An opinion piece.
We have a serious problem. There’s something wrong with the field of Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA). I love our science. I love the brilliant minds within it, but we are really screwing up. I love us, we love us, but everyone else DOES NOT love us.
So what are we going to do about it? We have to be better at becoming a valued science and there are two things we need to do to achieve this.
Step #1: We need to stop being smug and condescending (or at least stop being perceived this way)
To do this, we must change the language we use to communicate with people who are not Behavior Analysts.
I can’t tell you how many times my loved ones have said, “Don’t use that behavior stuff on me”. I first thought that my family believes I’m using some kind of black magic, but now I think they are saying something else. I think my family is saying, “Don’t condescend me by explaining my behavior (and feelings) in a series of ABCs and tell me how to change it.” My family doesn’t want to be taken down to the level of topographies, functions and data like a subject in some study. And, they don’t want to feel talked down to.
How do we decrease our smugness? We can start by changing our language. Lots of people are using principles of Applied Behavior Analysis to deal with all sorts of mainstream issues but the term Behavior Analysis isn’t being used. As Dr. Pat Friman said “our fingerprints aren’t on it”.
- Read a book about potty training; it probably uses principles of Applied Behavior Analysis
- Read a book about managing employees; it probably uses principles of ABA.
- Read anything to do with parenting; it probably uses principles of ABA.
- And the list goes on.
Dr. Friman has a very good idea about marketing Applied Behavior Analysis. He thinks we should use less technical language when talking to people outside of Behavior Analysis about Behavior Analysis. At the ABAI Annual Conference a few years ago, he said, “When in Rome, speak as the Romans do”. This saying has been around for a long time for a reason. No consumer ever wants to feel condescended or talked down to. We need to avoid this by speaking in ways they understand. Trust me, no one cares if they understand the difference between a transitive-CMO and a reflexive-CMO when they’re discussing their problems and feelings with you.
As a science, we know we can fix problems. Unfortunately, people don’t always want our help. Let’s work together to change this!
Step #2: We need to do a better job of showing people what we do, what results we have, and how it can relate to them.
How do we show the world what we can do? We must translate data into something that can be received and comprehended by everyone, not just scientists, behavior analysts, and statisticians.
Right now, the pinnacle of getting our work “out there” is to publish within our own peer reviewed journals. We are doing an excellent job convincing other believers (aka behavior analysts) that our science can change lives through these publications. Sometimes, our work even leaks out into the mainstream - 60 Minutes covered Lovaas back in the 80’s, right? In all seriousness, there needs to be a paradigm shift in how we get our work into the mainstream. But how do we make this shift ethically?
I think the answer is tied to how we present our data. I have heard debates on listserves and in person about the use of testimonials over the last year. We have an ethical guideline prohibiting it, but other fields use testimonials. Look at the whole bio-medical community in autism. How can we compete?
In addition to changing our language and allowing our consumers to use words like ‘thoughts’ and ‘feelings’ (without reminding them that ‘thoughts’ and ‘feelings’ are not directly observable), we need to present data in a more palatable way. What if we tie more case studies to the graphs we present? Can we find ways to ethically do this?
It may make some behavior analysts squirm, but stories that have emotional ties are more easily remembered and create buy-in. Take the example of a parent with a child who is hitting himself in the face. Hearing a case study (story) about the use of mand training and response blocking to successfully help another boy with self-injurous behavior may lead them to also seek appropriate treatment. Stories, testimonials and case studies may create the buy-in we need. And again, not achieving buy-in for more work, but getting buy-in to help us get one step closer to improving the world.
1 Personal Note: I’m even uncomfortable typing the word feelings in this context; I feel like it needs to be in quotes--What have I done to myself?
29.07 Testimonials. Behavior analysts do not solicit testimonials from current clients or patients or other persons who because of their particular circumstances are vulnerable to undue influence.