Why Behavior Analysis Needs to Keep Up with Other Sciences


By Chelsea Wilhite, M.A., BCBA (chelsea.wilhite@gmail.com)

bSci21 Contributing Writer

I recently sat (and passed, thankfully) the Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA) exam. I used no fewer than eight sources while studying and practicing for the test. In more than one of those sources, I found ideas put forth in Behavior Analysis inconsistent with developments in other areas of psychology. When my July/August edition of Scientific American: Mind arrived with a picture of an infant held by two sets of adult hands and the title “Wired for touch: New discoveries about the sense that binds us to others,” it reminded me of one topic with which I took particular issue.

Pic 1One of my study questions asked something along the lines of, “A parent is using praise as a reinforcer.  Why does the parent’s praise work as a reinforcer?” I remember the gist of two of the answer options: 1) “parent attention is a natural reinforcer,” and 2) “in the past, the parent has been paired with things such as food and toys.” These are all paraphrased, as I do not remember of which set of materials this question was a part. According to the key, the correct answer was the latter option.  However, if you are familiar with the developmental psychology and behavioral neuroscience literature, there is evidence suggesting human contact, or touch, is one of the first “feel good” stimuli a person ever contacts. A parent touching her child is attention and certainly may have been paired with vocal verbal praise.

I argue the parent’s vocal verbal attention was paired with the reinforcing properties of touch before candy, treats, and toys were paired with vocal verbal attention. So, in the question and answer example above, depending on how you interpret “attention,” the first answer option would be the more correct of the two. I consider myself only minimally familiar with the developmental and neuroscience literature, but because I know some of the research on human contact, my first choice would have been answer option one. However, had that question been on the exam, I would have missed it, not because I was wrong but because the field of behavior analysis (or, in this case, study materials for the BCBA exam) is not up-to-date on information from other fields.

This disparity is disturbing for a number of reasons. One, behavior science is not as effective as it can be if we are ignorant of scientific developments in other fields. Two, we are at risk of doing to other specialists exactly what bothers us about outside perceptions of behavior analysis: that the field is antiquated and inaccurate. And finally, I wonder what else we have wrong. What have I learned during my behavior analysis training that is simply wrong?

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I do not want to suggest everyone in our field is behind the times or that we are not making an effort to keep up; after all, advancements in science of all kinds are coming faster and faster. Many within the behavior analytic community are aware there is much outside of our little bubble we need to know. Todd Ward, Founding Editor of Behavioral Science in the 21st Century, recently wrote a piece about research on brainets, or animals with their brains connected to one another, and the relations between the connected brains and the animals’ behaviors. Another colleague, Tom Buqo of Brohavior, described his experience as a behavior scientist attending a mainstream psychology conference. And in the July issue of Behavior Analysis Quarterly, Amber Crane wrote on anxiety, a topic typically reserved for clinical psychology.

And these are only behavior analytic news media reports; there are many other examples of interdisciplinary work in the peer-reviewed journals. Numerous other behavior analysts are up to speed on developments in neighboring fields. To them, I say, “Yes! Keep it up! …and help keep the rest of us informed.” For others, I would like to encourage them, my fellow behavior scientists, to explore other areas of emphasis in psychology, sociology, education, and any science that pertain to their specialties.

Do you think behavior analysts would benefit from contact with other fields?  Let us know your opinion in the comments below.  Also be sure to subscribe to bSci21 via email to receive the latest articles directly to your inbox!

Chelsea Wilhite, M.A., BCBA

Chelsea Wilhite, M.A., BCBA 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.

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29 Comments on "Why Behavior Analysis Needs to Keep Up with Other Sciences"

  1. Well said, Chelsea! Especially this: “Two, we are at risk of doing to other specialists exactly what bothers us about outside perceptions of behavior analysis: that the field is antiquated and inaccurate.”

    PS – Congrats on your BCBA!

