Behavior Analysts: Think outside the box.

Todd A. Ward, PhD, BCBA-D

President, bSci21Media, LLC

The founder of our field, B.F. Skinner, had a grand vision – a technology of behavior for the world.  He wasn’t talking about a science of autism, education, environmental sustainability, organizational performance, or any other specific domain.  He was talking about a science of generalizable principles that can be formlessly applied wherever behavior occurs.

Over the past year, I have given Keynote addresses and webinars on Skinner’s vision and how far (or not) we have come in fulfilling a global technology of behavior.  In short – we are nowhere close to fulfilling his goals.  Clinical applications in the area of autism and developmental disabilities are certainly pressing social issues that are aligned with Skinner’s vision, but they are not the totality of his vision.

To get a brief snapshot of the field, we can go to a few sources.  First, the Association for Behavior Analysis International (ABAI) 2017 conference program showed that 5 conference areas comprised approx. 53% of all talks.  The areas were: Autism, Practice, Education, Clinical/Family/Behavioral Medicine, and Developmental Disabilities.  The remaining 11 conference tracks filled out the other 47% of the conference.

We can also look at data provided by the Behavior Analyst Certification Board, showing 67% of certificants practicing in Autism, 12% in education, and 8% in developmental disabilities.  The remaining 13% are scattered across various disciplines.

While one could argue that the primary utility of the BCBA credential is in clinical applications, most jobs, even those in academia, now require the credential.  Moreover, the number of BCBA programs far outweigh those of the more comprehensive training offered by ABAI accredited programs, with 100+ for the former and approx. 25 for the latter.

Skinner (1982) himself asked the question of “Why are we not acting to save the world?” decades ago, which has since been revisited by Mattaini and Luke (2014).  And since the beginning, a small yet consistent stream of behavior analysts have pursued more diverse issues.  The Leadership and Cultural Change seminar at the 2014 ABAI conference was a testament to the latter lineage.

A consistent theme from said lineage is a call for Behavioral Systems Analysis (BSA), and largely from the perspective of academia – calling for research, redesigned training programs, and the like.  But we can also approach the issue of fulfilling Skinner’s vision from a more empowering perspective – that of entrepreneurship.

By taking an entrepreneurial approach, the question of “Why aren’t we doing more?” changes to “What can I do?”, and in 2018 the Internet makes starting a business and reaching large audiences more accessible than ever before.  You don’t need to wait on anyone.  It’s all up to you.  Below are a few suggestions to help generate novel business ideas based in part on principles from Acceptance & Commitment Therapy (ACT) and Relational Frame Theory (RFT).

Take an inventory of your professional and personal strengths.

We are all good at something, both within behavior analysis and in our personal lives.  Professionally, we might have particular strengths in data analysis, assessments, experimental design, the pairing process, staff training, or any other number of things.  In our personal lives, we might have interests in such disparate areas as cooking, art, sports, dance, etc… The great news is that whatever your strengths, they are all behavior – and that is in the realm of behavior analysis.

Clarify your values.


Skinner talked a lot about values, and essentially equated them to reinforcers.  However, we will discuss values from an ACT perspective, which views values as behavior (i.e., “valuing” behavior).  The process of clarifying your own values can function as a motivative augmentals to establish new reinforcers toward valued life directions.  A simple exercise is to try and clarify your values using words ending in “-ing” to help keep yourself in the behavioral realm.  For example, if you value “parenting” or specific aspects within parenting, you might then be able to better track when you are behaving in accordance with your new direction and adjust your own behavior as necessary to keep you moving forward.

Adjust your view of behavior analysis.

Unfortunately, today it seems many behavior analysts identify the field with a particular set of techniques or procedures, such as a “paired choice preference assessment”, “noncontingent reinforcement”, “performance feedback” and the like.  But identifying the field with particular forms or topographies misses the bigger picture.  What distinguishes our field from others are the underlying principles of behavior as they contribute to our analytic goals of the prediction and influence of behavior.  The principles can take whatever form they need to take to address the problem at hand.

Moreover, if our field was truly identified by a set of techniques, we would all still be running rats and pigeons in the animal laboratory.  Remember Skinner’s (1938) quote from Behavior of Organisms – “The importance of a science of behavior derives largely from the possibility of an extension to human affairs….let him extrapolate who will.” (pp. 441-442).  Extrapolation of principles is the key.  

Create a relational network.

Next, start connecting the dots between your valued life directions, your personal/professional strengths, and potential products or services.  As behavior analysts, we have a logistical advantage – most of what we do is likely service based, and the products that we might produce are likely digital in nature.  This means we are mostly free of the many constraints that come with complex logistical chains involved in the production an distribution of goods.

Successive Approximations

So many of our basic behavioral principles can be applied to entrepreneurship, and successive approximations is one.  Many of the people I talk to who are interested in starting businesses have a mistaken belief that they need to instantly create a full fledged business out of thin air.  In behavior analysis, this isn’t necessary.  You don’t have to “shark tank” your business if you don’t want to.  Instead, think about the first step you can take today to move you along your valued business direction. If you are currently employed with a regular paycheck, keep it!  Your paycheck is a safety net that will allow you to “dip your toes in the water” to test out different product/service ideas.

Creating a free group is an easy way to do so.  See if you can find a topic that resonates with people and get them to show up for free.  You might create a presentation focused on parenting, organizational performance, sustainability, healthy living, or a hundred other topics that get people in contact with behavioral principles.  Once you start talking to people, and capture their interest, many more opportunities will open up that you never would have otherwise encountered.

If you would like further assistance in creating your innovative behavioral business, or would like a consultation on how Behavioral Systems Analysis, Organizational Behavior Management, or ACT can facilitate your business or clinical practices, check out our bSciEntrepreneurial page for more information.

If you would like to earn Type II Continuing Education credit by contacting novel topics in behavior analysis, check out our “ABA Outside the Box” CE series.

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]

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