Behavioral Science in the 21st Century

The world according to behavioral science.


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Dream Research in Applied Behavior Analysis

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Lucid dreaming -- we've all done it at some point in our lives.  That's the type of dreaming in which you realize you are dreaming inside of the dream.  The experience is usually pretty enjoyable as you can consciously control what you do, where you go, and who you interact with.  Better still, the latter aren't bound by the laws of nature, meaning you can fly or travel long distances in the blink of an eye.

IFLscience recently reported on a study on this very topic. Researchers from the Max Planck Institute screened participants for lucid dreaming ability and assigned them to groups of high- and low-skilled lucid dreamers.  The main finding?  The area of the brain known as the anterior prefrontal cortex was significantly larger in the skilled lucid dreamers.  The latter region is important in important cognitive processes including metacognition, or the ability to think about thinking.  B. F. Skinner would refer to the latter in terms of self knowledge -- a type of behavior.

In the world of Applied Behavior Analysis, dreaming has received virtually no attention.  However, an article by Dixon and Hayes (1999) is a must-read for behavior analysts interested in the topic.  Their article, "A Behavioral Analysis of Dreaming," reviews the history of scientific thought on the phenomenon and links it to B. F. Skinner's Radical Behaviorism and J. R. Kantor's Interbehaviorism. 

Those familiar with Skinner's writings recall his numerous discussions of perceptual behavior, conceptualized as seeing or hearing in the absence of the things themselves.  Kantor's analysis of implicit behavior is vaguely similar, though different in many important ways discussed by Dixon and Hayes. 

Unfortunately, the article is not freely available to those without access to a scholarly database.  If you would like to know specifically how one comes to engage in dreaming as behavior, you can find it in The Psychological Record Vol. 49(4).

Empirical dream research is untouched in behavior analysis. However, at the level of theory and philosophy, there is nothing stopping behavior analysts from pioneering an entirely new field. Will it be you?

Your comments are appreciated.  Please leave them below and also consider subscribing to via email at the top of the page.

A Behavior-Based Sustainability Project at Lake Tahoe

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Continuing in the trend of our recent sustainability-related article "Applied Behavior Analysis Reduces Electricity Use in Northern Ireland," we report here on another sustainability project from the journal Behavior and Social Issues.  

Leeming, Hansen, Alavosius, and Reimer (2013) present a case study of Embassy Suites at Lake Tahoe and their transition to behavior-based programs to encourage sustainable practices.  A critical target of intervention in organizations is that of leader decision making.  If one can influence the leaders of an organization, then system-wide policy changes can be implemented.  Because an organization has to minimize costs in order to survive, leaders are likely to agree to new initiatives only if one can demonstrate the potential to cut costs and improve profits.  

Many changes discussed in the article related to efficiency behaviors, or "one-time behaviors that modify current environmental impact typically through the adoption of technologies that produce benefits through their continued use" (p. 27).  Many include energy management systems with feedback systems designed to respond to occupant's behavior.  However, the authors note that automated systems can only do so much.  Non-technological initiatives involved setting up prompts to distinguish among recyclable vs. waste material, and training and materials for composting food waste.

To assess the impact of these and many other changes discussed in the article, teams of observers from the University of Nevada, Reno frequently visited the hotel to conduct organization-wide assessments.  To read about what they found, and for more details on the project, read the freely available article at the BSI site here.

As always, please comment below and be sure to subscribe via email at the top of the page to receive all the latest from!

Editorial: bSci21 is Firing on All Cylinders

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Dr. Todd Ward, BCBA-D
In January of 2015, Behavioral Science in the 21st Century transitioned from a casual blog to an official company. Since that time, the site underwent a significant change, with a professional design and company logo.  The goal of the site is to disseminate behavioral science, achieved a number of ways described below.  The site is predominantly behavior analytic, focusing specifically on Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA).  However, work from other sciences that share the same analytic goals (i.e., the prediction and influence of behavior) is also welcome.  In only a few weeks, daily readership has skyrocketed along with a rapidly growing list of email subscribers.  And all signs point to increasing trends for the foreseeable future

In the past few weeks, I have learned a few things about the behavioral community.  First, articles on autism are in high demand, which shouldn’t really be a surprise.  Autism is the bread-and-butter of the field and is central to the growth of ABA.  The dissemination of autism-related work should continue unabated.  However, demand for the dissemination of other work in the field is equally as strong.  The latter is a theme I often hear from you, the reader.  The site statistics also support this notion.  By far the most read articles relate to active lifestyles (see How ABA Can Get You Off theCouch) and sustainable energy use (see Applied Behavior Analysis ReducedElectricity Use in Northern Ireland).

