I’m a behavior analyst. No… not like on Criminal Minds… IT’S WAY COOLER THAN THAT!

Jennifer Klapatch Totsch, Ph.D. BCBA-D

National Louis University

Every time you meet someone new, you’re likely to be asked, “What do you do?” (As in, what do you do for a living?) I respond, “I’m a behavior analyst.” On more occasions than I can count, I get the “Oh, like on Criminal Minds?” response. Disappointment typically follows when I say, “No,” along with the follow up, “Well then, what’s a behavior analyst?”

While I’ve been answering that question for over a decade now, I still don’t have a consistent answer. When I was primarily a practitioner, I would go the route of explaining what my day-to-day job looked like (explaining more the topography of my job rather than the science behind it). However, working primarily in academia now, I speak with individuals on a daily basis who are interested in pursuing degrees in Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA), many of whom are immediately interested in not only what ABA is, but also what a career as a behavior analyst looks like. I also encounter professionals from other academic programs who are interested in just what exactly this “ABA thing” is. Time and time again, I would stammer out my response, trying to be precise while not overly technical, and trying to avoid playing into any stereotypes that already plague the profession. More often than not though, I just didn’t feel like I was doing a good job. I felt like I was letting the field down in my inability to cogently express just how awesome our science is and all the amazing changes that have been made in people’s lives as a result of it.

I fretted over this. A lot. I questioned my competence as an instructor. After all, how could I be responsible for training future behavior analysts if I couldn’t even succinctly describe what it is that we do? At the same time, I was having another existential crisis, as one does during the process of completing their dissertation. A colleague asked me what it was that I loved about teaching behavior analysis. And I remember saying, I love that “ah-ha” moment, when the “big picture” of just how thoroughgoing our science is finally clicks for a student and everything finally makes sense. I remember when I had my “ah-ha” moment. It was a cathartic experience for me because I was finally able to make sense of so many things that I’d experienced in life. It was personal.

And then I had a new “ah-ha” moment. Why was I trying to deliver a pre-packaged answer to this question of “what’s a behavior analyst?” Why would I assume that the same words would have the same effect on different people? Not a very behavior analytic approach… Since then, I’ve made a very intentional effort to carefully consider my audience when answering the question of “What is ABA?” or “What’s a behavior analyst?” Our science is generally applicable to the behavior of all organisms, but if I can’t make my response meaningful to that specific individual, what’s the point? If the takeaway from my response isn’t, “Whoa, that’s amazing! Tell me more!” I’m not doing it right!

Before this, I dreaded being asked what I do for a living; quite simply, it was extremely effortful on my part and was primarily maintained by negative reinforcement. But now, the function has changed for me. My intended effect on the audience is no longer to merely provide a job description, one adequate enough to satisfy them and move on in the conversation. Now, my intention is to inspire and intrigue, to get them thinking differently about all things behavior, from the minute to the complex. Really, to get them thinking differently about the way our world turns, because that’s what hooked me.

While this is certainly more than what most expect from such a colloquial question as, “What do you do for a living?,” I take my ethical responsibilities to disseminate our science and uphold our profession very seriously. I truly believe that we can save the world with behavior analysis and I suppose this is just one way I can personally work towards that goal. So, what do I do for a living? I teach people about the science of behavior so they can use it to save the world.

How do you teach people about the science of behavior?  let us know in the comments below, and be sure to subscribe to bSci21 via email to receive the latest articles directly to your inbox!

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