The Quest to Communicate About Behavior Analysis (#1 of 5): We Need to Be More Behavioral About This

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Reprinted by permission, with minor edits, from Journal of Behaviorology, 26(2), 15-17. The original was commentary on a target article by S.F. Ledoux arguing that institutions created by behaviorists are going to need to adapt quickly to have a chance at addressing the world’s very pressing problems.


It’s always reasonable to discuss how best to utilize institutions (organizations, journals, etc.) that advance the science of behavior, because the behaviorists who sustain these institutions have finite time and resources. And much of that is consumed in pursuing the science of behavior, which makes perfect sense, because unless a vibrant science exists, there is no point worrying about how to advance it.

With time and resources in short supply, there’s a premium on making the most of what’s available. When it comes to pursuing a science of behavior, we have come up with some pretty useful traditions to boost our odds of success. We’ve created best-practices standards for talking about phenomena, for generating theory, for designing experiments, and for delivering beneficial services; and we’ve developed robust objective methods of evaluating behavioral effects (e.g., Baer, et al., 1968).

When it comes to advancing the science of behavior, unfortunately, we have a tendency to lose our way, behaviorally speaking. We engage in practices that stymie, rather than promote, the growth and dissemination of our science, yielding isolation and fragmentation.

Isolation

Two things never in doubt about behaviorists are their passion for what they do and their commitment to the cause. The path to a credible science of behavior is “steep and thorny” (Skinner, 1975, p. 42), so of necessity there are no casual behaviorists. Because few have followed that path, we get little outside encouragement for our efforts, which can make for a lonely existence, as Skinner (1993) alluded in his final words to the faithful in “A world of our own.” But we persevere. We’re quite willing to suffer in order to advance the science of behavior.

So it has always been. In the 1950s through the 1970s, when the first institutions for advancing the science of behavior arose, isolation seemed a necessity. As Laties (1987) recalled about one pivotal development during this period:

In the early and mid-1950s, the group of psychologists who had been attracted to the study of operant conditioning found that the journals that seemed most appropriate as outlets for their work were not hospitable toward it…. by and large, few members of their editorial boards had much sympathy toward an approach that stressed the behavior of individual organisms and eschewed formal design and hypothesis testing…. By the beginning of 1957, this unhappiness had become so intense that a group… decided to start a new journal. This they did, the Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior (JEAB) first appearing in early 1958. (p. 495)

At the time, it seemed necessary to advance the new science of behavior, not by disseminating it, but rather by incubating it in stand-alone institutions in which like-minded scholars could shape each others’ repertoires free of outside interference. For the most part, this incubator model continues to define our institutions. Our conferences and journals remain places where behaviorists talk to other behaviorists, and outside influences are generally unwelcome. Some organizations view lack of behavioral credentials as grounds for excluding potential members. Behaviorally-unfriendly work is rarely sought or accepted for presentation at our meetings and publication in our journals.

In other words, despite considerable growth in and maturation of the science of behavior, our institutions functions more or less like they did many decades ago, perhaps spurred on by Skinner’s (1993) late-career characterization of isolation as sort of a badge of honor: “We have been accused of building our own ghetto, of refusing to make contact with [other disciplines]. Rather than break out of the ghetto, I think we should strengthen its walls” (p. 5). Now, perhaps in the 1950s the new science of behavior was not yet ready for dissemination. After all, when JEAB began you would have been hard pressed to find a laboratory study of the behavior of normally-developing adults, much less sophisticated technologies for changing their behavior in the field. Today, of course, the science of behavior has given rise to a myriad of applications (e.g., Heward, et al., 2022), such that advancing the science means spreading the good word. The time for incubating is long past.

Here is an unformalized principle of scientific and professional institutions: There is power in numbers. Whatever you want an institution to accomplish, you can accomplish more of it with a bigger team. The world’s problems are legion, while the number of behaviorists who might solve them is quite limited. The walls we have thrown up around our institutions assure that they remain sparsely populated, and thus, by ghetto-izing the science of behavior, we acquire very limited power to better the world.

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I am sure that some will object that the door has always been open to those who see utility in our way of doing things. What’s at issue is not the status of the door but rather how you get someone to walk through it. Whatever behaviorists may think they’re doing to disseminate the science of behavior, the objective reality is that people vote with their feet, and to my knowledge outsiders aren’t kicking down many doors to join us.