  2. Erin Grubbs, M.S. | August 1, 2015 at 4:44 am | Reply

    Thank you for writing about this topic! My background is psychology with a focus on developmental and positive psychology and I feel strongly that the behavior analysis and and psychology are speaking two languages, but saying many of the same things. Both fields are unable to understand the other and it is manifesting as a problematic irreconcilible “disagreement.” There is so much to gain by overcoming the language barriers and practicing mutual respect on many important topics!

    I have a look forward to speaking about this topic and the seemingly immovable idea of an inferior/superior position of inferential statistics vs. Single subject design! When I pass the BCBA exam in August, I look forward to spending some time writing about these ideas. Congratulations to you, Chelsea! With some exam luck, I am right behind you with informed and passionate support!

  3. I loved it! I totally agree with you, Chelsea! Congrats!

  4. Thank you, Melina, so much!

  5. Chelsea, Your perspective is timely and on the mark. Orderliness in nature is independent of the jargon used by behavior analysts, who often seem naive with respect to how life really works. Knowing the jargon does not provide the wisdom to identify accurately the “conditions of the environment” that maintain responding. Interdisciplinary perspectives are invaluable and should be respected.

  6. Excellent article. We really do need to keep up to date with research from other fields, but I think that the average BA working in the applied arena is not particularly motivated to do so given that the returns for putting in the effort can be quite low relative to the costs of investing in journal subscriptions and using up time that they could have been utilising to read behaviour analytic research. Using the example above, the question of whether touch is a natural reinforcer or a conditioned reinforcer will probably not affect the interventions that they put in place. There is no pay off.

    If we want to make behaviour analysts more familiar with research from developmental psychology or other sciences, then we need to reduce the response effort required. Sites like this one are useful in this regard.

    • Excellent points Fred! The cost-benefit factor is definitely an important one. And I appreciate the nice comments about this site!

    • I agree, Fred! The response effort can be incredible (which I why I’m only “minimally” familiar with research in other areas) and the pay-off little in many cases. Thank you for reading, and thank you for commenting!

  7. Fiona O'Neill | August 5, 2015 at 3:10 am | Reply

    I really value this, and take Fred’s point. I think the pay off is particularly small when the gulf is very wide.

    I’m a Speech Pathologist, but I’ve been behaviourally oriented since before I even began my training as a Speech path (which I ended up in as I got funding and there were no BA programmes in my area).

    It can feel exhausting trying to navigate the two worlds at times – there are tired assumptions on both sides. On the BA side, I find myself drawn into discussions on the difficulties with mechanistic models, form vs function, poverty of the stimulus and Chomsky (when Chomsky has had minimal impact on my learning since the second year of my training) and on the SLP side, I am told behaviourism is robotic, cold, takes no account of context (!!!!) etc.

    Mainly I can manage to overcome barriers to collaboration one to one, but if I write it down, people get upset – in both fields.. and are inclined to switch off. Where I struggle is in relation to the issues raised in this article – information related to attachment, affect, touch, gesture, eye contact etc. I struggle to make coherent arguments about why this is important in ways that motivate my listeners, and don’t know quite how to go about changing this! Yet it seems quite relevant to me working in prevention also – perhaps it doesn’t matter whether praise is a natural or conditioned reinforcer, but all praise is not equal, and cold verbal praise has a very different functional impact to the warm hug, loving smile and sustained intimate eye contact of a primary caregiver. Even as I write this, I realise it is hopelessly ill defined!

    Sometimes I just get frustrated. I want to be able to be bilingual in the “two languages” but it does take a lot of time and effort and not only is there little pay off, there are many aversive experiences along the way.

    Thank you for a stimulating and interesting read!

  8. To credibly discuss the issue at hand one should first premise the argument with a definition of “science” and if you are going to be comparing nomthetic to nomthetic, idiographic to idiographic or nomothetic to idiographic science. Each comparison produces a different set of outcomes. It would also be helpful to express the dimensions (accuracy, parsimony, frutifulness, scope and depth) of a science that will be compared.
    The foundations of EAB and ABA include a recognition of the phylogenetic and ontogenetic contributions to behavior expressed in context. Understanding this brings the “touch”/facial expression pairing conditioning well within a Pavlovian and Operant analysis.
    It should also be acknowledeged that the practice of an individual behavior analyst does not constitute the “science” of the field. Science is what the scientist does, but not all BAs are scientist/practitioners. The hope of the field is that all practitioners become scientist/practitioners (cf. Martha Hubners Presidential address at the May 2015 ABAI conference), but a BCBA standing does not guarantee this. Neither does the six series course work needed in preparation for the exam.
    Weather the findings of of areas of science provide fruitful guidance to BA in general is a matter of the functional contingencies that science demonstrates as being functional and repeatable.

