Behavioral Science in the 21st Century

Analysis and commentary of current events from a behavioral science perspective.


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Say This on a First Date...It's Science

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Source: recently discussed five scientifically-supported ways to increase the likelihood of a successful first date -- measured in terms of followup dates, self-report of connection felt during the date, and, yes, the probability of hooking up.

Let's get right to it:

1) Talk Travel, Not Movies: The probability of a second date doubles if you talk about travel rather than movies.  The rationale was "the conversations about travel tended to revolve around great holidays and dream destinations, and that makes people feel good and so appear more attractive."

2) How You Talk:  In other words, keep the conversation flowing smoothly.  You don't want to dominate the entire conversation with stories about you the whole time, but you don't want the reverse either.  Keep passing the ball back and forth and show a genuine interest in what your partner is saying.

3) Share Secrets:  Sharing secrets creates emotional connections with your partner, including feelings of connectedness.  Research has found particular questions can guide the conversation into places that create particularly strong emotional some cases stronger than a lifelong friendship.

4) Discuss Controversial Topics:  This might sound risky, but research shows that doing so typically makes for a more enjoyable experience.  Researchers found "when people are free to choose what type of discussions they want to have, they often gravitate toward an equilibrium that is easy to maintain but one that no one really enjoys or benefits from."  

5) Enjoy Beer:  The question of "do you like the taste of beer?" is the best predictor of hooking up on the first date, according to OkCupid.  In fact, "no matter their gender or orientation, beer-lovers are 60% more likely to be okay with sleeping with someone they've just met."

From the standpoint of Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA), two people are engaged in a social episode that may or may not occur again.  The probability of recurrence is a testament to how reinforcing the initial encounter was.  

So what makes interpersonal encounters reinforcing?  You have to relate to each other.  In other words, the things you say have to resonate with your partner such that your words evoke an interested response that keeps things enthusiastically moving along for both parties.

There are a few different angles of attack here from the behavioral literature:

First, check out the Valentine's Day bSci21 article titled "How to Fall in Love, Behaviorally" which discusses how to make yourself reinforcing to your partner.  

Second, the concept of "social episodes" as discussed above originated with Skinner (1953) in Science & Human Behavior.  He actually discussed two types.  Of course, in Verbal Behavior, he has many depictions of verbal interchanges that are highly related to the concept of social episodes.  Parrot (1982) has a different take on social episodes informed by J.R. Kantor's Interbehaviorism (see the bSci21 article titled "Radical Behaviorism ain't the only game in town.").  

Lastly, we must touch on the so-called "post-Skinnerian" account of language and cognition offered by Relational Frame Theory.  The dominant theme in the five points above centers on creating connections, or areas of overlapping repertoires.  The above conversational practices are ways to probe your partners repertoire via verbal relations.  The classic book in this area is the "purple book" titled "Relational Frame Theory" and a more recent, and more accessible "Learning RFT."

Do you think these tactics would work on a first date?  Let us know in the comments below.  Also, be sure to follow bSci21 on Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest.  Lastly, subscribe to bSci21 via email at the top of the page to receive updates directly to your inbox!

ISIS and Applied Behavior Analysis

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ISIS is the best financed group ever.

That is the opinion of Matthew Levitt, director of the Stein Program on Counterterrorism and Intelligence at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.  His opinion formed the crux of a recent CNN article detailing ISIS financial strategies.

The group brings in millions of dollars every single day from a number of sources including:

1) Oil Smuggling: ISIS took over oil wells and refineries in Iraq and Syria that became vulnerable after the U.S. pullout and the Syrian civil war.  Consumers pay around $7.50 per gallon of gas in the region, making cheap ISIS gasoline a bargain in comparison.

2) Organized Crime: Levitt (above) says ISIS "was born among crooks and thugs from a broken Iraq, and at its root it is a criminal enterprise."  According to Levitt, al Qaeda in Iraq, the Tawhid Network, the Zarqawi Network, and the Islamic State of Iraq have all merged together to form ISIS.  In ISIS controlled territory, you pay to do just about anything, including something as simple driving down a highway.  ISIS has also been known to loot banks such as the central bank in Mosul.  

3) Donations: Wealthy ISIS sympathizers in countries like Kuwait and Qatar have been known to donate generous sums of money to the group.

So what does any of this have to do with Applied Behavior Analysis?  A lot, actually.

Back in the 1980s behavior analysts and anthropologists did a lot of talking and found many commonalities between ABA and a particular anthropological perspective known as Cultural Materialism.  

Cultural Materialism states that the characteristics of a culture ultimately rest on the modes of production available to turn resources into usable things, or stimuli that occasion behavior.  In the case of ISIS, the three types of funding listed above constitute their modes of production.  The massive amounts of money gained in these ways is then exchanged for stimuli such as arms, ammunition, trucks, and infrastructure that comprises the Islamic State of ISIS.

What many in ABA likely don't think about is that our world is largely man made.  This means most of the stimuli we interact with have to be created or manufactured.  Modes of production are essential to this process.  

