How you should vote in 2016 using the science of behavior


By Todd A. Ward, PhD, BCBA-D

Founding Editor,

Well, the 2016 presidential race is well on its way, with two Democratic candidates and eight Republican candidates as confirmed runners, according to the New York Times.

The candidates themselves cover the entire political spectrum, from Bernie Sanders, a self-described socialist who recently advocated a 90% tax rate, to Rand Paul, a libertarian who advocated for a greatly reduced IRS and a low flat tax across income levels.

The candidates in between Bernie and Rand represent a variety of viewpoints on social, fiscal, and international issues that are beyond the scope of this article.  The point of this article is to help you decide who you will vote for by looking at what we know about our own science and applying it to the political realm.

First, take all the candidates’ platforms and forget about them.  At this point in our exercise, they aren’t important.  Next, look at the science of behavior analysis as a whole, as it’s general structure is similar to most other sciences and, more generally, ways in which individuals think about and interact with the world.

There are several sectors of the field, including basic research, applied research, service delivery, theory, and philosophy.  We will touch on the last sector, philosophy, as it is the bedrock of our science.  In this case, Skinner’s Radical Behaviorism is probably the most influential philosophy, likely followed by Kantor’s Interbehaviorism.  Then we have Pepper’s World Hypotheses, which many behavior analysts regard as even more fundamental than any particular scientific philosophy as Pepper deals with fundamental ways in which people, including scientists, view the world (e.g., as a mechanist or a contextualist).  Here is the key point — all sciences, and the behavior of scientists, are based on philosophical assumptions.  You can’t have data without a subject-matter to study, and you can’t define a subject-matter without making some philosophical assumptions about the world.

The same is true of all other life domains — as individuals, we operate on the basis of philosophical perspectives.  We value certain things as individuals, and those values affect our preferences.  (Note: If you get worked up about the word “value” go read Skinner’s take on it, then read the research in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy.)  In the realm of politics, a prime set of values concerns the role of government.  This is the question you need to answer for yourself, and there are a few tools to help you along the way.

For example, the famous political scientist, Isaiah Berlin, developed the notions of positive and negative liberty.  Positive liberty tends towards collectivism and concerns external factors that can enable a person to do particular things.  With positive liberty, “individual freedom is achieved through participation in the process whereby one’s community exercises collective control over its own affairs in accordance with the ‘general will’.” Negative liberty, on the other hand, tends towards individualism and concerns the removal of obstacles or interference to doing particular things.  With negative liberty, you hear phrases like “freedom of religion…freedom of speech, and…the right to private property.”

Thus, Bernie Sanders might be said to emphasize positive liberty in that he favors big government.  Rand Paul, by contrast, might be a proponent of negative liberty in that he favors small government.  Furthermore, when you compare the Democrats and Republicans with broad brush strokes, the Democrats are typically in favor of a large and active government while the Republicans are typically in favor of a small and limited government.  Dig in a little bit, though, and you will see there are many different types of Democrats and Republicans that emphasize many different things that sometimes conflict with such broad characterizations.

And it doesn’t stop there.  Political scientists have developed many different political spectrums besides the traditional left-right spectrum.  One example is the Nolan Chart featuring two intersecting axes: personal freedom and economic freedom.  A similar chart is the Political Compass featuring a left-right axis intersected by an authoritarian-libertarian axis.

What these alternative models suggest, however, is that the previous notions of positive and negative liberty tended to be confounded with the role of government — they are actually two separate things.  You can emphasize collectivism or individualism with or without government involvement.  Thus, you can have four extremes: right wing (all economic freedom and no personal freedom), left wing (all personal freedom and no economic freedom), totalitarian (no economic or personal freedom), or libertarian (total economic and personal freedom).

Most of us fall somewhere in the middle.  Where do you fall?  If you make a concerted effort to explore these different positions in all of their implications, you will figure out where your political values reside.

Let us know what you think about these issues in the comments below and don’t forget to subscribe to bSci21 via email to receive the latest articles directly to your inbox!

Todd A. Ward, PhD, BCBA-D is President of bSci21 Media, LLC, which owns and  Todd serves as an Associate Editor of the Journal of Organizational Behavior Management and as an editorial board member for Behavior and Social Issues.  He has worked as a behavior analyst in day centers, residential providers, homes, and schools, and served as the director of Behavior Analysis Online at the University of North Texas.  Todd’s areas of expertise include writing, entrepreneurship, Acceptance & Commitment Therapy, Instructional Design, Organizational Behavior Management, and ABA therapy. Todd can be reached at

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  1. “mechanist or contextualist” pardon my naivete but is there any possibility that someone will come up with the idea that perhaps these are not competing world views but descriptions of different levels of analysis? Such as in Physics where we have Newtonian, Einsteinian and Quantum levels of analysis.

    • Interesting idea! I’m not sure Pepper’s realm would apply to levels of analysis. I tend to think what he was talking about comes before levels of analysis. Kantor, on the other hand, talked a great deal about levels of analysis and Skinner did to a lesser extent.

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