Fulfilling Skinner’s Vision through Entrepreneurship

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By Todd A. Ward, PhD, BCBA-D (bSci21.org)

Dawn Mackey & Jamie Pagliaro (Rethink Behavioral Health)

In May, I had the pleasure of conducting a live webinar as part of Rethink’s ABA Entrepreneurship series on a topic that I am passionately pursuing with my bSciEntrepreneurial clients all over the world – fulfilling Skinner’s vision for behavior analysis through entrepreneurship.  In my daily work, running bSci21Media, I have the opportunity to talk to a wide cross section of the field on a weekly basis, and one thing is becoming clear – we are losing contact with Skinner’s grand vision for a technology of behavior for all of the world’s problems.

As early as 1938, Skinner 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).  At that time, Skinner was speaking at the end of his first major work Behavior of Organisms, and, while a book describing his research on animal behavior, he always had an eye for the underlying behavioral principles and how they could be extrapolated to society at large.

Fast forward ten years, and Skinner (1948) published Walden Two, a fictional utopia in which the reader is taken on a tour of a community that is completely based on the principles of behavior.  Every aspect of life is designed to maximize citizens perceived freedom and happiness based on constant experimentation into evidence-based practices that benefit society.

Skinner’s grand vision continued with Science and Human Behavior, with its discussion of controlling agencies, such as those found in government, religion, education, and economics, each with the power to reinforce and punish practices within society (Skinner, 1958).  However, one could argue that Beyond Freedom & Dignity (Skinner, 1971) was the defining work that most thoroughly articulated Skinner’s vision.  It was here that he pointed out that with every technological breakthrough, most come with ecological consequences, such as medicine and overpopulation, or rampant consumerism and pollution.  He boldly proclaimed that “what we need is a technology of behavior” (p. 3), referring to the systematic application of behavioral principles to the world at large.

So here we are, 79 years after the publication of Behavior of Organisms.  What progress have we made towards Skinner’s vision? We can look to a few places for a rough estimate.  First, if we take a look at the conference program for the Association for Behavior Analysis International (ABAI) conference that recently concluded in May, we see that the top five areas comprise 53% of the content, with the remaining 11 areas filling in the other 47%.  The top areas include autism (21%), practice (15%), education (9%), clinical/family/behavioral medicine (8%), and developmental disabilities (7%).    We can also look to the growth in BACB Certifications, with approx. 24,000 BCBA-Ds and BCBAs, 23,000 RBTs, and 2,000 BCaBAs around the world, according to the publicly available BACB email campaign estimation tool. We can also look to the thorough report by Burning Glass which found a 118% growth in demand for behavior analytic services in recent years, most of which require experience in autism and developmental disabilities.  Finally, we have approximately 93 BCBA programs around the world, with ABAI Accredited Programs at 20 for Master’s, 11 for Doctoral, and 2 for Bachelor’s programs in behavior analysis. So what would Skinner say?  I think he would say we have a good start.  After all, the clinical areas listed above can all be regarded as social issues.  However, the contrast in Skinner’s vision with the current state of the field is clear – we have a long way to go.  But how do we get there?

I should first mention that some in the field have been working to expand into more and diverse areas.  Mattaini and Luke (2014), for example suggested a variety of solutions for more greatly achieving Skinner’s goals through restructuring university programs in a variety of ways, all centered on Behavioral Systems Analysis, which accounts for behavior operating in highly dynamic contexts comprised mainly of other peoples’ behavior and behavioral products.  Also in 2014, ABAI held a seminar on Leadership and Cultural Change showcasing a variety of large-scale work in organizations and larger society, all carrying the theme of Behavioral Systems Analysis.  The proceedings of the seminar were later published in special issues of The Behavior Analyst, and the Journal of Organizational Behavior Management.