From a behavioral perspective, the only sensible response to our collective marginalization is to conduct a functional analysis to find out what caused it, and here I think we behaviorists have often fallen short of our own standards by, in effect, blaming the victim.

Allow me to justify that choice of words. As Skinner so often opined, people without a handle on behavior dynamics will lead less rich lives, and be less beneficial to others, than might be possible with sturdy behavioral insights. In this sense they are victims of entrenched cultural and verbal practices that harm more than they help — a reasonable interpretation. But to hear behaviorists talk about the problem, there is more to it. Often added to the account, for instance, is that people who misunderstand or reject us are so immersed in a non-behavioral culture that they’ll never get it. They are broken, and they can’t be fixed. This was Skinner’s (1993) fatalistic perspective in “A world of our own,” and it seems to be shared widely among Skinner’s intellectual descendants. Another type of “they’re broken” explanation doesn’t even focus on behavioral history. It portrays those who don’t appreciate the value of the science of behavior as patently mean-spirited and malicious. Or maybe just stupid(?).

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Is it really true that those who resist the science of behavior can’t change?

It should be obvious to anyone with behavioral expertise that characterological explanations have two troubling properties.  First, they run contrary to a behavioral perspective, which holds that anyone can, given the proper situational context, learn. If the organism is always right, isn’t the organism that never got excited about the science of behavior also right?  We would not say that a child has not learned to read because that’s impossible; we would say that we just haven’t discovered the supports required to shape up the necessary behavior.  In the same way, if people haven’t grasped how the science of behavior can benefit them, then we haven’t yet discovered the supports needed to make that happen. Keeping outsiders at arm’s length is not going to help in this regard.

Second, as should be obvious to anyone who understands functional analysis, characterological explanations conveniently insulate behaviorists from accountability for successful dissemination. We say, It’s not our fault that we haven’t saved the world! Because people can’t change! In no other arena of behavioral practice, aside from dissemination, would such a view be tolerated. As Bijou (1972) commented, “We wouldn’t think of teaching new social or academic behavior without some kind of a monitoring procedure to let us know how we are doing” (pp. 73-74) — with the emphasis on changing our behavior when it fails to change others’ behavior. If we aren’t selling the science of behavior effectively, we need to figure out a different way to sell it.

My assertion, overall, is that contemporary institutions should focus on advancing the science of behavior by disseminating it. This includes building a bigger team, that is, involving a far more diverse set of players than in the “incubator” days, which in turn requires persuading more people that we have something of value to offer them. How exactly to accomplish that I’m unsure, but one thing is certain: What behavioral institutions have been doing for decades is not working well. It’s time to try new things. To start with, then, we need to have an extensive, discipline-wide discussion about outreach strategies that adhere to the laws of behavior as we know them.

Fragmentation

Parlaying disciplinary discussion into a big, healthy, inclusive societal movement is not going to happen overnight — and in any case we first need to have the discussion. A prerequisite to that: Behaviorists will need to talk to one other, and sadly this is not common enough in the contemporary science of behavior. To help illustrate the problem, let me introduce you to a different group of passionate, committed believers. In my town there are a lot of Evangelical Christians. There are also a lot of Evangelical Christian churches. I mean a lot. What distinguishes the people involved is how they organize. When any one church starts to grow, exceeding perhaps a few dozen members, there’s a tendency for some of those members to break off to start their own church. As a result, Evangelical Christians are splintered into a vast number of little fiefdoms, most of which have little in the way of resources and person power.

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The science of behavior has become a house divided.

Behaviorists are like that, too. An example: Although we are a movement of modest size, we have something like 20 scholarly journals. Does anyone believe we produce enough top-notch scholarly work to support so many? Another example: I have lost count of all of the member organizations which have popped up at the international, national, regional, state, and local levels, not to mention all of the ancillary Boards, Institutes, Centers, and Foundations. Do we really have enough committed behaviorists, enough resources, to justify so many entities? See Postscript 1 for context about this.