To read more about ABA and cultural materialism, a great starting place is Sigrid Glenn's (1988) paper titled "Contingencies and Metacontingencies: Toward a Synthesis of Behavior Analysis and Cultural Materialism."  Though the metacontingency concept has changed since then, the latter paper is a great springboard into this literature.  

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6 Ways to Improve your Delivery of Non-Contingent Reinforcement

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Non-Contingent Reinforcement (NCR) can be a powerful technique of behavior change.  The crucial element that makes NCR effective is that it breaks, or dilutes, the contingency between a target behavior and contingent consequences.  

This is accomplished by delivering the consequences that were maintaining the target behavior on a time-based schedule, independent of the behavior itself.  In this way, the individual can gain access to similar types of consequences that he/she was getting through disruptive behavior.

But do you know how to use it correctly?  Sam Blanco, MSED, BCBA at Different Roads provides a few best practices, which are briefly described below:

1) Match the Function -- Specifically, match the function of the behavior targeted for reduction.  In other words, if the target behavior is maintained by attention, provide attention on an NCR schedule.

2) Be Clear on Delivery Method -- Part of the delivery method will be informed by the function, but another aspect is the schedule of NCR delivery -- will it be constant or at particular time intervals?  Regardless of the interval, the crucial aspect is that NCR occurs independent of the target behavior.

3) Assess with Data -- How do you know if your NCR procedure is effective?  You need to take data!  To do this, you need to be clear on your target behavior(s) and replacement behaviors and the specific features you will measure (e.g., rate, duration, intensity, etc...).

4) Ecological Effects -- For example, if you provide NCR in the form of attention for a particular student at school, the other students may react in less-than-desirable ways.

5) Have an End Game -- You can't run NCR forever.  It needs to be faded eventually.  Be clear on when and how this is to be done.  #3 above is crucial in this regard.

6) Read the Literature -- Ensure your NCR procedure is informed by peer-reviewed research in reputable journals like the Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis and others.

To read more, visit the hyperlink to Sam's article above.  Please also share your experiences with NCR in the comments below!  Also, don't forget to subscribe to via email at the top of the page!

Behavioral Implications of the Digital Dark Age

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Vint Cerf, regarded as a father of the Internet, and a current Google executive, warns of a "digital Dark Age" according to the BBC.  
He warns that, as more of our lives move to the cloud, "future generations will have little or no record of the 21st century."  The reason is straightforward -- backward compatibility is not always possible as software rapidly evolves.  Thus, records that we have today may be incompatible tomorrow.  

He notes "what can happen over time is that even if we accumulate vast archives of digital content, we may not actually know what it is."  

His solution?  An idea called "digital vellum" which has been demonstrated by others recently.  

The idea "is to take an X-ray snapshot of the content and the application and the operating system together, with a description of the machine that it runs on....that digital snapshot will recreate the past in the future."

From the standpoint of Applied Behavior Analysis, the prospect of a Digital Dark Age reveals the extent to which daily behavior has fundamentally changed since even the 1990s (see the recent bSci21 article

"What Losing your Cellphone Does to your Behavior"). The topographies of our behavior are drastically narrowing to mouse clicks and finger twiches, while the functions of that narrow topography expand exponentially every day. In short, the Internet is extremely useful to our lives and most of our behavior is facilitated by it.

Behavior analysts have also written on communication networks and their role in behavior change, of which the Internet is the largest. I recommend checking out Houmanfar, Rodrigues, and Smith's (2009) paper titled "Role of Communication Networks in Behavioral Systems Analysis" and Sandakar's (2009) paper titled "A Selectionist Perspective on Systemic and Behavioral Change in Organizations" both in the Journal of Organizational Behavior Management.

As more and more of our behavior is dependent on technological networks, there is a greater risk to our daily functioning if those networks should malfunction.  It is better to prepare now, while we still can.

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Four Prolific Writing Tips from B.F. Skinner

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Back when I was a doctoral student at UNR, I came across an article by B.F. Skinner (1981) titled "How to Discover What you Have to Say -- A Talk to Students."  In it, Skinner provided tips on how to become a productive writer.  Though he geared his paper towards students, the lessons contained in the paper can apply to anyone wishing to improve their writing skills.

Skinner organized his paper by breaking the title into component pieces and discussing each in greater detail.  Here is a brief outline of what he said:

1) "How to" -- The question here is one of verbal self management.  Skinner notes that what we "express" in writing "are not preverbal ideas but the past history and present circumstances of the speaker."  The question posed by "how to" is how to arrange circumstances to express oneself most effectively.

2) "Discover" -- Skinner first recommends to "put yourself in the best possible condition for behaving verbally."  This includes eating a healthy diet, getting regular exercise, getting plenty of sleep, and avoiding drugs, alcohol, and tobacco.  You should also make yourself a special place to do your writing.  One that is comfortable and free of distractions.  Write in this place at the same time of day and do nothing else in this place.  Soon, the room will come to evoke verbal behavior automatically.

