A Call to Action:  Behavior Analysts, It’s Time to Save the World

By Adam Ventura, M.S., BCBA

bSci21 Contributing Writer

It was Sunday, midday; the sun was at its apex, perched commandingly at the top of a clear sky, beaming down through the glass doors of my condo and into the living room, mandating that I go outside and enjoy the day.  My behavior, at that moment, was compliant and having received my orders, I gathered together my towel, sunglasses, and sunscreen, with the intent of going to the beach and having fun.

Then it happened . . . AGAIN . . . that irritating fluorescent red bar appeared at the bottom of my TV screen. In capital letters it screamed at me to stop what I was doing and PAY ATTENTION.    As I watched, the headline slowly crawled up from the bottom of the screen like the monster in a horror movie emerging from the depths of a dark and murky swamp.  The title read:  BREAKING NEWS:  3 Officers Killed in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.  There it was, staring me in the face, another instance of senseless violence sensationalized on TV.  As I finished reading the headline, the grip that I had on my beach bag started to loosen and my legs began to feel tired, and the value of the soft cushions on my couch suddenly increased.  Sitting down and watching the events unfold was becoming more reinforcing than leaving the house and going to the beach, and I felt powerless to stop it.

After promising myself that I would sit down just for one minute to find out what happened, I found myself growing more and more frustrated by the information that was being spoon-fed to me on TV like a helping of vegetables I was refusing to eat.  The cable news station that I was watching thought it would be a good idea to discuss the previous month and review all of the awful things that had transpired around the world (specifically in the US) involving violence:

  1. A night club shooting in Orlando that killed 50 people.
  2. Two killings in different states across the country by police officers of unarmed black men.
  3. Five dead police officers from an apparent retaliation for the previous week’s shootings.
  4. A truck that drove through the streets of Nice, France killing . . . I don’t know, a lot of people.
  5. A bomb set off in a Turkey airport, described as terrorism, again killing a lot of people.

I watched gasbag after gasbag from the left AND the right vomit out their talking points avoiding the REAL issue as if they were purposely trying to evade it.  “Behavior! The answer is behavior, you BLEEPING idiots! (edited for decency),” I screamed at the TV. “Why don’t they understand the problem is behavior?,” I repeated in frustration.

As each talking-head crashed the sets of major news outlets like waves from a typhoon, each delivering their own watered-down version of the same tired rhetoric, I rebuked every point, explaining the problem in behavior analytic terms.  Proud of myself for analyzing and interpreting the problems presented, I suddenly felt a cold shiver slide slowly down my back as I realized that I had missed something important:  This wasn’t the newscasters’ fault.  No, it was the fault of the behavior analysis community because we had failed to communicate the relevance of the science of behavior to the world.

Let us consider how the assumptions and technologies of our science can be applied to some contemporary issues related to violence:

  1. Labeling: People are not racists, bigots, sexists, evil, or otherwise; people aren’t good either, they simply are . . . and they have been conditioned to respond in a certain way when presented with certain stimuli, namely people of different color or gender.  This is a problem with pairing, not a problem with people being good or bad. Labeling them will probably not help at all—in fact, labeling has a good chance of making things worse.
  2. Reinforcement over aversive contingencies:  TV pundits should try reinforcing their audience’s appropriate behavior instead of punishing their audience’s inappropriate behavior. Attempting to reduce racist behavior” through punishments (aversive contingencies) is not as effective as using reinforcement to increase “inclusive behavior.”  Using aversive contingencies can produce side effects such as operant aggression, where one person punishes another’s behavior and that person retaliates (Azrin & Holtz, 1966). 
  3. Socially mediated reinforcement: TV should stop making criminals into celebrities. Every time a mass shooting occurs, the name, physical description, and entire history of the suspect is blasted throughout all media outlets.  This type of attention can positively reinforce problem behavior, making it more likely to recur under similar circumstances (Cooper, Heron, & Heward, 2007) and inspiring others to engage in similar behavior. 
  4. Guns don’t kill people, behavior does:  Removing guns is a possible intervention, but it would just be an antecedent intervention and not the entire treatment package.  Solutions should involve reducing all behavior that serves the same function (i.e., hurting people), not just shootings.  If guns are removed and the behavior is not addressed, people will just find another way to hurt each other, as the events in Nice, France proved.
  5. Labeling, again.  Calling acts of violence expressions of “Muslim extremism” is just labeling, and it is probably not an effective intervention. The violent behavior is the problem, not how we label it.  Focusing on function-based definitions of problem behavior (and associated function-based interventions) rather than those subjective labels is probably going to be more effective in reducing violence.
  6. Data, data, data!!!  The media focuses too much on subjective accounts of violence, leading people to believe that things are worse or better than they actually are.  Accounts focused on data would be more useful, as they would allow us to create interventions based on objective truth and improve behavior all over the world.  Thus, direct and frequent measurement enables practitioners to detect their successes and, equally important, their failures so they can make changes to change failure to success (Bushell & Baer, 1994; Greenwood & Maheady, 1997)  While the intensity of these incidents is important, the media should give us info on the number and frequency of these occurrences—now that would really give us something interesting to watch. 
  7. The measure of a leader. Follower behavior, not leader behavior, defines leadership (Daniels & Daniels, 2007).  The speeches that our elected officials make are not important—what matters is the impact that their behavior has on the behavior of our citizens.  When a politician makes a speech about violence and people claim it is good OR bad leadership, this may or may NOT be the case.  The only way to confirm that it is making a difference is to establish a functional relationship between that speech and improved follower behavior. 
  8. Relationships. Last, but certainly not least, relationships and interactions are bi-directional. Although it may be easy to publicly censure media outlets, we are part of the media problem.  Our TV watching behavior reinforces broadcasting behavior.  Therefore, if we want to change what’s being broadcast, we need to differentially reinforce appropriate media coverage.

