The Future of Behavior Analysis: Why we need to Diversify, Part I.

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Note: This article originally appeared in Vol. 2(1) of Behavior Analysis Quarterly.

By Daniel Reimer, M.A.

University of Nevada, Reno

This column has been running for a year now. However, looking back I realize I did not provide a background as to the importance I see in the discussion of “non-traditional” careers for behavior analysts. I would like to take a moment to outline what makes me think these discussions are important for the field, and why embracing “non-traditional” work is important.

Myopia, Blackberry, and the Danger of Stagnation

Maria Malott, in The Paradox of Organizational Change (see it here), discussed the issue of myopic organizations. For those of you not familiar with the book, a myopic organization is one that has lost its vision. In other words, the employees of an organization are not behaving in a way that matches the organization’s stated mission and values. This leads to a very narrow, oftentimes skewed focus or over emphasis in one area of the organization without regard to the system in which the organization operates.

As Dr. Malott discussed, myopia is often a prelude to organizational failure. Take Blackberry, for example. Blackberry was one of the first smartphones and dominated the market in the 1990’s and early 2000’s. Then Apple launched the iPhone. Instead of adapting, Blackberry did little to respond as top executives did not see the iPhone as a threat to their market share. The competition, Apple, did adapt, change, and rapidly converted Blackberry users to iPhone users, with Android phones doing the same shortly thereafter. The introduction of new smartphone options resulted in a gigantic drop in users for Blackberry, which lost customers by the millions. In September, 2013, Blackberry had 85 million users worldwide. One year later that number was down to 46 million and still falling.

Blackberry is a perfect example of how an entire organization, which once completely dominated a niche in the market, fell to the bottom in the blink of an eye. They did not adapt, they did not evolve. In short, they stagnated when the rest of the world changed; they failed to keep up.

To ensure that behavior analysis does not go the way of the Blackberry, we need to continually revisit the mission and vision of the field. As Steve Hayes said in a paper published over ten years ago on the six greatest dangers to behavior analysis (see the full paper here), “a field that isn’t busy being born is a field that is busy dying.” We need to keep exposing ourselves to all the potential ways that a behavior analyst can make a difference. We need to encourage and support the few people who are taking “non-traditional” jobs and make sure these opportunities are available to others in the field. In short, we need to make sure the field is continuously being “born” so that we don’t “die.” It is my hope that by featuring people doing great work in other areas, we will continue to see our field as a diverse and adaptive one and continue to develop our ability to solve problems in more than just a few areas.

External Support and a Whitehouse Executive Order

Of course, exposure to information is just one part of the equation. Another factor is support from outside the field. There are some professions and organizations that are adamantly against the inclusion of behavior analysis or even general psychology, such as NASA which was notoriously against the inclusion of psychologists until recently (for a historical review of psychology and space exploration, see here). Yet, there have been a number of supportive voices for the adoption of behavior analysis. One example is the Whitehouse, which recently published an Executive Order encouraging the inclusion of behavior scientists in policy making, based mainly off the work of the Social and Behavioral Science Team (SBST), a group of behavior scientists commissioned by the Whitehouse.

The executive order acknowledges that policies which are created based on behavioral science “have substantially improved outcomes for the individuals, families, communities, and businesses those policies serve” (see the published executive order here). The order goes on to outline ways in which government agencies should identify opportunities, programs, teams, and individuals which can contribute to the goal of integrating behavior science into laws and governmental agencies.

Some behavior analysts believed that the order marked a shift in the acceptance of behavior analysis by the federal government. It was also seen as a potential first step in the general public seeing the benefit of our science. However, there are a few considerations that should be made before claiming this as a victory for behavior analysis.

First, a closer look at the wording of the statement indicates that “behavior science” is, by the authors of the document, far more encompassing. While we would consider ourselves as behavior scientists and areas of psychology such as cognitive psychology as non-behavioral, the executive order does not make that distinction. The order lumps psychologists together into one group equally, and includes other areas such as economics and human factors.

Some of the projects the SBST included in their initial report sound eerily familiar. For example, the SBST found that reminders were effective ways of increasing re-enrollment in government insurance programs for veterans. A quick search through the Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis shows 131 published articles that include “reminders,” were being published as far back as 1984. The results found in these publications are similar to those found by the SBST. Similarly, the SBST showed that changes in response cost can improve government employee’s response rate to important surveys. Again, a search in JABA, this time for “response cost” found 212 publications, ranging back to 1969.

