Rule-Governed Behavior in the Twittersphere

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Todd A. Ward, PhD, BCBA-D

bSci21Media, LLC

In an effort to improve behavior, Twitter has partnered with researchers affiliated with Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center to see how making Twitter’s rules of conduct more visible to users can “promote civil discussion” on the platform, according to

The study comes at a time when Twitter, and social media in general, have come under increased scrutiny for their handling of maladaptive behavioral trends such as harassment and the spread of misinformation.

The investigators are hesitant to release details on the methodology, in order to prevent confounding any potential effects of their intervention, so the behavior analytic community is left to speculate on potential outcomes and pitfalls that might arise in such work.

Twitter’s Rules

The overall purpose of the study would appear to investigate the functions of Twitter’s rules on the behavior of its users.  As a Twitter user myself, I will go out on a limb here and suggest that few, if any, people actually read the rules to begin with.

A casual glance at the rules immediately reveals a few things.  First, Twitter has lots of rules!  By my count, their rules cover approx. 20-25 different dimensions of Twitter use – covering everything from harassment, to spam, to privacy.

Twitter’s rules specify consequences for not following the rules  – four to be exact. Consequences include the deletion of content, limiting activity, account verification, and account suspension.  Presumably, such consequences are meant to function as a punishment or deterrent for not following the myriad rules outlined by the company.

A Behavior Analytic Take

Behaviorally, it appears that Twitter’s rules are set up to function as aversive plys for noncompliance.  Pliance is a class of rule-governed behavior maintained by socially-mediated consequences from the rule-giver.  In the case of Twitter, if you don’t follow the rules, someone at the company will potentially consequate your noncompliance with one of the four aversive events listed above.  However, setting up systems that effectively deliver such punitive consequences over a social network of millions of users presents logistical challenges, to say the least.

If I were to design a study to improve the functions of Twitter’s rules on user behavior, I might look for ways to embed the rules into the natural user experience itself, which could be an element of the current study – it remains to be seen.  Doing so would increase the probability that users would actually contact the rules themselves, which would likely increase compliance to some degree. Rather than detaching the rules from the normal information flow of the platform, rules could appear in the course of normal Twitter use, where people are naturally looking anyway.

Lastly, setting up a system of plys based on reinforcing, rather than punishing, consequences could potentially reduce the probability of counterpliance or countercontrol that behavior analysts know are more likely to occur when aversives are present.  In other words, when people in power govern with punishment, the governed look for ways to circumvent the punishers, rather than change their behavior.

The fact that Twitter has a user behavior problem is proof enough that their existing rules haven’t acquired the desired functional properties among its users.  If you were to conduct this study, how would you do it?  Let us know in the comments below, and be sure to subscribe to bSci21 to receive the latest articles directly to your inbox!

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,  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 subsidiaries, bSciEntrepreneurial, bSciWebDesign, bSciWriting, 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 [email protected]

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