The site achieves its goals through the production of three types of articles.  The first pertains to the analysis and commentary of current events in the news that are then linked back to ABA in some way.  For example, recent stories on predictive policing (see Predictive Policing and Applied Behavior Analysis) and ISIS (see A Behavioral Analysis of ISIS and Collective Violence) fall into this category.  Second is the reporting of research in behavior analysis or other sciences.  If the research is non behavior analytic, an effort is made to link it to the field.  Last, but not least, are interviews.  We have a number of interviews in various stages of production from behavior analysts in the U.S. and Europe.  All interviews discus interesting research or other projects currently underway by behavior analysts.  Our first interview was with Carolyn Brayko, the editor of the Organizational Behavior Management Network Newsletter.  Next we published an interview discussing sustainability work at Fresno State, and others are in the works from behavior analysts in Minnesota and Spain. 

In conclusion, I want to thank you for your support of  Without you, the site could not have the impact that it does.  If you ever have feedback on the site, or future work you would like to see, or receive publicity for your project via an interview article, please do not hesitate to email me at


Todd A. Ward, PhD, BCBA-D
Editor-in-Chief, Behavioral Science in the 21st Century

Applied Behavior Analysis and Counterterrorism

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If one had to describe global events of the 21st century in one word, it would likely be this -- terrorism.  Terrorism may be thought of as an interplay between two broad categories of organizations – terror cells (e.g., Al Qaida, ISIS, and Boko Haram) and counterterrorism agencies (e.g., CIA, FBI, and SOCOM).  Broadly speaking, the likelihood of a terrorist attack waxes and wanes depending on who has the upper hand in the terror-counterterror dual.  The likelihood of an attack is something that people from a variety of sectors are trying to predict and quantify in terms of terror risk. 

Scientific American recently published an article on efforts to calculate this risk not only to bolster counterterrorism efforts but for companies selling terrorism insurance to businesses.  The 9/11 attacks, for example, produced insured losses of more than $40 billion.  Companies such as Risk Management Solutions focus their efforts on refining models to predict terror attacks for insurance agencies.

But to accurately predict a phenomenon, you need good data.  The Global Terrorism Database is an excellent source of worldwide terror attacks, but it is not without flaws.  For example, the very definition of terrorism itself and its distinction from other violent acts is subject to debate.  Moreover, as Erwann Michel-Kerjan of the Wharton Risk Center notes, “you cannot reliably track terrorism risk without access to classified information.”

Aaron Clauset of the University of Colorado Boulder developed a model of terror attacks based on a power law correlating smaller incidents with rare yet extremely destructive attacks on the scale of 9/11.  His model predicts a 30% chance of another major attack occurring within the next decade.  However, that 30% is a global probability – it cannot predict where attacks are likely to occur at the level of cities or businesses. 

From the standpoint of Applied Behavior Analysis, how are we to contribute to the amelioration of what is perhaps the most critical issue of the modern era?  We see here, as we did with a previous bSci21 article on Predictive Policing, that the analysis of the problem is not at the level of individual behavior – in fact, doing so would be extremely impractical and counterproductive.  The critical measures here are not the probability that a given individual will commit an act of terror.  Rather, the measures of interest are the incidence (i.e., the frequency of terror acts) and prevalence (i.e., the number of people engaged in terror acts) of terrorism in a given population. 

To affect terrorism then, one must focus on broad sociological conditions of a given country or region.  The question for behavior analysts, then, is how a science of individual behavior can connect to work on broad social issues like terrorism.  Certainly terrorism is based on individual behavior, but “terrorism” as a phenomenon is not practically analyzed with the behavior of particular people in mind.  There is at least one exception,– the analysis of terror leaders.  These individuals exert power and influence over wide numbers of people through the issuing of policies and ideology that then affect acts of terror.  But these people don’t act in a vacuum – their behavior is nested within broad sociological conditions as well.  What the ABA community needs is a clear articulation of how it’s subject matter (i.e., functional relations among stimulating and responding of individuals) fit into an interdisciplinary framework for comprehensively addressing social issues.

