Lessons for Talking About Behavior Analysis, from ABAI 2016


By Daniel B. Sundberg, PhD

bSci21 Contributing Writer

In case you missed it, the annual conference for behavior analysis recently occurred, which to me is like a wonderful, really nerdy music festival. Spending a large part of my work and personal life now with non-behavior analysts, ABAI has taken on new meaning as a time and place to re-center with the field, and find out the latest and greatest in behavior analysis.

There were many great talks this year, and as always not enough time to see them all. The variety of talks was fantastic: new advances in staff training, process safety in the energy industry, behavioral approaches to consumer behavior, traffic safety, the list goes on.

Of all the talks there were three in particular that really got me thinking about behavior analysis, and our field in general. These three talks all centered on a common theme – communicating and spreading behavior analysis to the general public. And while this is something that inevitably comes up each year, these three were interesting because the presenters were not just talking about it, but they were doing it, and rather successfully. So, here is what I learned from three ABAI 2016 talks on communicating behavior analysis to the general population.

  1. David H. Freedman

For all of the amazing things behavior analysis has done over the years, we have struggled to capture the spotlight. David Freedman, contributing writer for The Atlantic magazine, told us about the makeup of a popular message. In general, popular media tends to favor simplification of issues that can boil problems down to just one factor. And Freedman noted people love when a story can place blame on either evil agents (think “evil corporations”, or “toxins”) or internal “glitches” (think genetics or moral defects). Yet, as a field we would shy away from such explanations and stories, instead suggesting causality lies with environmental variables, and proving it with clear data and reasoning. We know that data tell the most accurate story, but, Freedman noted, this is not usually a story people want to hear. Simplicity usually wins the day, whether it is accurate or not.

What can we take away from this?

We love data, and that’s usually because we can hear the story it is telling. Help others hear the same story by telling it to them in a concise and compelling manner. This means distilling the message, rather than oversimplifying. If you want some examples of people who are masterful at telling a story with data, just take a peek on TED.com.  Check out this talk for a truly compelling story told with really complicated data.

  1. Michael Kim

Kim, not a “trained” behavior analyst, presented on his software program Habit Design, which is a platform designed to facilitate behavior change (or habit change, as Kim put it). Kim’s language was not behavior analytic, and he presented information not all behavioral analysts would agree with. However, he was presenting a very easy to understand message and talked about behavior change in a way that was very approachable, if not always technically correct. And he had results to prove it – more than 500 companies and 100,000+ employees are using this program to change behavior.

What can we take away from this?

Kim presented a great saying that goes “If you want to go fast – go alone. If you want to go far – go together”. This message is at the core of the big takeaway from this presentation:

Condense the message into very manageable chunks; try to make it simple and easy to digest. Sometimes that may mean sacrificing some precision in the way you talk about behavior analysis and the solutions to behavioral problems, but remember, 50% of something is better than 100% of nothing (just keep in mind the ultimate goal of eventually getting 100% of something).

  1. Fabio Tosolin

Fabio Tosolin presented a very humble and entertaining summary of the impressive work he has done in disseminating behavior analysis in Italy, and the strategies that worked and those that didn’t. Two big themes – who to talk to, and what should you be talking about? Tosolin recommended we focus on communicating with the end users of behavior analysis – the decision makers and law makers. Spend time talking with other behavior analysts to share best practices. Talk with colleagues and non-behavior analysts to test your ideas. But spend your big energy on those who are in a position to say “yes” to dissemination. Tosolin gave us the example of all of the time and energy he used to spend talking to psychologists, who worked to refute behavioral principles. He then learned to simply go to the lawmaker instead, who cared less about philosophy and more about outcomes.

He made the point that whether we like it or not, we are “selling” behavior analysis when we try to spread behavior analysis. As such it helps to take some lessons from the sales world, and talk based on what the audience wants for themselves, rather than what we want from them.

He ended by presenting a somewhat tongue-in-cheek “how to” for spreading behavior analysis. Here are some good ones, with my elaboration in parenthesis:

  • Don’t do it alone (“…if you want to go far, go together…”)
  • Build apostles (rather than people who “have to follow”, and do this through R+)
  • Praise your colleagues
  • Include testimonials (when ethically correct)
  • Involve “opinion leaders” (think popular bloggers, business gurus, and health experts) check out this bsci post for more information
  • Be interviewed, write books, write articles (for more, here’s another bsci post and this one)
  • Teach at university (helps with credibility)
  • Get “negative reinforcement power” (e.g. it is a heck of a lot easier to just “write the rules”, than to try and sway every person – think about the impact of ABA service mandates)
  • Be filthy rich (this allows the wonderful ability to say “no”)

What can we take away from this?

Talk to the people who are going to be the ones making the decisions about adopting behavioral solutions, and talk to them in terms of their reinforcers, not yours. Remember that whether you like it or not, you are always selling.

If we can take some of the lessons from these three presentations to heart, then perhaps we will have an easier time of talking with others, disseminating behavior analysis, and creating a big impact on the world.

Did you attend ABAI 2016?  Let us know what you thought of the talks in the comments below, and be sure to subscribe to bSci21 via email to receive the latest articles directly to your inbox!

Dan SundbergDaniel B. Sundberg, PhD, is a behavior analyst dedicated to creating meaningful change for individuals and organizations using the science of human behavior. Dan has worked in a variety of organizations, including non-profits. Additionally, Dan spent two years as a university lecturer, teaching undergraduate students how to improve the workplace with behavior analysis

Dan earned his B.A. in Psychology at the University of California at Berkeley, M.S. in Organizational Behavior Management from Florida Institute of Technology, and Ph. D. in Industrial/ Organizational Behavior Management from Western Michigan University. During this time, some of the best thinkers in behavior analysis and OBM mentored Dr. Sundberg as an academician and business professional.

Dan is currently Regional Manager of Consulting Services at ABA Technologies, where he helps to develop and deliver OBM consulting services. Dan is also a guest reviewer for the Journal of Organizational Behavior Management, and in his spare time he creates behavior-based products that allow people to manage their time and accomplish their goals. He also has a special interest in building effective work practices and cultures for start-up companies, and increasing the positive effects of organizations working towards an environmentally sustainable future.  You can contact him at dan@abatechnologies.com.

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  1. I didn’t attend ABAI 2016 but pleased to go through this article; the topic itself I found very interesting and the presentation of the outcome is exceptional.

  2. Great post – this couldn’t be more true, especially over here in the UK. I’ve recently started to write a blog for those new to ABA, which I’m hoping is an easy read, and ‘sells’ ABA!

  3. Thank you for the positive feedback, glad the article was enjoyable and informative. James, what is your blog? I’d be interested in reading it. Glad you are taking up the dissemination effort.

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