Behavioral Science is All Around You

Photo by Andrew Neel on Unsplash

Todd A. Ward, PhD, BCBA-D

bSci21Media, LLC

Behavioral science is all around you.

It doesn’t “look” like anything and you don’t have to “do” anything for it to be there.  Instead, at its core, it is a way of seeing the world – a scientific worldview.

A popular worldview within behavior analysis is Functional Contextualism, which views the world as an act-in-context.  Under this worldview, things are “true” based on successful working.  For Radical Behaviorists, successful working is tied to its analytic goals – the prediction and influence of behavior.

Importantly, this worldview holds that we are not in the business of “discovering how the world works.”

Functional Contextualism is a-ontological, meaning it makes no statement as to the nature of reality.  It neither confirms nor denies the existence of a “real world” outside of our own experience.  For example, some argue as to whether or not global warming is “real”, which misses the point and can be distracting when your focus is on behavior change.  Others concern themselves with clinical diagnoses like “autism” as if it is a “thing” in the world, which can be a distraction when your goals are related to successful working.

Moreover, the science isn’t actually “out there”, it is in the stimulus functions participating in the act of seeing the world itself.  Importantly, the behavior of the scientist is itself an act-in-context, meaning we can’t escape our own histories when interacting with the world and engaging in scientific work.  We all see the world differently, according to our own histories.

If you find yourself wondering how you can apply behavioral science to new areas and are getting stuck, ask yourself why.  It could be an indication that, though you are likely well versed in particular procedures, you need to more firmly establish your scientific worldview, which comes from a grounding in scientific philosophy.  The latter is “pre analytic”, meaning your philosophy shapes the principles, methods, and procedures themselves, and are based on assumptions.  You can read the early work of Skinner to see how his views were shaped over time, as an example.

As a litmus test, I challenge you to go to your favorite news outlet and pick a current event.  If you have trouble talking about that event from a behavioral science perspective, you might need to work on your scientific worldview.

If you can see past procedures, methods, and other ways of “doing” behavioral science, you get to the underlying framework.  From there, a world of endless creativity can emerge.  This is what B.F. Skinner (1938) had in mind when he said “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.).

He saw past the forms and procedures to the underlying framework and spent the rest of his life discussing the biggest worldly issues and their solutions from a behavioral science perspective.  “Let him extrapolate who will” he said… can you?

Let us know what you think in the comments below, and be sure to subscribe to bSci21 via email to receive the latest articles directly to your inbox!

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. Can you elaborate on global warming comment? This seems like a weird thing to say, considering whether global warming is real or not will help us decide what actions to take.

    For example, my basement could be or not be flooded. The reality of that situation will help determine if I take appropriate actions to remediate the flood or not.

    This seems to be to be taking FC too far out of the therapy room.

    • Hi Imad, interesting thoughts! Functional Contextualism wasn’t made for therapy, though it is useful there, it was created decades ago. The point is that it doesn’t matter if your basement is really flooding or not, what matters is that behavior changes to fit your goals. No one can ever say if your basement flooding is “real” or not. Same with global warming. It doesn’t really matter if it is “real” or not, what matters is if behavior changes to meet pragmatic goals.

  2. LOVE this article – it really helped me realise that what I am struggling with when I try to relate to people is the “real” aspect – if they don’t get it they don’t get it but it doesn’t change my ability to help them solve a problem either! I am easily caught up with proving that behavioral science is real and then you get sidetracked…I am working with equestrians who are stuck in tradition and the fear of using food with horses, or parents and teachers who think they have been stripped of control with regards to not being able to punish children physically – so this has helped me enormously! I have always said to people that if you consider your philosophical stand point on training and teaching it will help you choose the appropriate course of action! thanks again Todd!

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