THIS IS A GUEST POST BY PBS THERAPIST DIAH ASKARI, BCBA. DIAH HAS DEDICATED HIS CAREER TO THE APPLICATION OF EVIDENCE-BASED SCIENCE AS A MEANS FOR CHILDREN TO REACH THEIR FULLEST POTENTIAL, NO MATTER WHAT LABELS OR DIAGNOSES MAY FACE THEM….
As Behavior Analysts, we have been both blessed and cursed in the way we view the world. After years of education and hands on experience, we are now faced with the ability to alter behavior in a way that benefits other individuals, while also not being able to drive in our cars without contemplating the contingencies influencing why we “Go” when we see a green light. To the dismay of our non-behavior analytic friends, they must bare our company as we explain how they are engaging in extinction burst, as they overly text their love interest after the other individual has stopped texting as frequently. Have you ever seen the Matrix? Yeah? You know that green code that shifts vertically down the screen as the code of the Matrix? Well, that is basically what we see emanating off of every individual around us. Okay, just kidding (but that would be pretty cool).
While some may find our scientific banter tiresome, what we do offer is a means of change. Change for the better. That is where the Applied comes in. We aim to change socially significant behavior, in a way that will benefit the individuals in their lives, and we do this through a set of scientific principles that make us awesome. While I cannot type up our whole ABA manifesto here, I can share with you a way of looking at the world from the perspective of a BCBA. Here are six points of perspective that will allow you to view the world with scientific goggles:
Individual Controls Behavior vs Environment Controls Behavior
Okay, this one may be a little difficult to understand, but it is an essential means by which we view behavior. The common masses, when attempting to explain one’s behavior, will attempt to do so by explaining the behavior from the individual’s point of view. For example, Timmy cries because he wants his teddy bear. Why does Timmy cry?–Because Timmy wants to get his teddy bear. Is this wrong? Not necessarily, but the problem is that it focuses solely on the individual, rather than the reinforcing consequences.
A Behavior Analyst will explain behavior from the environment’s point of view. Same example: Timmy cries because he receives his Teddy. Why does Timmy cry?—Because after crying, he receives a teddy. This may seem like the same thing, but it is not. The behavior Analysts perspective allows us to identify the function of the behavior based on environmental consequences. Would Timmy cry if he never received his Teddy after crying? Not likely.
Consider this: I do the rain dance because I want to water my crops. It does not rain, therefore I am not likely to do the rain dance again. Just because I wanted my crops to receive rain, did not make it happen. Therefore my behavior is shaped based on the consequences of the environment, NOT what I want as an individual.
Explanatory Fictions Vs Parsimony and Functional Relations
This principle of perspective is related to the previous, but touches on another important topic. It is very common for individuals to attempt to explain behavior with complex reasoning rather than simple function. We call these complex reasoning’s “explanatory fictions” and some include “self-esteem, frustration, coincidence, etc”. While I am not saying all of these are totally unfounded, as they are terms we can all relate to, I am saying that using them makes it more difficult to deal with the behavior in an operational manner. One of the primary rules of science is that we first rule out all simple explanations before considering more complex ones: Parsimony. If we first attempt to identify the primary function of a behavior, then we can attempt interventions based on that simple function, and go from there. This is where we tie the first perspective in. We derive the function from the consequences of the environment. Explanatory fictions are mostly used to describe a behavior from the individual’s perspective.
Subjective Measures vs Objective Measures
As behavior analysts, we utilize data collection procedures as a means of measuring behavior. These data are how we determine if our interventions are effective. To objectively measure behavior, first you need to operationalize the behavior. Decide, as specific as possible, what the behavior looks like (topography) and then quantify it in a way that the behavior begins and ends in a measureable fashion. If you can decrease this quantifiable number over-time, your intervention is working. If the behavior does not decrease in the data, you need to go over your intervention plan, and also your operational definition of the behavior.
A lot of times, individuals rely on subjective measures of behavior: observational reports, survey scales, etc. There is no way to know for certain if you are affecting change with this type of measurement!
Think of the term “Sadness”. Can we objectively measure sadness? No. But we CAN objectively measure indices of emotion: duration of crying, frequency of verbal engagement, etc.
Directly Punishing Behavior vs Reinforcing Alternate Behavior
Many times when I ask the question: “What methods have you attempted to reduce this behavior?” I usually get a response of efforts that directly dealt with the behavior through punishment: time out, verbal reprimands, taking away of preferred items ,etc. While these may work (and they do in many cases), as behavior analyst we are taught to implement interventions that are least restrictive to the child. Sometimes, a simple solution to reducing a problem behavior is to attempt to reinforce the opposite or alternate behavior. Examples: Punishing running around the room vs reinforcing duration sitting in a chair; Punishing lying vs Reinforcing telling the truth, Punishing crying to get an item, reinforce asking politely for the item, etc.
*Disclaimer* some behaviors may require punishment procedures based on the nature of the behavior (especially when interventions may affect safety). Please consult with your BCBA before attempting any planned interventions.