Challenging Dick Malott’s Jewish Mother

Scott Herbst, Ph.D. & Todd A. Ward, PhD, BCBA-D

bSci21Media, LLC

Brett DiNovi

Brett DiNovi & Associates

Everywhere I go, people are always like, “Man, what controversy is Brett DiNovi stirring up today?” In this week’s controversy, Brett takes on the king of ABA controversy himself: the one and only (to our knowledge) Dick Malott.  Now, what might be the top of your mind when you read the words “Dick Malott” are some offensive things he said at CalABA during a keynote address.  If you haven’t heard about that, I don’t know what to tell you.  According to many people in the field of behavior analysis, in the span of minutes he managed to be both sexist and racist.  I can’t comment on whether he was sexist or racist.  I wasn’t there.  From what I heard, it was definitely inappropriate.

When I heard it, I thought, “well there goes old Dick again.”  I can’t say what the reinforcer is for that behavior, but if there is a functional class called, “pushing the edges of what is considered appropriate,” Dick Malott is good at pressing that lever.  And sometimes you can press that lever too hard.

I don’t think Brett’s style of controversy is quite the same as D-Mott’s (I coined that one myself).  I think Brett is more about disruption – kicking the tires on the old ways of talking about things, seeing where the soft spots are, and looking at where we might be due for an upgrade or – heck, why not? – a straight up overhaul.

So this week he challenges Dick Malott on D-Mott’s idea of the Jewish Mother (2003).  If you haven’t heard this one, it’s the idea that us humans have issues.  No argument there.  Our biggest issue is that we each have a Jewish Mother who we’re trying to please, who we can never please, and everything we do (for which there is no obvious, immediate reinforcer) is to avoid the disapproving glare of our Jewish mother.  Moral behavior.  Going above-and-beyond.  Altruism.  These can all be ascribed, according to Malott, as being under the aversive control of our Jewish mother.  As Malott says in the video, no matter how hard you try, you can never try hard enough.  Yet, you keep trying harder in the hopes that you will never disappoint your Jewish mother.

In response to this, Brett makes a few good points.  He puts it in the context of business, discretionary effort and, oddly, heroin.  Yes – H, skag, junk, the old number 8 train.

Taking a step back, if you’re not familiar with the term “discretionary effort”, that’s essentially when a person goes above and beyond expectations.  When Gallup releases its annual workforce engagement survey results and says that 30% of the workforce is engaged, it’s because they estimate that 30% of the workforce is giving discretionary effort.  They’re doing things beyond the minimum expectation that will make the company better, and they’re doing it without any obvious reason to.

DiNovi brings it back to the basics.  As he alludes, it’s a little strange to say that a Jewish mother who has long since passed is controlling my behavior in the work environment NOW.  He brings it back to EO’s – our good old establishing operations.  Basically, he says, the same behavior can be under the control of positive or negative reinforcement depending on levels of satiation or deprivation.  When I’ve got the sweats from withdrawal, I might pay the dragon a visit to escape those rotten cramps.  After a touch of the horse, I’m feeling right, but now I might dabble a little more, in which case the smack now serves as a positive reinforcer.

Regardless, wherever you come down on the side of this debate – that we all have a Jewish mother who we’re forever trying to please, that positive and negative reinforcement are expressions of EO’s, or some other theory we haven’t covered, you should check out Brett’s video.  It’s a fun approach to an old argument, and that’s what’s going to keep our science nimble and progressing.  Revisiting these ideas and good intellectual debate is ultimately what trues us up to our scientific roots and keeps us rigorous.  I’ll leave it up to you to agree or disagree, but either way, do the thinking.

To hear more, be sure to check out the full video, and to subscribe to Brett DiNovi’s YouTube channel and let him know what you would like to see in future videos.  Also be sure to subscribe to bSci21 via email to receive the latest articles directly to your inbox!

Scott Herbst, PhD is the founder and Lead Trainer at SixFlex Training and Consulting.  After six years in academia, he left to pursue his passion of training leaders and managers to create, manage, and communicate in work environments where people are productive, excited, and vital.  As a course designer, he grounds his curricula in cutting edge research in language and thinking as well as decades of research in operant performance.  As a trainer, he is an engaging and powerful speaker who makes learning fun and exciting.   You can visit his company site at, or email at [email protected] for more information.

Todd A. Ward, PhD, BCBA-D is the President and Founder of bSci21Media, LLC, which owns the top behavior analytic media outlet in the world,  bSci21Media aims to disseminate behavior analysis to the world and to support ABA companies around the globe through the Behavioral Science in the 21st Century blog and its subsidiaries, bSciEntrepreneurial, bSciWebDesign, bSciWriting, and the ABA Outside the Box CEU series.  Dr. Ward received his PhD in behavior analysis from the University of Nevada, Reno under Dr. Ramona Houmanfar.  He has served as a Guest Associate Editor of the Journal of Organizational Behavior Management, and as an Editorial Board member of Behavior and Social Issues.  Dr. Ward has also provided ABA services to children and adults with various developmental disabilities in day centers, in-home, residential, and school settings, and previously served as Faculty Director of Behavior Analysis Online at the University of North Texas.  Dr. Ward is passionate about disseminating behavior analysis to the world and growing the field through entrepreneurship. Todd can be reached at [email protected]

Brett DinoviBrett DiNovi, M.A., BCBA has the unique and distinguished experience of studying the principles of applied behavior analysis under the rigorous scrutiny of both Dr. Julie S. Vargas (formerly Skinner) and Dr. E.A. Vargas at West Virginia University’s internationally recognized program. For the past 26 years, Brett has used behavior analytic principles to create large scale change across school districts, Fortune 500 companies using principles of Organizational Behavior Management (OBM), and across individual learners. Brett has been a OBM consultant in Morgantown WV, an instructor at West Virginia University, a guest lecturer at numerous universities, a speaker on multiple Comcast Newsmakers TV programs, an expert witness in due process hearings, has publications in the Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, and has been in in executive leadership positions across schools and residential programs nationwide. In addition to an award from South Jersey Biz Magazine for “Best Places to Work,” an award for “Best of Families” in Suburban Magazine, and the distinguished “Top Ranked U.S. Executives” award, Brett’s proudest accomplishment is being a role model and father for his daughter and two stepchildren (one of which has autism). Brett can be reached at [email protected]


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