Behavioral Science in the 21st Century

The world according to behavioral science.


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Changing the World with ACT, Evolution, and the PROSOCIAL Project

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Tom Szabo, PhD, BCBA-D
By Tom Szabo, PhD, BCBA-D Contributing Writer

What happens when we overfish the waters, strip minerals from the land, and clear-cut the forests in a world of finite resources? What happens to neighborhood, public, and business groups that share materials without a plan for managing the commons? A broad way of framing the question is, what happens when individual interests overshadow the need for community stewardship? The answer is only too clear – devastation of the neighborhood, the group, the ecosystem, the planet. Surely a system is needed to help us keep in check our appetites for natural resources and other goods. But what kind of resource management system should we engineer?

During the last century, two overarching strategies have vied for ascendency in answering this question: top-down regulation and privatization. Darwin’s contest between altruistic and selfish social strategies has been played out on the stages of government, private industry, and public institution. The two approaches appear to be polar opposites, and yet they share a gloomy view that cooperative groups of humans cannot be entrusted with the public good. But in 1990, an economist who had worked with common-pool resource use among those sharing water in the greater Los Angeles area questioned the logic of both approaches in her work, Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action. Elinor Ostrom, who went on to win the Nobel Prize in economics, argued that neither government nor private interests are needed to manage common resources. Her work took her to the far reaches of Africa and Nepal to study the practices of diverse common pool resource institutions. In the process, Ostrom found eight principles of group function, a sort of blueprint for self-governance. Groups that coordinated their interactions with attention to these principles did not perish; nor did they merely survive. In essence, Ostrom found that these groups thrived.

Ostrom’s work caught the attention of David Sloan Wilson, a biologist interested in using evolutionary science to improve neighborhoods and community institutions. Wilson contacted Ostrom, and together they drafted Generalizing the Core Design Principles for the Efficacy of Groups, a paper showing that the ingredients of group function Ostrom had articulated followed foundational evolutionary principles that apply to community groups, schools, hospitals, municipal governments, and other organizations.

But the question remained as to how to teach groups to utilize these instruments of organizational coordination. That’s when Wilson contacted Steven C. Hayes, Foundation Professor of Psychology at the University of Nevada, Reno and co-developer of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). ACT is a behavior analytic approach to building performance flexibility when normal psychological processes pull toward rigid patterns of behavior that are out of synch with a person’s core values. Wilson recognized a fit for ACT in bringing Ostrom’s design principles to community, government, and organizational groups. By infusing them with a sense of openness and curiosity about their immediate experience of themselves, groups can be led to articulate their mission and generate a workable plan for managing their future behavioral and cultural change.

Today, behavior scientists trained in the ACT model of behavioral flexibility teamed with Wilson and the Evolution Institute have developed PROSOCIAL, an international research project that aids groups learning to use “Ostom’s 8” and collects data that will further the emerging science of intentional change. Given the need for managing change at every level including that of individuals seeking to improve their lives, neighborhoods building a common purpose, and nations attempting to strengthen their bonds with bordering states, the time is ripe for science to enter into the conversation for evolving behavioral and cultural practices that nimbly respond to changing environmental dynamics. PROSOCIAL is an experiment in behavioral engineering aimed at facilitating such intentional change.

Students of behavior analysis may recall that B. F. Skinner wrote Walden Two as an account of how a thousand people could work together to solve common problems with the help of behavioral technology. In common with Ostrom, Skinner read E. F. Schumacher’s book, Small is Beautiful, and determined that by arranging effective contingencies of reinforcement, small groups could overcome problems such as the exhaustion of resources, pollution, crime, delinquency, and overcrowding. But Skinner’s and Ostrom’s visions did not stop there. Both sought to use science to generate a technology of change suitable for the world stage. Both recognized that what we need is not a new kind of government, but knowledge of human behavior and ways to apply that knowledge to the design of cultural practices.

If you are interested in learning more about PROSOCIAL, you may find valuable information here:

We would love to hear your thoughts in the comments below. Also don't forget to join bSci21 on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and via email subscription at the top of the page!

Recommended Reading:

Wilson, D. S., Hayes, S. C., Biglan, A., & Embry, D. (2014). Evolving the future: Toward a science of intentional change. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 37, 395-416. doi: 

About the Author:

Thomas G. Szabo, PhD., BCBA-D graduated from the University of Nevada, Reno after participating in the research labs of Steven C. Hayes and W. Larry Williams. He is currently Assistant Professor and Site Director of the Florida Institute of Technology School of Behavior Analysis Hybrid Master’s Program at CARD (Los Angeles), and he lives in Thousand Oaks, California. Tom's research interests includes clinical applications of Relational Frame Theory and behavioral flexibility training for a variety of populations including children, children with autism and related disorders, parents, and organizations. 

ABA and Psychological Warfare (PsyOps)

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If you live in the UK, a new British Army unit may have the job you have always wanted.  The unit, the 77th Brigade, will utilize Psychological Operations (PsyOps) and cyber-warfare to counter the behavior of ISIS and other groups online and influence public opinion.  Among the desired skills is a familiarity with social media.  

The Brigade "recognizes that the actions of others in a modern battlefield can be affected in ways that are no necessarily violent." Common actions include influencing discussions in online forums and news sites.

Other countries are also known to have so-called "propaganda units" such as the Israel Defense Force, Iran, and North Korea.  

To read more about propaganda from an Applied Behavior Analysis perspective, Rakos (1993) offers a heuristic model of propaganda in relation to the Gulf War which incorporates rules, establishing operations, and discriminative stimuli.  The ultimate function is, of course, persuasion.  

Please share your thoughts in the comments below!  Also don't forget to follow bSci21 on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and via email subscription at the top of the page!

Whatever happened to "saving the world" with ABA?

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Drs. Mark Mattaini and Molli Luke provide a provocative editorial for the newest issue of Behavior and Social Issues, titled "'Saving the World' with a Matrix."  Their goal is to answer the question of why behavior analysts aren't doing more to save the world -- a question posed by Skinner decades earlier.  

According to Mattaini and Luke, there is a real demand for behavior analysts interested in behavioral systems analysis but such individuals are few and far between (but see two JOBM special issues on systems here and here).  Such a state of affairs is a bit ironic as anyone familiar with Skinner's writings might view the amelioration of social issues as something of a mission statement for behavior analysis.

As a first step towards a solution, Dr. Luke has conducted a series of interviews with prominent behavior analysts currently working in the before-mentioned areas to examine obstacles and potential solutions to the issue.  In her long list of findings, one theme predominates -- the need for interdisciplinary study, in coursework, practical experience, and research.

Mattaini and Luke aim to build a matrix of sorts that will guide best practices applicable to 26 different sectors of society.  The matrix itself can then serve as a spring board for future research to empirically determine optimal methods of embedding the science and practice of behavior analysis into larger society.

To read more about Mattaini and Luke's project, visit the hyperlink at the top of the page.  

We would also love to hear your opinions on this issue in the comments below!  Don't forget to join bSci21 on Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest and subscribe via email at the top of the page!