Behavioral Science and Art: A Manifesto

Angela Cathey, M.A. & Todd A. Ward, PhD, BCBA-D

Ignite STEAM Labs

The union of art and behavior analysis helps achieve the following:

  1. Expands the scope, complexity, and marketability of behavior analysis.
  2. Expands solutions for the world.
  3. Provides analytics to refine and examine the impact of art on humanity.

Purpose: To predict and influence of behavior through stimulus products created through artistic expression.  Examples include products derived from the visual arts (painting, photography, sculpture, etc…), literary arts (linguistic expression through written or oral means), or performing arts (music, theatre, dance, etc…).

Philosophical Basis: Functional Contextualism.  We look at the total act in context as it relates to successful working toward the prediction and influence of behavior.  Thus, we are not beholden to forms, procedures, methods, and other topographically-defined features of our work.  Identification with such features inhibits creativity and detracts from a functional approach emphasizing successful working. Moreover, we are not interested in behavior as actions localized in the person, or in objects/events disconnected from their effects on behavior.  Our interest is in functional relations in the ever-evolving present moment.

Points of Contact with Behavioral Processes:

Motivating functions of art.  Artistic products may function to momentarily alter the reinforcing and evocative functions of various objects and events.

Antecedent functions of art.  Artistic products may participate in a history of reinforcement for particular classes of behavior and, as such, function to occasion or evoke such behavior in the future.

Consequential functions of art.  Artistic products may acquire reinforcing functions that serve to promote adaptive behavior patterns in the future.

Art as medium of contact.  Artistic products themselves, or the act of their production, may serve as a vehicle to contact motivative, evocative, or reinforcing stimulus functions.

Aims and Goals:

Art functions as metaphor to allow us to perceive our experience in different ways, from different perspectives, with less tendency to evoke pliance than spoken word may at times evoke.  Thus, art can help people track relevant contingencies in their environment towards valued ends.

Art allows you to contact someone else’s experience, often without even contacting the artist themselves. You directly experience a perspective, a touching of relata, without a reaction to the person – without the blocking or biasing of all the direct contingencies and verbal contingencies that would tell us that we are different, or the same, or otherwise influence our view.

Art promotes empathy building as we may appreciate the other’s view, which may loosen or soften our own deictics.  Our sense of ‘self’, ‘other’, and our development of an adaptive functional coherence is deeply influenced by our ability to see and appreciate other’s perspectives – to ‘flex’ functionally in our verbal self.

Art, and particularly music, has for thousands of years brought us together – as bodies move to music together and experience together we tend to perceive ourselves in symbolic coordination – and more readily find commonalities with others. Music can promote the psychological flexibility needed to allow us to temporarily defuse from our verbal selves, our distinctions between ‘self’ and ‘other’, and more readily experience a higher level of self-as-context.  Music gives us the ability to be larger than ourselves and see through the limits of our own learning histories and verbally constructed inhibitions, to push us towards valued ends.

Ignite STEAM Labs is the non-profit innovation arm of ENSO Group. Ignite STEAM Labs creates science-based art and art-based science. It is in this integrative work that we can do as those before us like John B. Watson did – to extend the appetitiveness of behavioral science to larger audiences, not by talking about behavioral science, but by affecting others through the science.  The behavioral analysis of symbolic thought and language as guided by Relational Frame Theory is prime for an explosion of science-guided art for Skinner’s original vision of a world improved through behavioral science.

Angela Cathey, M.A. is a writer, consultant, entrepreneur, and Owner, Director, and Team/Leadership Development Consultant of Enso Group. Her background is in processes of change and intervention development. She has trained with experts in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), Functional Analytic Psychotherapy (FAP), cognitive-behavioral exposure-based treatments, and Relational Frame Theory (RFT). Her interests are in process, innovation, and development of solutions for sustainable large-scale change. She has published in numerous academic journals on process, measurement, and intervention development. Enso-driven analytics systems are used to inform leadership and team building interventions, culture design, and research in the behavioral sciences. Angela can be reached at [email protected]. Stay up-to-date with Enso Group at and LinkedIn.

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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1 Comment on "Behavioral Science and Art: A Manifesto"

  1. Nice work! Also: respondent functions. Art elicits important respondent behaviors. These responses have outcomes that in turn have operant discriminative functions in a behavior chain that may lead to socially important terminal responses.

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