Fighting words in ABA?

By Paul Gavoni, Ed.D

Guest Author

In 2006, the New York Times article What Shamu Taught Me About a Happy Marriage went viral as one of the top emailed articles of the year.  The article, a humorous piece that clearly illustrates concepts such as DRIs and shaping in regards to improving a husband’s behavior, was written by somebody who knew very little about the science.  I may not be the sharpest knife in the drawer, but to me it is mind boggling that a “layperson” likely brought more attention to the science than even the most highly regarded behavior analyst during the last few decades.  While members of our field are spending years completing a research article that will be read by 10 people, lay people are writing about the science and it’s being read by hundreds of thousands….with no mention of the actual behavioral science that is at the core of their article.  I wonder what would happen if more people within the field put as much energy into pursuing ventures that made the science appealing to the masses? 

If you are like many who are steeped in behavioral science, you understand the great need for the technology of applied behavior analysis (ABA) across almost every facet of life.  From moms, teachers, and coaches to CEOs and world leaders, a fundamental understanding of the principles of behavior can drastically improve performance, outcomes, and quality of life.  I like to think of it as the science of helping people.  Given the amazing benefits linked to ABA, it leads one to contemplate why it isn’t being taught in every school and business across the world. 

Unfortunately, there are many misconceptions related to the science.  Though I believe the reasons are multifaceted, there are a couple that stick out like the nose on your face.  The science is the science and there are 100+ years to support it.  However, the science “ain’t the problem”  — it is the scientists.  Skinner warned behavior analysts many decades ago that we must beware of our own bias linked to our history.  It would appear many in the field have not heeded that warning as the science is all but invisible to those outside of autism related affairs.  To exemplify, consider the popularity of the Shamu article that was written by somebody outside of the field.

It’s Simple…or Is It?

Einstein stated, “Make things as simple as possible but no simpler.”  I don’t think we have quite achieved the “simple as possible” mark in the field of behavior analysis.  He was also quoted as saying, “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.”  I don’t think that quite captures it either.  Brilliant folks are plentiful in the field of behavior analysis. 

It is my contention that the failure to effectively disseminate the science likely lays in the hands of the disseminators — in this case, behavior analysts.  It doesn’t take a brain scientist to figure it out.  Or perhaps it does as it would appear the behavioral scientist hasn’t done it yet!  But as I mentioned, I’m not the brightest star in the behavioral constellation.  Perhaps a fool.  For the wisest amongst you who are reading this, try not to turn your nose up at me…at least publicly.  You might even quietly thank me.  As American humorist Josh Billings once said, “God save the fools, and don’t let them run out; for it weren’t for them, wise men couldn’t get a living.”  At any rate, in our propensity to carry the behavioral torch through terminology that is too often confusing (the rat’s never wrong!) to those who may benefit, we may have inadvertently built walls that keep others out….and keep us in. 

It’s Mine and You Can’t Have It!

Perhaps it is purposeful.  After all, resistance to terminology change, for example, keeps us in a position of “power” (how dare I use such a word!!) while keeping others in the dark.  Like classism amongst the fields, we can maintain a perceived position of power as the “knowledge holders” while snubbing our nose at fields that might be heavy in heart, but light in data.  For example, let’s look at the two very common terms in behavior analysis, positive and negative.  While they are simple words, they carry a very different meaning to 99% of the population!  As such, they are quickly confused by the concepts of positive and negative reinforcement.  Why-oh-why can’t we just say “added” and “subtracted” reinforcement (Ledoux, 2014)??  I’ve asked people in the field their opinion regarding changing the lingo …and I received mixed responses.  Some are for it.  Some have “no comment.”  Still others finish the conversation with something along the lines of  “we are watering down the science” or “why should we have to dumb it down?”. 

Why does it have to come to that?  Why is speaking in a way that helps people understand “dumbing it down”?  The statement reeks of elitism.  If that’s the prevailing thought, the science is doomed to remain confined to a privileged few while a world that can be helped by it remains unaware of its existence.  We need to be better.  I’m not suggesting the science be changed in any way.  I’m suggesting we put forth a collective effort to make practical uses of our incredible science accessible to others so they too, can see how wonderful it is.  When they do, the “word” will get out. 