    • Interesting thoughts! Some of what you are saying sounds more appropriate for a journal article targeted to academicians rather than a science news site interested in reaching large groups of people. You can argue all day about what a “science” is and how it differs from “practice” but it doesn’t affect the point of Chelsea’s article — that other sciences are doing cool things that behavior analysts aren’t. That’s not to say the things other sciences do can’t be interpreted in behavior analytic terms, but that’s a different topic.

  9. Actully, no. The points made are appropriate for a practitioners forum. As behavior analysts every BCBA should understand how to interpret techniques and observations from other ways of knowing the world. Many of these ways are neither objective nor replicable nor functional. In those cases a practitioner should not subject clients to “treatments” based on those observations. Yes, there are many cool things being observed, quantified and controlled by others pursuing interests other than the study of human behavior. A trained clinician would interpret those findings by tacting the functional contigencies that give life to those functional relations.
    It is also important that the word “science” as used by a behavior analyst to be understood as a tact of the “brand” of science that is practiced by behavior analysts. That is what being a “behavior analyst” suggests. We are required to conduct evidence-based intervention based on a functional analysis of environment-behavior-context interactions. Suggesting that Behavior Analysts should be eclectic because it leads us to some “cool” observations is not how the field will grow.

    • I agree mostly, except Chelsea was always talking about behavior. Behavior analysts don’t have a monopoly on behavior. But all behavior analytic work is done from within a certain conceptual framework of behavior.

  10. You make excellent points, Richard. I agree with you in that precise and comparable definitions are necessary for an in-depth conversation. I also agree that the EAB and ABA approaches to behavior as it relates to phylogeny and ontogeny account for the “touch” factor addressed in the article, which makes the misinformation I contacted all the more disturbing.

    I am certainly not suggesting Behavior Analysts become eclectic. As you point out, our approach to organism-environment relations does account for the potential reinforcing properties of touch.

    The problem here is some of us are learning about things like touch from a behavior analytic perspective, but some of us are not… and worse, some of us are getting bad information. If Behavior Analysts are at least aware of current research in other fields, it will help us in many ways, including staying in line with our philosophical approach to behavior.

  11. Chelsea,
    I agree that the vast majority of current BCBAs need to continue their study of science, but it should be an expansion of what they currently understand of the science of behavior. The current required course work for the BCBA exam provides only cursory coverage of very important areas of instructional and clinical technologies. For example, very little is covered of either Direct Instruction or Precision Teaching technologies. Even less is covered of either respondent or associative learning, both of which provide important conceptual and procedural guidance on the design of clinical programs to address learning challenges originating from deficits in the development of these learning systems. Also, other than some discussion of PRT and Behavior Cusps, there is essentially no coverage of important generative learning process (e.g., recombinative generalization) that should guide both curricular and instructional design and delivery. Sources like the SQAB.org tutorials and materials available at celeration.org should be where practicing BCBAs should be spending their sparse professional development time, not perusing nomothetic literature basis for something “cool.” The full panoply of BA research and endeavor is just there for all to access and learn from. We should first become masters of our own science and the incredible knowledge base that exists within it.

  12. Great! Then swim in the cool deep waters of the profession and enjoy every second.

  13. I agree! I completely understand what you are saying about the limits of the BCBA exam; I spent the last five years of my life working in a Personalized System of Instruction, and there was only ONE question addressing PSI on the actual Exam. The point remains, even considering our own wealth of behavior analytic literature, some of the material we are taught (and using in preparation to practice) is simply wrong. If we are aware of developments in other fields, even peripherally, and even if we don’t buy into them, we can turn to our own literature to find answers to those very important questions. And those resources you listed are EXCELLENT ways to get those answers! Thank you!

