited readers to vote on the best response, with the winning essayist to receive a cool prize package.

So far so good… but here’s where things went off the rails. Unlike in wrestling, where the Heel motivates a ton of observer behavior, the contest evoked just the faintest whiff of reader interest. Only a few people voted — far too few to allow for any kind of objective choice of a winner. Those interesting essays on whether behavior analysis is better therefore represent a conversation left unfinished.

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“Face” it… We think we’re all that.

I cannot say why the contest died with a whimper, but my whole reason for creating it is that I worry about the status of self-reflection and critical thinking in our discipline. Perhaps we have gotten too used to quoting late-career Skinner, who assured us that the science he built is ironclad and unassailable. Or perhaps public demand for autism services — at this point, a rich source of largely noncontingent reinforcement — has made us complacent. Whatever the case, a lot of behavior analysts seem pretty enamored of their own legends. One hears a lot of reflexive regurgitating of the party line that we have the best thing going in science and practice… but the reasons given can be either vague (“natural science of behavior”) or a false dichotomy (some other approach is faulty, therefore ours must be amazing). We should take as informative feedback about the compellingness of these stories the fact that they have largely failed to register outside the field (i.e., a lot of everyday people, and a lot of smart folks in other disciplines, have not been impressed).

It probably won’t win me any friends to say this, but there is a technical name for people who “have an unreasonably high sense of their own importance.”

My own perspective, as a child of the Vietnam era, is that a patriot asks hard questions about Powers That Be. To me, to question behavior analysis is the supreme investment in the discipline. With or without silly contests, we should critique our own enterprise so thoroughly that no outsider can find a shortcoming we’re not already addressing. If you love behavior analysis, you can appreciate its successes, but you should constantly look for ways to make it better.

To be clear, I’m not opposed to the conclusion that behavior analysis is “better,” only saying that this conclusion ought to be reached on the basis of firm evidence.

I hope, therefore, that the conversation started by the essayists can continue. If the Costly Signaling Hypothesis, or any other Heel of an account that may trouble us, is bogus, let us identify on what objective basis. In the meantime, it’s worth considering that a lack of careful self-scrutiny is precisely what we’d expect to see in a discipline tightly woven together by costly signaling.

Time to move on. Hearty kudos to the essayists who put themselves out there and thought deeply about how behavior analysis stacks up as a discipline.

I’d like to recognize all of the finalists, below, by dividing the prize package up amongst them. For prizes, special thanks go to contest sponsors Operant Coffee, The Science of Consequences, Let’s Make a Contract, and The Wing Institute.

Oh, and by the way, it’s not too late to check out the finalists’ essays, and maybe to let them know what you think. Each essay is about a 2-minute read — worth your time.

Joe Dracobly, (University of North Texas)

The Wrong Target

Marvin Ivancic (J. Iversen Riddle Center, retired)

Is Behavior Analysis Really Better?

Ed Morris (University of Kansas)

Consequences, not Causes

Adam Fox (St. Lawrence University)

We All Want the Same Things

Nick Burkey (unaffiliated)

Applied Behavior Analysis is a Technological Failure