Beyond Free Will & Independence from Social Influence

By Scott Miller of Brohavior

Guest Author

In an attempt to increase air traffic safety, The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) called for researchers to investigate optimal conditions for safe piloting, but did so without obtaining consent from the constituent public.  Over the last few decades, regulations led to restrictions in the number of hours that pilots can fly in a given time period and how much rest they are required to take between flights.  These aviation policies were developed to prevent fatigue and, subsequently, accidents (see figure 1;  Rates of accidents per year have steadily decreased following the first policy changes in 1995.  Nevertheless, to the best of my knowledge, the FAA’s decision to enact policies that have affected the lives of countless individuals were not viewed as ethically violating the rights of citizen consumers.  This is analogous to the general concerns regarding using a science of behavior to influence large social change.  The control or influence over human behavior at the social level is not inherently at odds with ethical considerations.

airplane crash data

Figure 1. Rate of aviation accidents as reported by Phase change lines indicate policy changes implemented by the FAA. Data extend through 2013.

Behavior scientists have been conducting research for decades with an aim to improve social conditions.  In 1972 B.F. Skinner wrote a book addressing concerns that a science of behavior uprooted the freedom and dignity of mankind.  However, much like Galileo’s claims threatened the elevated status of Earth by suggesting the it was not at the center of the universe, Skinner was out of favor with the conservative status quo.  Many might still view a science that produces change in behavior, especially in large social communities, as unethical at best.  However, such a concern is unfounded for at least three reasons:

Nonscientific variables influencing behavior are already in place, and the social atmosphere is in need of change.

Social behavior is constantly under the influence of local and more general variables (contingencies).  From a social collective there emerges artists to entertain, police to regulate, television programming, and general social actions such as accents, religiousness, and taboo behaviors.  All of these cultural traditions shape our behavior.  For example, in small rural communities it is often considered polite to wave as you drive past someone even if you don’t know them.  In large urban areas, waving in traffic would be confusing and might be met with an angry recipient.  In addition, the government institutes laws that also regulate behavior on a grand scale.  Put another way, everything that you do every day, is significantly influenced by social and political variables.  If everything were perfect, then we could agree that the current system is working well and a science of behavior would presumably have little to contribute. Things are not perfect.

Working toward beneficial outcomes with humanistic values is a foundational component of behavior science.

The ethical guidelines for obtaining consent for change and experimentation are nebulous and entirely contextual (Hayes, Hayes, Moore, & Ghezzi, 1994).  Considerations for obtaining consent change across levels and programs based on a variety of factors and cultural considerations.  Because variables that influence social behavior are already present and social unrest persists, variables must be operating haphazardly.  Is it then unethical to propose altering those variables to produce a specific outcome?  A scientific approach to social behavior change is founded on the principal of identifying change that is beneficial to society in general (applied in Applied Behavior Analysis; Baer, Wolf, & Risley, 1968).  In fact, the recommendations for change would need some sort of basis for direction, and the most logical basis is a consideration of social outcomes (e.g., lower crime rates, better health care, and better education).  It would be impossible to gather consent from every participating citizen and it would be impossible to reconcile nonunanimous consent.  We elect officials to represent our goals and values and are unable to consent or decline when those officials enact social policies that influence our behavior.  It would be better to have those policies be informed by scientific exploration that demonstrates effectiveness and safety, rather than being guided by ideology.

Data for social change is anonymous and could largely be mined from existing databases of volunteered information.

People volunteer data several times throughout the day.  In order to ascertain the baseline levels of a certain problem (e.g., crime), data could be mined from existing databases.  Each numerical value would be anonymous and could be accomplished with no intrusion into peoples’ personal lives (see for an example of brilliant scientific work from existent databases). 

Scientists exist within their own cultural climate.

As members of this society, our actions collectively aim to create the kind of nurturing environments needed for prosocial change.  Scientists still operate within and are influenced directly by their culture.  In fact, when working at the cultural level, the scientist is merely a citizen, different from other citizens only in that the scientist has a responsibility to collect data and recommend changes.

As long as we are alive, we are behaving organisms and are subject to the contingencies in our environment all around us.  Social policy and influence is ubiquitous and inescapable.  We can either allow those contingencies to influence our behavior haphazardly, or we can harness the power of science to recommend policies to benefit society.  Recommendations for policy changes would necessarily be based on a prosocial agenda.  It is not unethical to use science to evaluate the productivity and utility of existing contingencies, it is unethical not to.

What are your values and ethics related to social policies?  Do the ends always justify the means?  Let us know your thoughts in the comments below and remember to subscribe to bSci21 via email to receive the latest articles directly to your inbox!


Baer. D. M, Wolf, M. M, & Risley, T. R. (1968). Some current dimensions of applied behavior analysis. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 1, 9197.

Hayes, L. J., Hayes, G. J., Moore, S. C., & Ghezzi, P. M. (1994). Ethical considerations in developmental disabilities. Reno, NV: Context Press.

Skinner, B. F. (1972). Beyond freedom and dignity. New York, NY: Bantam Books.

brohaviorFollowing graduation from Master’s programs many behavior analysts find themselves in a cold dark world where they are searching for the light of peers that share their approach to the subject matter of behavior. One online group called Brohavior (derived from “brotherhood”) has recently created a refuge for behavior analysts looking for the light in order to continue their own development. The group aims to create a collaborative environment where students of behavior analysis are exposed to and pursue behavior analytic literature, philosophy and research that is outside of the scope of the BACB-approved course sequence.  To view the biography of any Brohavior writer, please visit

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