Are We Realizing the Full Potential of Behavioral Science?

Photo by Jeremy Bishop on Unsplash

By Shelley McLean, M.Ed, BCBA

bSci21 Contributing Writer

Sometimes I wonder if it’s just me . . .

As I’ve been reflecting recently on the application of behavioral science to everyday life and situations, I’ve found myself wondering if we’re really maximizing all of the potential behavioral science has to offer. We know that the science of behavior provides us with an amazing technology to make meaningful changes in important behaviors. Many behavior analysts are well-versed in the literature that provides empirical support for the use of behavioral interventions to teach important skills and reduce challenging behaviors for individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and diverse needs. Others have successfully applied behavioral principles to workplace settings, through Organizational Behavior Management (OBM). Still others are using techniques derived from Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) to help clients address private events through Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). There is also interesting emerging research looking at obesity through a behavioral lens (Hendrickson & Rasmussen, 2013; Lawyer, Boomhower, & Rasmussen, 2016). Behavior analysts know that the strategies and interventions that form the foundation of our collective professional practice hold the key to changing socially-important behaviors in meaningful ways. However, it’s possible that the science that could help address so many problems may not be reaching, or at least not influencing, some of those who might benefit from it the most . . .

Many behavior analysts, including those who work with learners with ASD and diverse needs, appreciate the challenges associated with the dissemination and promotion of interventions that have been demonstrated to be effective in well-controlled scientific studies. A Google search for “autism treatment” today turns up more than fifty million results, and that number is growing. The interventions included in that list range from empirically-supported to ineffective to harmful and, quite frankly, frightening. Unfortunately good marketing and skillfully-crafted reviews and recommendations can misdirect and misinform even the most careful consumer and overshadow accurate information.

David H. Freedman, a journalist – not a behavior analyst – highlighted the value of the application of behavioral strategies to real-world problems in a 2011 article. In that piece, entitled “How to Fix the Obesity Crisis,” Freedman, a contributing editor at The Atlantic and a regular contributor to Scientific American, described how many popular programs that claim to help clients lose weight and improve health fail to incorporate behavior-based strategies, in spite of the scientifically-proven effectiveness of such strategies. Further, he explained, that even programs that do draw upon behavioral principles often “fall short when it comes to enlisting a full range of behavioral techniques and customizing them to meet the varied needs of individuals” (Freedman, 2011, p. 44). Fads and ineffective interventions remain popular in today’s society, and their developers take in millions of dollars each year from clients, including, no doubt, some behavior analysts.

A recent interview on the Behavioral Observations Podcast, produced and hosted by Matt Cicoria, emphasizes the need for behavior analysts to further examine the areas of everyday life in which our science may make a significant difference. It also reminds us of our collective and individual professional responsibilities in that effort. In that podcast, Dr. Pat Friman makes a powerful statement, and one that seems worthy of attention. He asserts that behavior analysts “are completely missing the boat on some very important areas of human experience” (Friman, 2016). He also points out that even behavior analysts don’t necessarily seek out behaviorally-based solutions to the problems we encounter in our own lives.

Fortunately, not only does Dr. Friman highlight the issue, but he also suggests a behaviorally-based strategy that may contribute to the solution. He emphasizes the importance of talking about behavioral science in ways that everybody can understand, and the value of taking and making every opportunity to share the power of our science. He also provides behavior analysts with a roadmap – a task analysis of sorts – to follow as they take up this challenge. In a 2014 article published in The Behavior Analyst, Friman encourages behavior analysts to overcome the obstacles that prevent each of us from sharing our science and embrace the “front of the room” (Friman, 2014, p. 109). Intentionally working to become more comfortable and more effective promoting the science that we know could benefit so many, may be a critical first step toward making behavioral science more accessible and realizing its potential on a far broader scale.

How have you worked to bring the science of the behavior to the world?  Let us know in the comments below, and be sure to subscribe to bSci21 via email to receive the latest articles directly to your inbox!


Freedman, D. H. (2011). How to fix the obesity crisis. Scientific American, 304(2), 40-47.

Friman, P. C. (Presenter). (2016, August). Session 10 – Pat Friman on Boystown, parenting, and more! [Audio podcast]. In M. Cicoria (Producer), The Behavioral Observations Podcast. Retrieved from:

Friman, P. C. (2014). Behavior analysts to the front! A 15-step tutorial on public speaking. The Behavior Analyst, 37(2), 109-118.

Hendrickson, K. L., & Rasmussen, E. B. (2013). Effects of mindful eating training on delay and probability discounting for food and money in obese and healthy-weight individuals. Behavior Research & Therapy, 51, 399-409.

Lawyer, S. R., Boomhower, S. R., & Rasmussen, E. B. (2015). Differential associations between obesity and behavioral measures of impulsivity. Appetite, 95, 375-382.

Shelley McLean, M.Ed, BCBA is passionate about empowering educators with an understanding of behavioural principles to give them the tools and the confidence to ignite the potential in all of their learners.  She is the Coordinator of the interprovincial Autism in Education (AIE) Partnership for the Atlantic Provinces Special Education Authority (APSEA) in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada.  Shelley has worked as a classroom teacher, guidance counselor, high school administrator, itinerant ASD consultant, and provincial Learning Specialist for ASD and Complex Cases during her career in education, which spans more than 17 years.  She has also served as a part-time instructor for ABA courses at the University of New Brunswick and Western University in Ontario.  Shelley holds Bachelor degrees in Arts and Education, and a Master of Education degree in Counseling Psychology.  She completed a Graduate Academic Certificate in Applied Behavior Analysis from the University of North Texas and has been a Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA) since 2010.  You can contact her at

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1 Comment

  1. Ms. McLean,
    Thank you for a very relevant and timely article! It has long been a concern that behavior analysts need to share our science with others in everyday, conversational language that can be understood by those outside our field. Thank you for this reminder!

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