Behavioral Science in the 21st Century

Promoting behavior analysis as a comprehensive science of behavior since 2011.


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Working to Quit, Quitting to Work: Drug Recovery and the Workplace

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Chelsea Wilhite, M.A.
University of Nevada, Reno
by Chelsea Wilhite, M.A.
bSci21 contributing writer

The Office of National Drug Control Policy recently honored Johns Hopkins University’s School of Medicine researcher Kenneth Silverman for his work with drug addiction recovery programs.  Silverman, a professor of psychiatry and a behavior scientist, investigates the efficacy of “therapeutic workplaces” in which recovering heroin and cocaine users have the opportunity to earn wages contingent upon abstaining from drug use. Research results show workers in therapeutic workplaces stay clean longer than workers in other treatment programs.  Furthermore, paying people to refrain from using drugs is highly effective as a long-term treatment, even for chronic drug users.

The idea of cash for quitting relates to behavior analysis on a number of levels:

1) Because access to the opportunity to the workplace where they can earn money and bonuses is contingent upon engaging in behavior other than drug use, the program is reinforcing an alternative behavior.

2) It addresses the delay discounting issue with which many substance abusers struggle (see bSci21’s recent post about the January 2015 special issue of JEAB).  While drug use results in immediate reinforcement, reinforcers in traditional substance abuse programs are far in the future (e.g., you have to stay clean for weeks or months before being able to hold down a job) hence seem to have less value.  Therapeutic workplaces provide near-immediate reinforcement via frequent paychecks and bonuses for working and abstaining from drug use.

3) Furthermore, the therapeutic workplace deals with relapse in accordance with behavior analytic principles.  If a urine test shows no drugs in the person’s system, that person gains access to the workplace and the ability to earn money.  However, if the urine test is positive for drug use, the person does not gain access to the workplace and instead can have another chance the following work period.

4) Researchers have examined some of the externalities (e.g., Biglan, 2009) associated with this approach to drug addiction treatment and found the financial cost alone is less that of other treatment approaches.  Other variables being examined include HIV risk and family poverty levels.

The next logical steps in this line of research would involve further replication and extension of the therapeutic workplace model, including ways to transition participants into more traditional types of employment settings. Dr. Silverman says he is already preparing for the next phase in this line of research.  He and his team are pursuing three models “to apply the therapeutic workplace approach more broadly in society.

What do you think about Dr. Silverman's work?  Let us know 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!

About the author:
Chelsea Wilhite, M.A. has always wanted to better understand the world around us.  As a television journalist, Chelsea worked her way up the ranks to produce the number one rated television news broadcast in the Fresno television market, an area covering five California counties.  Along the way, she won two regional news Emmys and a Radio and Television News Directors Award for best news producer.  In an effort to further her understanding of natural phenomena, Chelsea left television after more than a decade, turning to Behavior Analysis.  She is currently a doctoral student at the University of Nevada, Reno.  While behavior science research and instruction is now her primary interest, Chelsea never lost her passion for journalism and regularly contributes to behavior science oriented blogs, magazines, and newsletters.

The Germanwings Crash: An Industry Problem with a Relational Frame Theory Solution.

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NBC News recently ran a story on the tragic Germanwings crash that occurred earlier this week.  One of the pilots, Andreas Lubitz, locked his fellow pilot out of the cockpit and descended the plane straight into the French Alps.

The focus of the story was on the mental health screening system in the airline industry. The central question for  behavioral scientists was put nicely by John Gadzinski, an aviation safety consultant — “It doesn’t matter if it’s a person who has an AR-15 shooting out 4 year olds or a pilot who’s going to kill 150 people on an airplane….The question is how do you prevent a statistically unlikely event from catastrophically occurring?”

Across airlines, no consistency exists on mental health screening and most rely on self report, which can be relatively easy to trick. Any time you give someone a standard survey battery, the individual typically has time to formulate socially desirable responses to the items, which could be indicators of how someone wants to be seen rather than true indicators of a individual’s psychological state.

This is where behavior analysts bring something to the table.  For several years, researchers have refined the Implicit Relational Assessment Procedure, or IRAP for short. The IRAP basically works like this: a user is presented with a stimulus, which can be a word or an image, such as a person of a particular ethnicity.  Next, the user is presented with a contextual cue, such as “good, bad, hate, love,” etc...  The user then has a very brief amount of time to select a response that is consistent or inconsistent with his/her own relational network, or verbal repertoire (e.g., 0-2 seconds).  The time pressure keeps the user from emitting an elaborated relational response that may be deemed socially acceptable to others who may see the results.  

Thus, the IRAP has been touted as as a new type of lie-detector of sorts in that it is notably difficult to "fake" results and has been used to detect bias on socially sensitive issues such as prejudice.  The idea is that responding in a way that is inconsistent with ones own relational network requires a few extra milliseconds than would responding consistently.

For a great introduction to the IRAP see this article from The Psychological Record, and be sure to check out all of the great resources at

Do you have experience with the IRAP?  Let us know if you think it would work for airlines 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!

The Chief Behavioral Officer in Fortune 500 Companies

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Does your company have a Chief Behavioral Officer?  John Balz, CBO of Opower, makes a case for one.  According to his article, the position is on the rise in Fortune 500 companies.  But what exactly does a CBO do?

The ultimate goal of the CBO, like that of the larger company, is to enhance the customer experience.  The CBO is someone who is fluent in behavioral science research and can translate that knowledge into a better customer experience.  For example, John cites Merril Lynch's Face Retirement tool that "helps customers save for retirement by bringing them face to face with a digitally aged picture of themselves as a way to help establish a stronger connection between the present and the future."

Most relevant to behavior analysis specifically, is Hulu's advertising model which resembles a basic delay discounting scenario.  Hulu customers can decide between one of two advertising options.  In the first option, customers can sit through a long ad at the beginning of their show, followed by an ad free experience for the rest of the show.  Alternatively, customers can watch the show immediately, and forego that extra long ad at the beginning, but their show will be intermittently interrupted with short commercials.  Customers like choice.  When you give it to them, it enhances their experience of your product and they are more likely to return to your company in the future.

To read more about the Chief Behavioral Officer, click on the hyperlink at the beginning of the article.  

What do you think about the CBO?  Is it needed?  Let us know in the comments below.  Also consider joining bSci21 on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and via email subscription at the top of the page!