Behavioral Science and Art: Primal Musical Expression in a Rule-Governed Society

Photo by George Bohunicky on Unsplash

Todd A. Ward, PhD, BCBA-D

bSci21Media, LLC, Ignite STEAM Labs

“I’m early”, I say to myself as I pull up to the venue.

Searching for a parking spot, I park and kill 30 minutes on my phone texting with a friend.  I get out and head to the venue, in the Texas summer heat, the sounds of roaring guitars, thumping drums, and screaming vocals in the distance tell me that I’m in the right place.

I hand my phone to the person at the gate, who scans my ticket and gives me an arm band.  Once I’m in, I head to the bar for a drink.

Beer in hand, I turn around to take in the scene in front of me.  To my side, I see a pair of women chatting with delicately detailed tattoos across their neck and arms.  Their hair is long and dyed, brushed to the side to expose shaved heads underneath.

I scan the crowd in front of me to similarly adorned patrons, all coming together for a common experience of artistic expression.

I make my way to the front and rest my drink on the stage as the next band is about to play.  The singer comes out in multicolored tights, with matching hair. His bare torso covered in tattoos with “BURN” scrawled across his chest, the meaning of which was left to each individual audience member to interpret.

He lets out a scream, paired with pounding bass, drums, and guitar.  He kneels down just feet in front of me and locks eyes for a few lines.  His intensity evokes a relaxed smile from me.  During a brief lull in lyrics he returns the gesture.  A fleeting moment of personal connection and understanding in an otherwise chaotic scene.

The music continues.  I feel the sweat of the bass player fall on me as he jumps around the stage, his instrument sending defusing bass frequencies into the crowd.

The music stops and the singer speaks to the crowd.  His words just as intense as the music, but contrasted with a friendly tone, interspersed with humor. He urges the crowd to come close to the stage to feel their energy.  He then spoke of his three suicide attempts and reassured anyone in the crowd who might be thinking of such a path that there are other ways to seek help.

Then he stood up, looked up at the sky, and fell to the ground.  As his body impacted the stage, and explosion of sound erupted from the band and they were into the next song.

After a break, the headlining band comes out — Combichrist, a self-described “aggrotech” group that can be best described as aggressive Electronic Dance Music (EDM).  They start into their first song.  The singer’s and guitarist’s faces are painted in bold black and white.  Two live drummers – one at a drum set, and the other playing auxiliary drums – are each intensely involved in the feeling of the music, supported by an electronic producer letting out heavy bass lines and danceable beats.

Each band member seems to have a tech on standby to help maintain order on the stage despite the overwhelming intensity and emotion being emitted.  The drummer repeatedly empties bottles of water over his drum set, sending a liquified explosion into the air with each strike.  He repeatedly loses drumsticks that are promptly replaced by the tech.  One particular tom (drum) seems to leap off the drummer’s platform and onto the stage every few minutes, which is always righted by the tech, ensuring an uninterrupted flow of music.

It turns out you still need a few people who are operating on rule-based contingencies to hold together such an expressive group of artists.  Everyone in the group is so immersed in the moment that no one seems to be thinking anything – it is expression in its purest form.  Rule-governed behavior and language are suppressed as direct-acting contingencies overtake the moment.

And it overtakes the crowd as well.  We return to something primal, visceral, and expressive.  Something that seems to return us to an earlier, more human, state — a state of emotional connectedness and pure expression in the present moment unconstrained by arbitrary rules imposed upon us by society (see Skinner’s discussion of “Controlling Agencies” in his book Science & Human Behavior).

This article is part of our larger series on behavioral science and art, as a joint collaboration between bSci21Media and Ignite STEAM Labs.  We invite you to check out the full series below, and to reach out to us if you would like to discuss how to integrate behavioral science and art into your work.

Behavioral Science and Art: A Manifesto

Behavioral Science and Art: Don’t Overthink Writing

Behavioral Science and Art: The Defusing Effects of EDM

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.

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

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