So I am making a call to action:  Behavior analysts of the world, assemble!  I know, we sound like Avengers, but maybe we need to call on our inner comic book heroes (or heroines) to get the word out about how behavioral science can improve the world. 

Napoleon once said, “A soldier will fight long and hard for a colored ribbon . . . give me enough ribbon to cover the tunics of my soldiers, and I will conquer the world.”  The lesson: positive reinforcement can get anyone to accomplish anything.  I tell my students every semester that positive reinforcement can save the world, and I have decades of research to prove that.  Let’s communicate that same message to everyone. Positive reinforcement (and other behavior analytic technologies) can save the world!

References:

Azrin, N. H., & Holtz, W. C. (1966).  Punishment In W. K.  Honig (Ed.), Operant behavior:  Areas of research and application (pp.  380-447) New York:  Appleton-Century-Crofts

Cooper, J. O., Heron, T. E., & Heward, W. L. (2007). Applied behavior analysis. Upple Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education.

Daniels, A. C., & Daniels, J. E. (2007). Measure of a leader: The legendary leadership formula for producing exceptional performers and outstanding results. New York: McGraw-Hill.

AVV_MG_9885Adam Ventura, M.S., BCBA is a graduate of Florida International University and has been a Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA) since 2008. Adam is the founder and CEO of World Evolve, Inc., a behavioral organization located in south Florida. Adam has been working in the field of applied behavior analysis for over 10 years and has experience working with children and adults with varying disabilities. Adam was a member of the local review committee in Miami, Florida for over three years and is currently a member of the behavior analysis and practice committee (BAPC) for the state of Florida. Adam also currently serves an adjunct professor in the psychology department at Florida International University where he has been teaching undergraduate courses in behavior analysis since 2009. Adam is also the co-founder of two public benefit corporations, namely, The Code Of Ethics for Behavioral Organizations (COEBO) and the Miami Association for Behavior Analysis (MiABA). Adam’s experience has extended beyond the clinical realm and into the business world as he has been responsible for creating several new businesses with and without partners in various industries. Adam’s current focus is on business ethics and technological applications of Behavior Analysis.  You can contact him at adamvent@gmail.com.

3 Comments on "A Call to Action:  Behavior Analysts, It’s Time to Save the World"

  1. Great article! A lot to think about. I do take issue with one point: guns. You say removing guns is just an antecedent intervention. The truth is that guns lessen the response effort of killing and injuring people SIGNIFICANTLY. The truth is also that the response effort required to get a gun in this country is notoriously low. You also say that it’s JUST an antecedent intervention. What more would you like on the consequence end? Perpetrators of mass murder always receive 1 of 2 consequences: prison or death. I don’t know if we can up that consequence any more. What we do need are MORE antecedent interventions targeted at creating pro-social environmental contingencies within families and communities. Check out The Nurture Effect.
    Otherwise I enjoyed this article and I found it great food for thought. Thank you.

  2. Great article Adam. There is a great book on the topic I’d highly recommend. Running Out of Time: Introducing Behaviorology to Help Solve Global Problems https://www.amazon.com/dp/1927744024/ref=cm_sw_r_sms_apa_Evjfzb8WMFX0J

  3. Sridhar Aravamudhan | October 5, 2017 at 7:50 am | Reply

    Adam, Another great read and incisive analysis.
    One of the problems I see is that behavior analysts really specialize in manipulating variables and study how the principles work with one individual a time or at best a small group with group contingencies.
    How can we say confidently that we have solutions that will be effective with hundreds, thousands and millions.At that stage we are talking about complex interactions of individual conditioning histories of 1000 s of people, observational learning, rule governed behaviors and multiple factors. There could be some insights from OBM. Would love to hear your thoughts on the same and references to behavior analytic literature where large scale effects have been systematicallly achieved
    Regards
    Sridhar

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