  14. I’m a BCBA and I’ve dabbled in the Attachment literature and think it’s interesting. I would love for our fields to collide.

  15. Angela Cathey | August 9, 2015 at 5:00 pm | Reply

    See Acceptance and Commitment Therapy and Functional Analytic Therapy for behavior analysts speaking more broadly towards treatment and research. Dialectical Behavior Therapy is also based off functional analysis. We’re here within the wider community. Relational Frame Theory extends the principles of BA to language and has now a large research base supporting it. You just have to know who’s going to be speaking your language in some form already.

  16. Chelsea, regarding “some of the material we are taught (and using in preparation to practice) is simply wrong.” Are you referring to material taught within the BCBA prep courses? The material referenced in exam prep modules and documents? The concepts and research findings of the field? What are you being taught that is “wrong”? The main issue here is “Behavior Analyst teach thyself,” which is why we follow an idiographic research ontology. Read and study the field, if you find factual or conceptual errors posited by others then correct it. A frolicking skip through nomothetic literature is not likely to resolve such purulence.

    • Richard,
      The errors I found were within BCBA prep material, not original literature. The behavior analytic literature does back up the example I used. So, in addition to being taught something that contracts finding from another field (which is actually a GOOD thing and SHOULD happen when we have the data to back it up), we are being taught something that contradicts OUR OWN findings. It does raise the question, though, of what else might be wrong.
      I am not taking a “frolicking skip” through nomothetic literature (neuro studies can be and often are single-subject). I am not being eclectic or taking for granted the findings of another field. Furthermore, that “other field” in this case has a completely different level of analysis than ours (neuroscience looks at neural activity, behavior analysis looks a whole organisms), and I do NOT think we should include another level of analysis in our field. It wouldn’t make sense to do that. We should be aware of findings in other levels of analysis. We are taught the basics of how genetics work in undergrad programs… even undergrad BA programs… and that’s another level of analysis, too, and it is VERY important.
      I feel your real issue is that the cover of a magazine that shows up at my door (a gift, I did not order it) and has the word “Mind” in the name reminded me of an incorrect study question within our field. I repeat, I am not suggesting we be eclectic. I AM suggesting we need to “play nice” with others… in order to do that, we sometimes need to at least know what they study. If we know what their findings are, we can better address those same problems from a behavior analytic perspective.
      Have a wonderful week!

  17. richard laitinen | August 12, 2015 at 7:58 am | Reply

    BA is well aware of other fields of ontology and accepts them outright (cf, Greer & Ross, 2008, Donahoe & Palmer, 1992) and BA desperately requires a concerted PR strategy and continuing utilization of tactics recognized as diplomacy, leadership, and thought leadership, but in the end our particular branch of ecology stands on its own. Its goal is to provide a technology for the advancement of all human endeavors (cf. Skinner, 1953) and it has been accomplishing that goal with ever increasing effect in education, medicine, animal care and training, safety, active caring, etc., etc.
    I have no concern about the word “Mind” as it, too, falls within a BA of the social and individual use of that vocal and textual construction as a tact and its participation in various relational frames. I’m also aware that we can not stand outside of the stream of events that we seek to objectively observe and understand, but that is another matter.

  18. Amanda Williams | August 6, 2017 at 5:54 am | Reply

    As a current teacher that has completed coursework in preparation for the BCBA exam I feel like the points Chelsea makes are very important. I have had BCBAs in my classrooms working with my students as consultative services that do not seem to consider anything outside of the very specific area they’re focusing on. I understand the background and I understand the approach now that I have spent the last 3 years of my life doing coursework / preparation, but I see Chelsea’s point first hand. I feel like if BCBAs as a field do not consider other areas, the research in other areas and use that information to make informed decisions, then those practitioners are missing the boat so to say on some important variables at play. I really enjoyed reading your perspective!
    As a side note: I also came across a similar study question and realized quickly my original response (which was the “incorrect response”) was outside of the thinking of my exam prep.

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