Quick Take: Sometimes They Get It Right


I have been in behavior analysis a long time, long enough to have heard quite a bit of grousing, whining, protesting, and bellyaching about portrayals of behavior analysis in popular media. Let someone — in a newsmagazine, social media platform, trade book, blog, or whatever — describe behavior analysis in a way of which we disapprove, and we howl with outrage. And perhaps rightly so, although I tend to think that if folks out there misunderstand us, we bear some responsibility for having not educated them properly. In any case, what I rarely encounter is the same decibel level of response being directed toward instances where behavior analysis is portrayed accurately. I mean, sure, behavior analysts love Catherine Maurice, but how many times a year does someone alert you to a case of good reporting or balanced commentary about behavior analysis in popular media? Not often, I bet.

It’s therefore worth checking out a March 14 report on NBCNews.com by Gretchen Morgenson about the adverse effects of venture-capital investment on applied behavior analysis (ABA) services. To ABA insiders, the report’s details probably qualify as old news, but that’s beside the point. This is an earnest effort at fair reporting that gets the basics pretty much right.

As you read the article, ask yourself this pop-quiz question: What is a behavior analyst expected do when encountering behavior that should be repeated?

During my time in behavior analysis I’ve seen a lot of letter-writing campaigns object to, and attempt to correct, bogus portrayals of behavior analysis. Only rarely have I seen systematic efforts to let writers know that we appreciate what they got right. And the truth is that decent descriptions of behavior analysis pop up fairly often. We should be doing more to celebrate that.

The Society for the Advancement of Behavior Analysis sponsors an award for “Effective Dissemination of Behavior Analysis in the Mass Media.” This would seem a perfect mechanism to reward mainstream writers who do right by us. But check out the list of past winners … they are mostly behavior analysts! To be sure, I’m a big fan of behavior analysts with the right skill set doing their part to disseminate via popular media (watch for an upcoming post on this topic!). But the truth is that not a lot of behavior analysts have that skill set, much less the time to employ it around the edges of their everyday work at bench or bedside. And, anyway, getting behavior analysts to speak accurately about behavior analysis isn’t the issue. So why are we wasting accolades on people who are already in our corner?

Recently I’ve posted about a couple of other cases where behavior science got a pretty fair shake in popular media:

I wonder how many of you reached out to Tony Evans or Brian Consiglio to thank them for doing their homework and for crafting their prose with care and precision? I can’t speak to other media, but through my daughter, an investigative reporter for the Tampa Bay Times, I have met many professional journalists who work every bit as hard at their craft as behavior analysts do. They sweat the research, they write carefully, and they must answer to editors who hold their articles to high standards of clarity and accuracy. What professional journalists want, more than anything, is to get the story right. And when they portray us accurately, they deserve our gratitude and will appreciate hearing from people in the know that their hard work paid off.

It is, of course, important for us to be mature about this, in two ways. First, we have to recognize that “getting the story right” doesn’t always mean fawning over our discipline. In the case of ABA’s venture-capital fiasco, let’s face it, the story isn’t universally friendly to ABA. Poor agency management has in fact caused lousy services to be delivered under the banner of ABA (and probably ruined ABA for some well-meaning practitioners). Second, we have to keep in mind that writers like NBCNews’ Gretchen Morgenson aren’t our public relations flunkies. Their job is to report, not to promote. What we can demand of popular press writers, all we can demand, is that they get the story right. And when they do we should clap them heartily on the back and convey our appreciation. Trust me, it will function as positive reinforcement.

In a now-classic 1981 paper, the great Don Baer remarked that

 [We must] find the ways necessary to get the positive reinforcement principle implemented in every real–world situation needful of it. The principle underlying positive reinforcement will be the same in every one of those situations, once they succeed; but the procedures necessary to accomplish that success will be…quite varied.

Sometimes it seems we’ve forgotten that writing is behavior and writers are behaving organisms. When their efforts fall short, the first instinct of a lot of behavior analysts is to deliver a good old-fashioned metaphorical whooping. So where is the praise when their efforts are spot on? Any practitioner with this kind of praise-to-reprimand ratio would be judged as sorely lacking, even incompetent. We can and should do better.

By the way, it’s easy to reach out to most writers, who include links for just this purpose. In the news media, for instance, typically all you have to do is click on the reporter’s name in the byline. For your convenience, here’s the contact info for the three writers mentioned in this post.

All I’m saying is: When you read something you think is accurate, take a moment to tell the writer what was good about it. For a behavior analyst who understands the power of praise, doing so should be second nature.