Having been part of the administrative machinery of a number of these entities, I’ve seen that the core value embraced by many of them, even above the lofty goal of advancing the science of behavior, is to protect their autonomy and independence. That is, the behaviorists who support our various institutions have behaved as if the prime directive is to remain separate, not just from the outside world, but also from other behaviorists. Consequently, groups don’t often collaborate in ways that could multiply their impact and effectiveness (though see Postscript 2). Indeed, members of one group often disparage other groups for, in their view, implementing the behaviorist manifesto all wrong. This leaves us divided into such tiny silos that, well, when Skinner spoke of “we happy few,” I doubt he realized just how few that would be in each silo. The irony is that the things that divide us probably are indistinguishable to most outside observers.

Our Behavior is Behavior. And Don’t We Know Something About Behavior?

Cooperation is, of course, a form of behavior, and it seems that the customs built into behavioral institutions were not adequately designed to promote it. Recognizing this casts a melancholy pall over the fact that, during an incredible period stretching roughly from the 1950s through the 1970s, Skinner got the world’s attention for us. He didn’t always win friends, but he forced people to ponder what might be possible through a strategic application of behavior principles. Having accomplished this, Skinner turned the behaviorist movement over to us, and to a large degree we have built institutions that squandered the head start he gave us. Outside of the booming market for autism services, behaviorism is less societally relevant today than it was several decades ago. That happened because we didn’t function like behaviorists in devising the agenda for our movement and the institutions that represent it. It’s time to start living up to our own standards. Behavior can change (see Postscript 3), and ours needs to before there are too few of us left to make a difference. There’s a lot involved, but I propose we start by finding ways to get more behaviorists into fewer silos to we can concentrate our collective impact.

References

Baer, D. M., Wolf, M. M., & Risley, T. R. (1968). Some current dimensions of applied behavior analysisJournal of Applied Behavior Analysis1(1), 91-98.

Bijou, S. W. (1972). These kids have problems and our job is to do something for them. In J.B. Jordan & L.S. Robbins (Eds.). Let’s try doing something else kind of thing: Behavioral principles and the exceptional child (pp. 68-75). Council for Exceptional Children.

Heward, W., Critchfield, T. S., Reed, D. R., Detrich, R., & Kimball, J. (2022). ABA from A to Z: Behavior science applied to 350 domains of socially important behavior. Perspectives on Behavior Science, 45(2), 327-359.

Laties, V. G. (2008). The Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior at fifty. Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior, 89(1), 95-109.

Skinner, B. F. (1993). A world of our own. Behaviorology, 1, 1–5. Reprinted in European Journal of Behavior Analysis, 2014, 15(1), 20-24.


Postscript 1

The various organizations founded by behaviorists range in size from a few dozen to a few thousand members. By contrast, the American Quilter’s Society has 60,000. The entirely inconsequential Libertarian political party in the United States has 694,000. USA Triathlon has 400,000, and it’s at least as hard to train for triathlons as it is to do behavior science (maybe that’s an unfair comparison because this groups is hobby-focused and not necessarily devoted to changing the world. Note, however, that the American Psychological Association has 146,000 members). Big teams are needed to accomplish big jobs.

Postscript 2

A major behavior analysis conference just concluded. If you attended, how much evidence did you see of cooperation and collaboration between the host organization and others? I predict: not much. In fact, even within one large organization, various sub-groups rarely play nicely with one another. However, let me mention one encouraging example: ABAI’s Verbal Behavior and Experimental Analysis of Human Behavior Special Interest Groups are collaborating on a special issue of the latter’s long-running journal, the EAHB Bulletin (project description below; for information go to the Bulletin home page and scroll down the page).

The Experimental Analysis of Human Behavior Bulletin seeks manuscripts for a special issue on the topic of novel research areas or techniques for studying verbal behavior in humans. The aim of this special issue is to shed light on innovative approaches to studying verbal behavior acquisition, development, maintenance, and/or generalization. While the verbal behavior literature describing strategies to establish mands and tacts in individuals with autism is dense, there are other areas of verbal behavior that have received less attention….

Postscript 3

A relative exception to the insularity of behavioral institutions is the Association for Contextual Behavioral Science, which has attracted members representing a wide variety of disciplines, who focus on a correspondingly wide array of behavior issues (e.g., see tables of contents of the Journal of Contextual Behavioral Science, or JCBS). As I’ve noted in previous posts, among behavioral journals JCBS has been unusually successful in terms of dissemination impact; this may be no accident. Other behavioral institutions might start by learning from ACBS’s experiences of engaging with the mainstream.