For related resources in ABA, the Journal of Organizational Behavior Management and Behavior and Social Issues have many articles focused on leadership behavior and models for the analysis of cultural phenomena via the metacontingency and behavioral systems analysis.  Give them a search when you get a chance.

As always, your comments are appreciated.  Please also consider subscribing to via email at the top of the page to receive all the latest updates directly to your inbox.

bSci21 Exclusive Interview: Criss Wilhite and the Fresno State Sustainability Project

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Chris Wilhite, M.A.
Fresno State Sustainability Project
Tell us a little about yourself. What is your background in behavior analysis? 

I received a Master of Arts in Experimental Psychology in 1986 from California State University, Fresno. I had two mentors, the well-known social psychologist, Robert V. Levine, and the late Gene Steinhauer who did research in operant conditioning. Much of my graduate work involved testing mathematical models, including Rescorla-Wagner, the Matching Law and the Daly and Daly. I was hired at Fresno State upon graduation and taught both Social Psychology (always from a behavior analytic perspective) and Learning and Behavior for many years. In 1997, I began doing applied work to supplement my income. This opened my eyes to the need for trained behavior analysts in the area. I proposed an undergraduate ABA program to our department and it was implemented in the fall of 1998. I became a BCBA in 2001. By 2004, we had a graduate program which is currently directed by Marianne Jackson who joined the faculty in 2008. We now have three additional full-time faculty (JP Moschella, Steven Payne, and Sharlet Rafacz) two part-time faculty, and the Behavioral Science Institute, with Timothy Yeager at the helm. The Institute provides early intervention, behavior intervention services, positive parenting, and social skills training. We have five BCBAs and BCBA-ready staff members in addition to faculty and the director.

Tell us about the Fresno State Sustainability Project. What is its mission and how did it come about? 

The FSSP started just two years ago. The focus on sustainability at ABAI in 2009 prompted me to begin individual sustainability behavior change projects with students that fall. I realized that I was not having a large enough impact on the problem with my 100 or so students doing individual projects each year. In late 2012, JP Moschella, who teaches our undergraduate OBM course, and I had been discussing developing sustainability projects at the cultural, rather than individual level. My daughter, Chelsea Wilhite, a doctoral student in the University of Nevada, Reno’s behavior analysis program, helped us refine our view of cultural change using the model developed by Ramona Houmanfar (Houmanfar, Rodrigues & Ward, 2010). At the College of Science and Mathematics holiday party, we met Mara Brady and Beth Weinman, two new faculty in the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences, and discussed sustainability with them. We agreed that making Fresno State a model of sustainability could positively influence practices in Central California. We formalized the group in the January of 2013, started teaching in each other’s courses, and proposed the goals of FSSP to our Dean, to Plant Operations, to anyone who would meet with us. The Houmanfar et al model was very helpful in that we constantly strove to find reinforcers to deliver and aversives to meliorate with each group we met. By the end of the semester, we had some buy-in on campus and a grant from the CSU Chancellor’s office. The grant allowed us to bring students on board, with stipends, for the academic year 2013-2014. We were fortunate to have 10 students, many from Fresno State’s Smittcamp Honor College, and one of our ABA graduate students, join us. The students put on monthly Green Bag Lunches and a week-long Earth Day Celebration in April. A major project, in coordination with Plant Operations and the Richter Center for Community Engagement, was the installation of a water-wise garden on campus. In the fall of 2014, we received approval and funding to put on a Sustainability Summit as a kick off to develop a sustainability institute. We had faculty and students from almost every college on campus along with representatives from business and government participating.

Tell us more about the team and its projects. 

The Fresno State Sustainability Project (FSSP) consists of a core team of about 15. It now includes faculty, plant operations staff, and students. In the fall of 2014, we submitted a proposal to create the Institute of Sustainable Education and Engagement (ISEE) on campus. It was accepted. University President Joseph Castro and his office are actively supporting us. As a central hub of activity related to sustainability, ISEE will promote synergies among learning, scholarship, teaching and practice. ISEE will contribute to the common goal of improving the campus and greater community through promoting and informing individual and institutional practices that improve quality of life, the economy and the environment.

What is the long-term vision for the FSSP? 

