How to turn people on to behavior analysis.

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Todd A. Ward, PhD, BCBA-D

bSci21Media, LLC

Brett DiNovi, M.A., BCBA

Brett DiNovi & Associates

Behavior analysis has been around at least since Skinner’s (1938) publication of Behavior of Organisms.  At the end of his book, he loudly proclaimed “let him extrapolate who will” (p. 442).  What he meant was later articulated as a “technology of behavior” (Skinner, 1973, p. 3)  He called upon behavior analysts to bring basic principles out of the laboratory and apply them freely to the world around us.  To Skinner, he really wasn’t interested in arbitrary responses on laboratory equipment for its own sake.  These were simply a means to get at the underlying behavioral processes in a clean way, and to untangle what it means to behave.

Fast forward to today, more than 80 years later.  The majority (88.2%) of Board Certified Behavior Analysts (BCBAs) work in Autism, Education, or Developmental Disabilities, according to the Behavior Analyst Certification Board.  Though such areas are certainly in line with a technology of behavior, there is so much more to be done.  Remember, Skinner always had the big picture in mind.  He focused on global issues such as how to prevent nuclear war, reduce pollution, and the like, through a science of behavior.

But how do we get there?

“Be real and relate to others,” was one of the suggestions given in a recent YouTube video with Brett DiNovi and Paul Gavoni.  Relating to others is not a skill targeted in most training programs.  We learn how to be technically proficient in our language.  We learn how to analyze data.  We learn how to implement precise behavioral protocols.  But relating to others?  Not so much.

For those of you working in clinical areas such as in-home Autism treatment, the ability to relate to others is critical to the success of your work.  So-called “soft skills” come into play in a big way – in your initial meeting with parents, during the pairing process with a client, meeting with interdisciplinary teams, and so on.  Said plainly, if you don’t get people to like you, they aren’t going to work with you.

Such is a microcosm for the larger field.

Dropping the jargon might help, as DiNovi and Gavoni suggested.  Remember, language is functional.  It is more than words or sounds, it is a behavioral product in context.  Speaking is only useful if someone is listening and understanding what we are saying.

Jargon is very useful for a particular audience – members of the scientific community.  And jargon is useful for a particular purpose – to further develop the science.  Jargon isn’t so useful for dissemination, when one spreads rather than develops the science.  DiNovi and Gavoni said “we have to meet them where they are.”  “They” in this case, are members of the public, or simply people unfamiliar with behavior analysis.

Meeting people where they are means connecting to concepts they know.  For instance, it is ok to talk about someone’s “mind” or “personality” as long as you can translate it to behavior and the contexts in which it occurs.  Talk how they talk, but give some verbal nudges to help them understand how a behavioral approach is relevant to them.

But, as LeVar Burton, the host of the children’s show Reading Rainbow, said in each episode, “you don’t have to take my word for it.”  Go out into the world and meet people who know nothing about the science and tell them what you do in a way they understand.  Or connect to their work in a way that gets them excited to learn more.  Business networking events are a great training ground for this.  Ultimately it is a shaping process, and direct experience is often the greatest teacher.

Tell us about your experience in these areas in the comments below, and be sure to subscribe to bSci21 via email to receive the latest articles directly to your inbox!  Also be sure to check out the full video with DiNovi and Gavoni and on the Brett DiNovi YouTube Channel.


Todd A. Ward, PhD, BCBA-D is a science writer, social philosopher, behavioral systems analyst, and the President and Founder of bSci21Media, LLC, which aims to connect behavioral science to the world in an engaging, non-academic way.  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.  His publications follow a theme of behavioral systems analysis, organizational performance, theory & philosophy, and language & cognition.  He 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 can be reached at [email protected]

Brett DinoviBrett DiNovi, M.A., BCBA has the unique and distinguished experience of studying the principles of applied behavior analysis under the rigorous scrutiny of both Dr. Julie S. Vargas (formerly Skinner) and Dr. E.A. Vargas at West Virginia University’s internationally recognized program. For the past 26 years, Brett has used behavior analytic principles to create large scale change across school districts, Fortune 500 companies using principles of Organizational Behavior Management (OBM), and across individual learners. Brett has been a OBM consultant in Morgantown WV, an instructor at West Virginia University, a guest lecturer at numerous universities, a speaker on multiple Comcast Newsmakers TV programs, an expert witness in due process hearings, has publications in the Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, and has been in in executive leadership positions across schools and residential programs nationwide. In addition to an award from South Jersey Biz Magazine for “Best Places to Work,” an award for “Best of Families” in Suburban Magazine, and the distinguished “Top Ranked U.S. Executives” award, Brett’s proudest accomplishment is being a role model and father for his daughter and two stepchildren (one of which has autism). Brett can be reached at [email protected]

*Sponsored content by Brett DiNovi and Associates.

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1 Comment

  1. Thank you! Great article! I am finding many people I work with only relate ABA to Autism. I am having to rethink how I present material to make it more relatable (and making myself more relatable as well) and easier to understand.

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