While progress is being made, I proposed a solution that no one has yet discussed, one that answers the call for Behavioral Systems Analysis from a different angle – entrepreneurship.  With entrepreneurship, you are creating an organization (a behavioral system) from nothing.  With entrepreneurship, you are creating real solutions for real people in the real world.  Most importantly, the need for entrepreneurship recognizes a basic fact of our lives – behavior analysts, like everyone else, need to feed their kids and pay their mortgage.  As behavior analysts, we would prefer to achieve such goals by doing behavior analysis.  One could argue that the explosion in autism treatment is due in large part to the creation of agencies that employ behavior analysts to conduct autism treatment.  The same goes for every other domain of the field that we want to grow – we ultimately need to do it in a way that allows us to pay our mortgage and feed our kids.  However, the field of behavior analysis as a whole lacks an entrepreneurial repertoire.  Even Organizational Behavior Management (OBM), with its focus on performance management, is not entrepreneurship.

In my own case, I built the highest trafficked ABA media outlet in the world, bSci21Media, LLC (bSci21.org) over a two-year period, and am now fully self employed.  Over the last two years, I have learned a few things that might give other behavior analysts the confidence to “take the leap” from life as an employee to life as your own boss, which is the hardest part of entrepreneurship.

Lesson #1: Build on your own strengths.

Your strengths of course include your behavior analytic strengths, things that you are particularly good at, be it training, data analysis, assessments, etc…  But equally as important are your strengths outside of behavior analysis.  This includes anything else in your life that you are good at, such as writing, cooking, art, sports, sewing, fishing, it doesn’t matter.  Write it down.  The great thing is that whatever you write down is behavior, which is in the domain of behavior analysis.

Lesson #2: Align your values.

To me, entrepreneurship is a vehicle that allows you to follow your valued life directions – your passions.  If you aren’t passionate about your entrepreneurial venture, you aren’t going to succeed.  Though money is certainly an incentive, the reality is that entrepreneurship is an emotional roller coaster.  One day you will feel on top of the world, and the next day you will feel like everything is crashing down.  If you don’t truly value what you are doing, you won’t make it.  Take a few minutes to write down your own values, and think of them as actions ending in “-ing”.  For example, if one of your strengths is sports, you might value “working with a team” or “competing for a goal.”  If your strength is cooking, you might value “bringing people together”, and so on.  From an ACT perspective, values function as motivative augmentals that can transform the function of life events along valued life directions.  For example, if you value “learning” you can learn in every situation and you can never stop learning.  Moreover, previously aversive situations you might encounter may now function as learning opportunities rather than situations to avoid.

Lesson #3: Adjust your view of behavior analysis, if needed.

Unfortunately, I am seeing a rather disturbing trend in the field.  Many BCBAs today are learning a set of topographically-defined procedures or tools applicable to a specific population of clients.  This view of behavior analysis will not get you far if you are looking to expand in new directions.  Rather, keep in mind our analytic goals of prediction and influence of behavior, and view the field as a set of principles that are formless in their application.  Behavior analysis is not a set of tools or techniques – it is a worldview.  As a simple exercise, turn on the news this evening.  If you cannot analyze every story you see in behavior analytic terms you might need to adjust your view of the field.

Lesson #4: Put the pieces together.

In other words, activate your verbal repertoire and start creating relational responses between your strengths, values, and possible products/services.  Ask yourself how your strengths can relate to your valued direction, and how your strengths and values can lead to new products/services that fill a need in society.  A good start is with a mission statement.

To listen to the entirety of my webinar, check out Rethink’s website, but just keep in mind that no one is going to grow the field except you.  No one is going to live your valued directions except you.  For some of you, you may elect to do so as an employee, which is perfectly acceptable and admirable, but for the rest of you, a whole new and exciting way of life awaits you on the other side of your fear.

Have you started down the path of entrepreneurship?  Let us know in the comments below, and be sure to subscribe to bSci21 via email to receive the latest articles directly to your mailbox!

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, bSci21.org.  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 subsidiary services, bSciEntrepreneurial, bSciWebDesign, bSciWriting, bSciStudios 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 todd.ward@bsci21.org

Rethink Behavioral Health provides the tools every behavioral health provider needs to manage their practice and deliver quality ABA treatment effectively & efficiently. Rethink’s easy to use web-based software streamlines client care with sophisticated yet intuitive tools for both clinicians & administrators. For more information, visit http://www.rethinkbh.com.

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