Because the general public has been inadvertently kept in the dark, most people are unaware that behavior analysis exists.  Unfortunately, the few who know of it believe it is something “done” to a person with special needs or autism.  Most have no idea that behavior operates on the environment.  Perhaps Enviroscience (Lattal, 2015) would be a better term.  At least the science is paired with the environment through this title.  OK, calm down ABA disciples.  I just happen to like the idea put forth by Dr. Lattal.  I personally don’t care what it is called.  As long as we can help more people learn to use it to help others.

Artful Science

In his article titled The Aesthetics of Behavioral Arrangements, I think Hineline was really onto something when he broached the subject of “Artfully Implemented Science” (2005, p. 16).  His point was that we must not minimize the power of how “things look” to those we are supporting or trying to engage in processes related to the science.  How “things look” not only applies to those we are trying to engage, but those we are just trying to make aware the science exists.  To the layperson, ABA is like abstract art hanging on the wall.  While each person has their own take, only the artist truly knows what they were attempting to convey.  It’s my suggestion more folks in the field focus on artfully marketing the science.

Behavioral Evangelism

Thankfully there seems to be a very small groundswell of folks who are looking to share the science through different outlets (e.g. and in different ways.  Passionate about the science, yet confident enough to step outside the bounds, these folks are like evangelists shining a light on aspects of ABA as it can be applied across different fields.  As my buddy Manny Rodriguez notes in regards to the dissemination of ABA, “The field of behavior analysis has come a long way from the early days, however more can be done.”  Manny suggests there is an opportunity for analysts to further disseminate the science through public speaking.  And Manny isn’t just talking the talk, he is walking the walk (well, he’s actually talking a lot, but you get the point!).  He is actively disseminating knowledge, insight, and skills through public speaking.  In fact, he just presented fundamental concepts of OBM as they related to leadership and coaching at a school superintendent conference in California.  The thought of all of those superintendents finding out that ABA can be useful to them as leaders makes me very happy.

Listen, there are likely some folks reading this who are deeply offended by my opinion.  In fact, these same folks can likely dance circles around me with their depth of knowledge regarding the science.  That’s ok.  If you are one of those folks, I’m sorry I’ve offended you…kind of.  You may see this article as fighting words, but I really don’t want to fight! You are desperately needed in the lab or conducting research to maintain the integrity of the science.  However, in addition to you, we need folks like E. F. Hutton.  You remember the commercial, “When E. F. Hutton talks, everybody listens.”  Folks like Aubrey Daniels who can talk about the science in a way that is palatable to others.  We have to step outside of the lab, outside of our conferences, and outside of our behavioral peer groups.  We must play nice and share with others.  And dare I say it, speak in a way that makes sense to others.  Here’s a novel thought. How about we start pairing our jargon with theirs?? 


As I mentioned at the beginning of this article, the science should be everywhere.  As a former fighter and current coach, I am very proud to have successfully used ABA technology to help develop the M-1 Global Heavyweight Champion of the World, Kenny “Deuce” Garner.  

That’s right, the application of the science in mixed martial arts helped to create the champ!  To be clear, I’m not trying to brag on myself.  I’m bragging on the science.  If I didn’t have a fundamental grasp of the science, I’m certain we would have never reached the pinnacle of the sport.  The science is novel to the fighting sports, but it shouldn’t be.  At any rate, I want to share my experiences with the Behavioral Science in the 21st Century audience.  In future articles I will share some applications of the science in the sport of MMA.  For example:

• Repetition for building fluency

• Shaping

• Task analysis

• Observation techniques

• Providing positive and constructive feedback

• Naturally occurring reinforcement

• Measurement

• Deliberate and inadvertent punishment

OBM in Education

In addition, I will also take a look at applications of OBM that I’ve used to support failing schools.  The application has been so successful that thousands of students and staff in failing schools plagued by high poverty have met with success.  When I say success, I mean huge growth in areas like academic achievement, attendance, and staff retention.  And huge decreases in misbehaviors and out of school suspensions.  It is my strongest belief that fundamental applications (e.g. pinpointing, measurement, feedback, and reinforcement) of OBM can have a dramatic and positive impact on Public Education across the country.  So strong is my belief in the application of OBM in schools that I’ve actually just completed the first draft of a book with Manny titled Quick Wins!  Accelerating School Transformation through Science, Engagement, and Leadership.  I hope this will open up the eyes of other behavior analysts regarding the potential of OBM beyond the business world. 

I know this article is kind of hard hitting.  It’s intended to get folks thinking.  If it stirs up some dialogue on the topic, then my mission was accomplished.  There are brighter minds then mine in ABA and I wish they’d further this discussion.  As for me, I’m very happy to be equipped with enough of the science to help students and staff in education as well as coaches and fighters in MMA be successful.


Hineline P.N. (2005). The aesthetics of behavioral arrangements. The Behavior Analyst. 28:15–28.

An expert in human performance and organizational leadership, Dr. Paul Gavoni works in education and human services to provide administrative teams, teachers, and staff with coaching and consultation in analyzing and developing behavior and performance management systems to positively impact key performance indicators.  As an Adjunct Professor, Paul is passionate about engaging and empowering his students through the development and application of knowledge.  Paul holds a Doctorate of Education with a concentration in Organizational Leadership from NSU, a Specialist of Education with a concentration in Educational Leadership from NSU, and a Masters of Social Work with a Concentration in Youth and Families from Barry.

Beyond his work in education and human services, Paul is also a highly respected coach in combat sports. In 1992, Paul began boxing in South Florida and went on to win a Florida Golden Gloves Heavyweight Title in 1998. Since then, Coach “Paulie Gloves,” as he is known in the MMA community, has trained many champions and UFC vets using technologies rooted in the behavioral sciences.  A featured coach in the book Beast: Blood, Struggle, and Dreams a the Heart of Mixed Martial Arts, Coach Paulie is also an author who has written for online magazines such Scifighting  and Last Word on Sports.

3 Comments on "Fighting words in ABA?"

  1. Paul, very well put to use language that relates to those outside the science. After all, if we are trying to disseminate the science it needs to be understood by everyone. Thanks for the great article.

  2. I think one issue is a science where “You are desperately needed in the lab or conducting research to maintain the integrity of the science” you say. I think it is because there is a growing understanding of autism neurology and how it drives behaviour and ABA although it has been evolving (I am told) is being carried out by therapists who don’t see the need to really understand the autistic experience. We also have to deal with contradictions : saying the science is sound (it’s just the therapists), but also that more research is being done to maintain its integrity the therapists, and ABA needing to have evolved. I suppose the reason for this apparent contradiction is the science is sound, but as we go through time we realise things aren’t ethically sound. A bit like how t left handed people and gays used to be treated (I don’t think we use ABA on them anymore)?

  3. I completely agree with the message and support the efforts to move “ABA” beyond seen as something you do with children with Autism.

    I also want to point out that many behavior analyst exist outside of the ABA term, which weirdly has become the label for autism services. This can often make us think Applied Behavior Analysis as a broad discipline is more narrowly used than it actually is.

    Look at contextual behavioral science and incredible wide depth and breath of the work being done there.

    You mentioned schools and OBM but shocked you didn’t mention School-wide Positive Behavioral Intervention and Supports programs, which are now in 1/5th of all schools and use the OBM procedures for school wide implementation (note, they hide it well but to those that know OBM, you can find the principles there).

    What I typically find though is that many people who identify with ABA narrowly seen are those who have been trained in BCBA programs with the broad vision but very little training and direct contact with the broader world of behavior analysis. This often leads to frustration but also just shock that there are other folks, who are not BCBAs, who are just as much behavior analyst as they are doing great work.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.