3) "You" -- The question here is "who is the you who has something to say?".  According to Skinner, "you" are the coherence between your genetic history and environmental history during your lifetime.  Interestingly, he notes "more than one history in one lifetime leads to multiple selves" which can be useful in writing fictional characters.  In a sense, you are creating yourself through a history of writing and reviewing what you write regularly to keep it fresh in your repertoire.

4)  "Have to Say" -- Skinner notes a few different meanings of the phrase, but states that aversive control may certainly exist if, for example, you get up at 5am every morning to write.  However, creating your special writing space, as noted above, increases the likelihood of your behavior contacting positive reinforcement for writing.  Skinner generated some clever ways of adding positive reinforcers to your writing environment, but you will have to read the article to find them.

There are many more tips in the article, which you can access through the hyperlink above.  Have you ever tried these writing tips?  Let us know in the comments below and don't forget to subscribe to via email at the top of the page!

Dimensions of Applied Behavior Analysis

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Training behavior analysts is tedious.  The intricacies of supervised fieldwork alone can be a harrowing experience for many -- meeting with interdisciplinary teams, parents, challenging clients, (and staff for that matter) seeing how psychotropic medications interact with your behavior plans, etc...

But underneath those experiences is your base -- your didactic training.  And within all of that literature, Baer, Wolf, and Risley's (1968) makes the shortlist for the most important reading of your behavioral training.  


Because Baer, Wolf, and Risley provide an identity to Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA).  Moreover, they do so by outlining seven dimensions of ABA that we briefly discuss below:

1) Applied -- This is a question of the types of problems targeted for intervention.  To be applied, the problem of interest must be of interest to greater society rather than theoreticians.  

2) Behavioral -- This one shouldn't come as any surprise.  As behavior analysts, we are interested in pragmatic behavior change.  We want to predict and influence behavior.  If our intervention does not produce such a change, we take a close look at what we did and figure out why.

3) Analytic -- Intimately tied to #2, we don't just look at behavior, we analyze behavior.  This means we must convincingly demonstrate the controlling variables of which behavior is a function.  We achieve the latter through our unique time-series research designs (e.g., multiple baseline, reversal, alternating treatments design, etc...).

4) Technological -- Technological refers to techniques.  We must make sure our techniques, or procedures, are sufficiently described in such a way that they can be replicated by others following a published report of your intervention.

5) Conceptual Systems -- This category acts as a counterweight to #4 above to ensure ABA is a "discipline rather than a collection of tricks."  The authors further note, "the field of applied behavior analysis will probably advance best if the published descriptions of its procedures are not only precisely technological, but also strive for relevance to principle."  In other words, techniques or procedures are not the same thing as behavioral principles or processes.  As a simple example, simply providing a consequence to a behavior is not the same thing as a principle of behavior.  One has to measure a resulting change in behavior to make statements regarding principles.  

6) Effective -- Very closely linked to #1 and #2, our interventions must produce pragmatic behavior change.  However, ABA has the additional requirement that the change be sufficiently large as to produce socially significant results for the individuals impacted by the intervention.  In the laboratory, the latter is not a requirement.

7) Generality -- What good is an intervention for a science of behavior if it only works one time with one individual and never again?  If that was the case, serious questions related to #3 (Analytic) would arise and one would suspect that the one-time result was a fluke.  Thus, our interventions must display generality, or be reproducible in a variety of behaviors and settings.  

Do you implement these dimensions in your work?  Tell us about your experiences and the obstacles you face in the comments below.  Also subscribe to bSci21 via email at the top of the page!

Predictive Policing: Mapping Future Crime with PredPol

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According to Forbes, police departments across America are paying up to $150,000 a year to PredPol, a predictive policing firm, to use its mapping technology to predict future crimes.  The technology utilizes an algorithm that calculates probabilities of future crime from masses of historical data. 

Forbes notes "two or three times a day in almost 60 cities across America, thousands of police officers line up for roll call at the beginning of their shifts.  They're handed a marked-up map of their beat and told: Between calls, go to the little red boxes..."  

Those red boxes are roughly half the size of a city block and have high probabilities of criminal activity.  

Jef Brantingham and George Mohler, who developed the algorithms found two primary factors in crime prediction -- fixed factors (e.g., an out of control bar) or a variable factor (e.g., a gang shooting that sparks retaliations).  The algorithms then calculate risk areas that are likely to see criminal activity that day.

Precincts using PredPol have seen decreases in crime compared to those not using the software.  A study with the LAPD found PredPol a better predictor of crime than their own crime analysts.

Interested readers can read a past bSci21 article on the successful utilization of predictive policing in San Francisco's BART system.  What is important to note here is that crime is being accurately predicted and influenced without looking at the behavior of particular individuals.  Rather, the data is sociological, concerned with incidence and prevalence of practices over time.  That doesn't mean behavior is not involved -- it certainly is -- but it would be impractical to examine the histories of particular individuals in order to predict future occurrences of crime.  

As always, please provide your comments below and subscribe to bSci21 via email at the top of the page to receive the latest updates directly to your inbox!