Taking a Lesson from our Students in Activism & Advocacy

Co-authored by Dr. Melissa Swisher, Lecturer, Purdue University

If you’ve been following the March for Science lately, then you already know that students around the world went on strike (Brady & Ludden, 2019) earlier this month to protest institutional policies that ignore and exacerbate climate change (permanent link). Thousands of students missed a day of school for their public demonstrations, a decision that has been a point of criticism for some. Missing a day of school, however, was successful in getting attention. The inconvenience of a public demonstration is one of the strategies that many other successful movements have employed (see Mattaini, 2013 for other examples of strategic nonviolent options to promote change presented from a behavioral perspective). The most recent demonstration from these passionate and highly motivated teens who participated in and organized climate protests in the United States advocated for Congress to adopt the Green New Deal in order to shift to renewable energy sources by 2030.

Student activism isn’t new, and it happens so often there are guides available for those who want to get involved. Yet, despite several recent examples of student activism (e.g., Astor, 2018; Jason, 2018; Whitford, 2019), educators in general aren’t well-known for encouraging student activism and neither are behavior analysts in particular. Nevertheless, we should care because many students have expressed interest in activism and social issues, and behavior analysis might have something to offer (Malott, 2016).

Author: Anders Hellberg
CC BY-SA 4.0

Behavior analysts are effective at changing behavior at the individual and systems level (see Luke, Roose, Rakos, & Mattaini, 2017 for a review), and we keep urging researchers to study large-scale issues like climate change to develop prescriptive interventions (e.g., Chance & Heward, 2010; Twyman, 2010). At the individual level, we know we can get student-residents to save electricity (Bekker et al., 2010), decrease drivers’ gasoline consumption (Foxx & Hake, 1977; Jadro, 2017), and encourage shoppers to switch to reusable shopping bags (Kaplan, Gelino, & Reed, 2018) with behavior analytic interventions. Perhaps the most innovative solution was suggested by a precocious scientist who successfully increased his neighbors’ recycling (Keller, 2010), not unlike the teens striking for climate change.

But for some behavior analysts achieving Skinner’s (1987) dream of changing the world with behavior analysis is a reality (see also Chance, 2007; Dixon, Belisle, Rehfeldt, & Root, 2018; Rumph, 2005). Consider some recent examples of activism and advocacy that people like Kathleen Kinkade (Altus, 2009), Molly Benson (2017), Tony Nevin (2018), and Henry Schlinger, Jr. (2018) have personally realized by founding a Walden (Twin Oaks) community, participating in grassroots campaigns for community issues like zoning and immigration, and lending a public voice to The Venus Project, respectively.

Author: Olive, Jim
Public Domain

Behavior analysts are a relatively small group even within psychology, and societal change is slow–especially when we use a language foreign to those whose behavior we hope to influence (see Hawkins, 2000; Lindsley, 1991). Although few behavior analysts have explored activism and advocacy efforts from a behavioral perspective (see the ongoing special section on activism and advocacy in Behavior and Social Issues and the special section in Perspectives on Behavior Science on creating a sustainable world for exceptions) or considered how behavior analysis might provide insight into the contingencies in effect as a result of policy or laws (see Todorov, 2005 for an exception), many behavior analysts have been talking about this for some time (e.g., Fuqua, 2018; Heward & Chance, 2010; Reed, 2018). Apart from these noted few, other behavior analysts working in Cultural Behavioral Systems Science, and a few innovative but relatively isolated applications, we aren’t making a difference on the massive scale we could be.

We need cooperation to effect change (see Neuringer & Oleson, 2010; Nevin, 2010), which means we need to understand the mechanisms involved in getting people to work together toward a desired outcome, a focus in Cultural Behavioral Systems Science (cf., Glenn et al. 2016). Cooperation to enact change might mean international (Cihon, Artoni, Cavallini, & Corsano, 2018) and interdisciplinary partnerships (Brady, 1993) so we can truly experience freedom from aversive control with short- and long-term reinforcers (Cardinali de Fernandes & Dittrich, 2018).

Author: Vinoth Chandar
CC BY 2.0

We’ve seen how students are using their collective voices to potentially change public policy for the greater good, and as behavior analysts, we can help find effective ways to realize their vision. Good leadership is necessary for cultural change (Biglan & Embry, 2013; Houmanfar, Alavosius, Morford, Herbst, & Reimer, 2015; Houmanfar & Mattaini, 2016), and we know how to teach young leaders to translate ideas into action with a behavioral protocol (Grigsby, 2015), behavior analytic problem-solving techniques, and understanding how behavior occurs under natural conditions. Let’s take our students’ example and work together toward translating all that research into large-scale, effective interventions.