Behavioral Science and Art: The Defusing Effects of EDM

Photo by Daniel Robert on Unsplash

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

Ignite STEAM Labs & bSci21Media, LLC

The effects of our verbal symbolic behavior are pervasive. Our ability, as humans, to relate one thing to another verbal symbolically is key to those skills that most make us human. We can produce language, solve complex problems, and imagine futures we have not seen – all because we can extend what we relate to past direct contingencies. These abilities are core to our ability to perspective take, empathize, and feel intensely about experiences not evoked simply by our present moment.

The trouble, as Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) elaborates upon, is that we as humans tend to become disconnected from the contingencies that best drive our wellness. We often begin to track painful experience in the present and discontinue pursuing our goals too soon. We often get rigid in our own beliefs and behaviors and end up habitually seeking to reduce our pain or increase pleasure – in ways that prevent us from pursuing larger goals or achieving balanced fulfilling lives.

One major contribution of ACT and Relational Frame Theory (RFT) to behavior analytic accounts of high functioning adults is its elaboration on the properties of verbal symbolic relating. One such property of our verbal relating is defusion.

Defusion is the ability to see your own language as Skinner himself saw it – as behavior, an act in context devoid of any inherent truth.  For example, instead of saying “I am anxious” you might come to say, “I am having feelings of anxiety.”  Instead of saying “I hate my husband” you might say “I am having hateful thoughts about my husband.”  Or instead of saying “I can’t succeed in school” you might say “I am having the thought that I can’t succeed.”

In one instance, you are looking at the world through your own language (or ‘fusing’ with your language and engaging in rule-governed behavior that reduces awareness of direct contingencies).  In the other, you are looking at your language as behavior (defusing). To the extent that one defuses from the verbal symbolic rigidity that forms simply as a process of the repetitive, non-flexible, unaware patterns most of us engage in during our daily life – we become better able to regulate ourselves.

One way behavior analysts capitalize on defusion is through processes derived from Acceptance & Commitment Therapy (ACT).  Defusion can act as a vehicle towards the goal of psychological flexibility, or the ability to track the direct contingencies in your world that matter most to you, and to adjust your behavior in an adaptive manner to stay on track.

At bSci21Media & Ignite STEAM Labs, we work to disseminate behavior analysis and help others shift perspective to embracing its functionality and utility in many forms. Towards that, we would like to challenge you to consider the behavior analytic impact of live, visceral music on humans. Humans have gathered together to listen to and create music for thousands of years. We tend to think of this activity as recreation, but perhaps we have gotten to rule-governed in our perspective? The ancient Greeks, Romans, and Africans held up the arts as a necessary part of social and human life, without which we could not live balanced lives.

We suggest that major functions of live music events, that modern society may have lost the ability to track, may include: Promoting defusion from our verbal symbolic rigidity, increasing coordination between individuals, and promoting psychologically flexible ‘self-ing.’ Live, visceral music and perhaps in particular music that is less speech heavy and more melodic (e.g. Electronic Dance Music; EDM) has a few characteristics that make it particularly suited as an aid to defusion and flexibility.

EDM is physical, as well as auditory.  If you have ever been to an EDM event, at a night club, festival, or the like, you immediately experience the physicality of the music.  You don’t just hear the melodies, the beats, and bass lines, you physically feel them impinging on your body.  Such tactile stimulation can help get you “out of your head” and into the moment…away from restrictive rules on how you “should” or “shouldn’t” act or how people may or may not perceive you, and into the realm of direct-acting contingencies.

EDM is social.  The physicality of the music, and the direct-acting contingencies it evokes, mixes well with the social aspect of the genre.  If you are someone who has difficulty creating relationships, interacting with others, or otherwise has a desire to “come out of their shell”, an EDM event could help.  However, the social aspect, particularly for those who have difficulty being social, can be aversive at first as you are intentionally exposing yourself to situations you have historically avoided.  However, as we know in behavior analysis, escape and avoidance contingencies can be very reinforcing and, in some cases, work against our own psychological wellbeing.

EDM is music.  The fact that EDM is music almost goes without saying, but the auditory aspects are important.  Sometimes, the repetitive nature of the music itself can help center you in the present moment, where those direct-acting contingencies reside.  If you find yourself “caught up in your head” in a way that is inhibiting your daily activities or wellbeing, sometimes repetitive music with few if any vocals can help transform the functions of your own verbal content towards more adaptive directions.

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 [email protected]

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.

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