I am not bringing this up to trivialize the results found by the SBST, or to provide an opportunity for us all to engage in ‘sour-grapes’ behavior amongst our fellow behavior analysts. I want to illustrate that the work being done by others outside of our field is similar to ours and that we can easily be included in that work. Yet we haven’t been.

Second, we must consider the current state of involvement behavior analysts have at the governmental level. With some exceptions, such as advocacy for autism treatment and insurance funding for BCBA work (see more about the work the APBA is doing here), there has been relatively no advocacy for behavior analysis. How many behavior analysts serve on federal-level science boards? How many behavior analysts have political connections to representatives of your state’s congress? How many of you have written to your congressman about issues concerning behavior analysts? To be sure, some of that happens. There are behavior analysts involved in advocacy and outreach, but they are few and far between especially compared with other fields such as medicine or bio-technology.

Again, I am not bringing up these points to shame our field or appear ungrateful to those who have come before us for all their hard work. But I want to point out that to capitalize on opportunities that are available for behavior scientists, such as vocal federal support for our work by the Presidential branch of our government, we must be present and available at the level at which the opportunities are made available. This means that we need to have established relationships with people of influence and be able to make the case for behavior analysis.

The executive order, and the discussion above of behavior analysts involved at the federal level, is just one example of where we can improve the field and prevent ourselves from sliding into myopia. By continually allowing our own behavior to be shaped as behavior analysts, we can keep the field on track and adapting as the world around us changes.

Potential Areas of Expansion

Some supporters of this idea are Matt Normand and Carolyn Kohn, wrote a great article in 2013 outlining unique areas in which behavior analysts can contribute (see it here). These include positions such as personal trainers, occupational therapists, child care workers, special education teachers, human resource professionals, business owners, and animal trainers. The article provides a good starting point for behavior analysts who have already begun their coursework and know that they do not want to work in a “traditional” behavior analytic field such as autism, developmental disabilities, or academia. Each of these suggested career paths require additional training in another field (e.g., an occupational therapist requires a board certification after completing required coursework).

However, I would argue that, while these are great opportunities for behavior analysts to ply their skills in other areas, the strategy of training as a behavior analyst and then getting trained in another profession is not a good long-term solution for the expansion of behavior analysis as a field of science. This strategy diminishes behavior analytic training and makes it appear more as “extra credit” for a professional, as behavior analytic training isn’t necessary for these professionals to complete their job. Furthermore, behavior analysts do not have the market cornered on using principles such as reinforcement and response cost. A behavior analyst with dual training in one of these other areas might have a better understanding of behavior change, but many professionals in these other fields are already doing what a behavior analyst would do as their professional behavior has been shaped by environmental contingencies. For example, a personal trainer might find that a client responds to the addition of positive phrases and encouragement while exercising, increasing the probability of exercising in the future. While a behavior analysts might roll his eyes and say, “Well duh, that’s positive reinforcement,” the personal trainer does not need to label it as positive reinforcement in order to be effective in his job. Nor does he need a degree in behavior analysis to integrate positive reinforcement into his training programs.

Then, if the only strategy we have is to include behavior analysis as a subset of other fields, why would anyone want to get a degree in behavior analysis? Wouldn’t it just be easier to get the education required of that profession and then take a class or two on reinforcement and behavior? Could this strategy slowly shrink the field into a certificate program for other professions?

In my next column, I would like to propose a strategy in addition to Normand and Kohn’s. One that addresses the more global concerns for a field in danger of becoming myopic, and keeping behavior analysis from over emphasizing one set of skills. We need to continually facilitate the growth of our field and ensure we leave the field better than when we found it.

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5 Comments

  1. As for NASA, apparently there is a history of utilization of operant behavior principles and techniques. http://psycnet.apa.org/journals/bar/8/4/398.pdf

    Sincerely,
    P.

  2. I just started doing coursework for a Masters in Behavioral Analysis and this is something I’ve been struggling with in deciding whether I want to commit to this field of study. There’s a lot of discussion on autism and developmental disabilities, but these subjects don’t particularly interest me.

  3. This was published 4 months ago and it worries me why only 2 people provide comment about a therapy that is intensively applied to many. My IQ is 148, but I can’t comment as it was not written in a reader friendly way. I will read it again tomorrow and see if I can understand it then.

  4. Loved this. Solid points. I’m looking forward to checking out the second part of this article. My IQ falls short of 148, but it made good sense to me. Well done Daniel!

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