We will promote ISEE which will coordinate and further develop all the wonderful projects, research and coursework on campus. The faculty, which now includes Steven Payne, have encouraged the FSSP to become a student-driven group. We have seen these students work, solve problems, promote sustainable practice, do research, present at conferences and train the next generation to do the same thing. I expect FSSP to continue in a robust way in coordination with ISEE.

In your opinion, what is the state of sustainability research in behavior analysis today? 

The 2009 ABAI conference with its sustainability track was seminal. Bill Heward and Paul Chance did a great job with the special edition on sustainability in The Behavior Analyst in 2010. The Sustainability Conference at Ohio State was a success. I think more behavior analysts are involved with sustainability because of these events. One big impediment is that we are so swamped with practice and research related to our clinical work that most of us have too little time. Unlike our efforts with people with special needs, there are few fee-for-service activities available to us in sustainability. Although grants are available for this work, they are more competitive and less lucrative than those found in clinical work. On the plus side, this area requires we work with geologists, biologists, chemists, journalists, social scientists and agriculturalists. They know behavior analysis is essential for their work and we have been wholeheartedly accepted as an integral part of the teams. Together, we have been able to secure funding and actually get things done.

How can more behavior analysts get involved sustainability? 

I say, just start behaving relative to sustainability. Your behavior will be shaped quickly. I also recommend becoming very familiar with selection at the cultural level…read Mark Alavosius, Tony Biglan, Aubrey Daniels, Sigrid Glenn, Ramona Humanfar and Mark Mattaini. Go to OBM Network talks. Sustainability is inherently dynamic and interactive. We work with groups involved with social justice, food recovery, alternative energy, recycling, air quality, transportation and governmental administration. Behavior analysts interested in environmental issues can find something they love in all this diversity. Globally, we are at a tipping point. Ten years from now, most people will be engaged in sustainable practices at some level. Just jump in!

What would you like readers to take away from this interview? 

One of the first articles I read in graduate school was B.F. Skinner’s 1981 Science article, Selection by Consequences. I was hooked for life. It was a call for us to use our powerful science to help solve pressing cultural problems. For me, the most serious societal problem is the degradation of the very environment that supports us. Working in sustainability is not only exciting and effective, it is also what we need to do…nothing, in the long run, is more important.

How can interested readers get in touch with you? 

Email is best.

Abduction Prevention in Children with Autism

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A recent study by Bergstrom, Najdowski, and Tarbox (2014) in the Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis successfully taught children with autism how to respond to strangers' attempts to lure them away from their front yard or store settings.  Of course, real strangers were not used in the study and the children were never in any danger.  Instead, the "strangers" were research confederates -- actors who were playing a role for the study.

The basic procedure was this -- the parent would "leave" the child alone by saying something like "I need to go to the bathroom, I'll be right back."  However, the child was under constant observation throughout the study and was never really "alone."  Next, a confederate stranger approached the child and offered preferred items if the child followed the stranger back to his/her car.  After the child responded by walking away or following the stranger, the trial ended and the parent immediately returned.  

For training, researchers focused on a few rules -- say "no", run away, and tell an adult you know -- and engaged in role-playing sessions to practice.  If the child did not follow the practiced rules during a trial in the community, prompts were given to the child asking about what they were supposed to do in the situation.  All of the participants successfully learned what to do and were able to demonstrate their skills repeatedly over a number of sessions, even in novel community settings.

Do you have experience with this type of training?  We would love to hear from you in the comments below.  Also, consider subscribing to via email at the top of the page.

I Can Predict Your Visit to the ER

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Source: looking at your web searches, according to Health IT Outcomes.

Not surprisingly, this is of interest to emergency departments tasked with preventing overcrowding emergency rooms.  Research has found significant positive correlations between regional medical web searches and emergency traffic in those locations the following day.  Such findings have implications for ER staffing and scheduling.

Behaviorally speaking, web activity in this sense may be thought of as "precursor behaviors" or behaviors that reliably predict the occurrence of other behavior.  Being sensitive to precursor behaviors have historically been used in behavioral treatment plans to prevent the occurrence of problem behavior.  However, as the Internet mediates more and more of our behavior, the types of behavior that may be predicted based on web-based precursors expand exponentially.

As always, please leave your comments below and remember to subscribe via email at the top of the page.