Behavior Analysis and Social Justice: Aligning Codes of Ethics?

By Chelsea Wilhite, M.A., BCBA

bSci21 Contributing Writer

I cried on my way to work this morning. It wasn’t because I am in the midst of a dissertation proposal, which I am, or because my father is sick, which he is, but because I heard Kedrick Pitts, brother of fallen Baton Rouge officer Montrell Jackson, describing his brother’s love of family and community.

Sadly, this was the second time I’d cried while listening to news coverage in the past two weeks. The first time was while listening to Cameron Sterlingthe 15-year-old son of Alton Sterling, killed by police in Baton Rouge a week beforecry over the loss of his father. Despite working full-time in a newsroom for over a decade, it is difficult for me to hear such raw emotion and not be affected. I feel a responsibility to help change the culture of misunderstanding and hatred in our country.

Days earlier, as news of the then most recent viral videos of people dying at the hands of police (in California, Louisiana, and Minnesota) and the subsequent fatal attack on officers in Dallas, TX circulated, I read the reports with a somewhat dispassionate detachment. I reacted this way not because I didn’t care or because the complex social atmosphere in the United States didn’t concern and enrage me, but because I wasn’t surprised. Sadly, it was not shocking at all. As that weekend wore on, I found myself sharing on social media articles I found relevant to the situation—news reports, commentaries, personal accounts, and scholarly articles. However, dwelling on social media is not very productive and, frankly, disappointing on many accounts. I was moved to action of more substance, so I turned to what I know works: behavior analysis.

In any situation, one of the first few things behavior analysts do in preparation for intervention is create and/or refine definitions. In an attempt to develop a solid frame of reference, that’s where I begin. I choose to believe most people who pursue careers in law enforcement want to help people. I also believe most people, including some law enforcement officers and especially people of majority groups, do not really understand what it’s like to have to overcome selective social and institutional hurdles. By this I mean, for example, I, as a white person, don’t know what it is like to be pulled over by cops for extremely small infractions (e.g., a marker light out) but I do know, as a woman, what it is like to have my idea dismissed then watch the same idea presented by a man be accepted. These scenarios speak directly to social justice and the awareness, or lack thereof, of systematic road blocks individuals of some groups face. Do these and similar situations qualify as a lack of social justice? And if so, what do they have to do with behavior analysis?

For answers, I started by seeking out definitions of social justice and corresponding ethics guidelines.

What is “social justice?”

The National Association of Social Workers (NASW) defines social justice as, “the view that everyone deserves equal economic, political and social rights and opportunities” (NASW, 2016, p. 1).

The Center for Economic and Social Justice (CESJ) give a more complex, and perhaps more actionable, definition. “Social justice is the virtue which guides us in creating those organized human interactions we call institutions. In turn, social institutions, when justly organized, provide us with access to what is good for the person, both individually and in our associations with others. Social justice also imposes on each of us a personal responsibility to work with others to design and continually perfect our institutions as tools for personal and social development” (CESJ, 2016, p. 1).

It is to the last part of this second definition I want to speak. I, too, believe each human has a personal responsibility to contribute to more fair, just, and functional institutions. Furthermore, I believe behavior scientistsincluding BCBAs, OBMers, systems and education experts, and behavior analysts working in other fieldsare uniquely situated to influence public institutions toward this end. The thorough ethics code (the Code) provided by the Behavior Analyst Certification Board (BACB) to which BCBAs must adhere is a good example of how behavior analysts are already working within their own sphere to ensure practices of behavioral intervention service organizations are using tools to better individual and collective lives. Additionally, the Association for Behavior Analysis International (ABAI), acknowledging behavior scientists work in diverse fields, lists several codes of ethics specific to those areas (ABAI, 2016).

As it pertains specifically to creating ethical social and institutional environments, Area 7 of the BACB’s Code states, “Behavior analysts work with colleagues within the profession of behavior analysis and from other professions and must be aware of these ethical obligations in all situations.” Furthermore, section 7.01 speaks directly to culture: “Behavior analysts promote an ethical culture in their work environments and make others aware of this Code.”

While this part of the Code focuses on specific workplaces and not society at large, it makes contributing to a more ethical world a much more actionable task. The more we continue to educate one another, inside and outside our field, the more progress we can make toward social justice.

In the coming weeks and months, I would like to begin a conversation about social justice and behavior analysis. I plan to look at Skinner’s analysis of the words “good” and “bad,” look more specifically at the verbal frames involved in police shootings, describe some specific ways behavior scientists are making progress toward a more ethical and socially just world, and collect and list suggestions for how you can take similar steps. Please join me.


Association for Behavior Analysis International (ABAI, 2016). Policies: Code of ethics. ABAI. Retrieved July 21, 2016 from

Behavior Analysis Certification Board (BACB, 2016). Professional and ethical compliance code for behavior analysts. BACB. Retrieved July 5, 2016 from

Center for Economic and Social Justice (CESJ, 2016). Defining economic justice and social justice. CESJ. Retrieved July 10, 2016 from

National Association of Social Workers (NASW, 2016). Social justice. NASW. Retrieved July, 2016 from

Chelsea Wilhite, M.A. chelsea.wilhite@gmail.comChelsea Wilhite, M.A., BCBA has always wanted to better understand the world around us. As a television journalist, Chelsea worked her way up the ranks to produce the number one rated television news broadcast in the Fresno television market, an area covering five California counties. Along the way, she won two regional news Emmys and a Radio and Television News Directors Award for best news producer. In an effort to further her understanding of natural phenomena, Chelsea left television after more than a decade, turning to Behavior Analysis. She is currently a doctoral student at the University of Nevada, Reno. While behavior science research and instruction is now her primary interest, Chelsea never lost her passion for journalism and regularly contributes to behavior science oriented blogs, magazines, and newsletters. You can contact her at [email protected].

1 Comment on "Behavior Analysis and Social Justice: Aligning Codes of Ethics?"

  1. Good post! I think it’s a very timely issue and hopefully more BA’s will get involved in coming up with solutions for these social justice problems.

    The only one that I can highlight in my own field (School Psychology) is by Kent McIntosh, called the Vulnerable Decision Point (VDP) that is deployed for school staff to be able to pause and make better decisions based on objective procedure rather than emotional decisions in the moment, that would be based on more implicit (biased) responding.

    I don’t think he has published any papers on it yet but here is a link to a presentation that covers it. Vulnerable Decision Point (VDP)

    Looking forward to seeing your list in the future and what other steps we can take!

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