Sustainability and ABA, Sustainability of ABA, Chasing Skinner’s Dream

By Molly Benson, M.S., BCBA

Guest Author

Another ABAI has come and gone. One month out and I’m still flying high, inspired by the collective work of our community. Presentations and workshops aside, I relish the opportunity to reconnect with friends and meet people with similar interests, all in the name of saving the world with ABA. This year I had the opportunity to present with Dr. Neal Miller on a symposium with Dr. Amanda Kelly (aka Behaviorbabe) as the discussant. The first time Neal, Amanda, and I were in a room together was at the 2012 Behavior Change for a Sustainable World conference on the Ohio State campus. I left that conference with Bill Heward’s message and Lonnie Thompson’s plea echoing through my mind: we as behavior analysts can impact change towards the massive problem of climate change. Being at the front of the room again with Neal and Amanda at ABAI this year was an opportunity to reflect on my own journey in response to that call to arms, and on how far we’ve come as a behavior analytic community in addressing this issue of social significance. 


When I set off to explore the issue of sustainability, I was of course interested in the changes I could make in my own life, but more importantly I was curious about interventions that could produce behavior change on a larger societal scale. I began looking at structures and systems that control all of our behavior, investigating where one small change could have far reaching effects. Thus began my interest in using the political process as a lever for applying behavior science, or using the legislative process to rearrange the contingencies of reinforcement on a larger stage.  


Attempting to bridge a gap between ABA and the world of sustainability through public policy, I have put aside full-time employment for the last year and a half to create a field experience for myself. Originally, I planned to build my resume through volunteer efforts, gain mentoring from professionals in the careers I was interested in, and eventually find gainful employment through my hard work and initiative. I sought to adhere to our ethical code regarding competency, knowing that our science could be applied to all areas and disciplines, but needing to have deep knowledge of those areas and disciplines first. It seems a bit crazy now, what I set out to do. I have made connections and gained invaluable experiences, but finding employment in the fields of public policy and sustainability, after years of applying my science in educational settings, has turned out to be a pretty lofty goal. I am competing against Masters level professionals whose education and work experience have been sustainability and/or government affairs. It doesn’t matter if I can save the world with my science, until I’ve demonstrated competency in a subject to which they’ve dedicated their careers.  That reasoning makes perfect sense to me, but I don’t have that kind of time now. Or money. I’m running low on that, too.  



Thus my most significant discovery in this venture into sustainability has been that my schooling and experience in behavior analysis haven’t prepared me to get a job outside of autism and/or education, in spite of my concentrated efforts. Climate change is the single most significant problem facing us, and we might have the science that can begin to reverse it, but unless we behavior analysts are able to integrate with other disciplines and find employment doing so, I’m going to call this the biggest problem facing behavior analysis: our own sustainability.  


How do we address this issue? I suspect we need to focus our efforts at the graduate level, providing opportunities to collaborate with other disciplines, and engage in problem solving opportunities at our universities and the surrounding communities. In addition, we need supervisors that can oversee a diverse range of field experience opportunities. Given the ethical requirements for supervision, this versatility could be a challenge, but perhaps we need to redefine what a quality supervision looks like. Many of my most meaningful mentoring and field experience opportunities in the past year and a half have occurred with folks who are tackling the issues I’m interested in but who are waaaay outside the field of behavior analysis. In making these changes we could create more opportunities for behavior analysts to practice in areas outside of autism, developmental disabilities, OBM, and animal behavior. My experience, though imperfect, hasn’t been a futile one. I’m still pursuing environmental, economic, and socially sustainable behavior, and I think our science holds the key if we arrange the contingencies to let it grow. I’m less interested in my own employment in an area of high impact than I am in our ability to get there, and fulfill the promise of Skinner’s dream.  

It’s time we work together to change the environment that shapes our behavior as behavior analysts. 


“Rather than wait for further variation and selection to solve our problem, can we not design a way of life that will have a better chance of a future?”

 -B.F. Skinner “Why We Are Not Acting to Save the World” 

Do you have experience with ABA and sustainability?  Tell us about it in the comments below, and be sure to subscribe to bSci21 via email to receive the latest articles directly to your inbox!

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11 Comments on "Sustainability and ABA, Sustainability of ABA, Chasing Skinner’s Dream"

  1. Lovely thoughts! As a community the surge of autism diagnosed people have created a boon for ABA employment, which has created an interesting problem. Increasingly the autism centers are well funded, and the young BCBA has a path to good employment for the future. All good.

    The problem is that our skills are not spreading beyond those treatment centers. Many years back behavioral scientists were working with NASA and the defense department to develop training that would help to solve huge and pressing issues.

    Now our best folks are often immersed in work that, while important, will not inspire anyone outside of our community to encourage us to work with us. The exception has been the free operant community, where PT folks have created learning apps and TAGteach has begun to be use in surgery!

    So this is an important column! THANKS for posting it!

  2. Daniel B. Sundberg | July 12, 2016 at 10:02 am | Reply

    An interesting read. There is a convention on sustainability and behavior change you may be interested in checking out – Behavior, Energy, and Climate Change ( It is specifically focused on behavioral science and climate change – may be an useful way to continue to plug into this community.

  3. Ashley Berman | July 12, 2016 at 7:00 pm | Reply

    I’ve been feeling this exact same way lately! It is as if we are trapped into disability services-i can’t even find experience in IBM! I’d love to move to public health or ABA for dementia, but it seems like you need at minimum a PhD, but to get the PhD you need to already have experience. How do we stop this cycle?

  4. Molly Benson | July 13, 2016 at 9:09 am | Reply

    I would like to attend that BECC conference; it poses a sweet opportunity for collaboration. I’ve been checking out their site for awhile and the sponsors, trying to get a sense of the behavioral science aspect.

    I didn’t go into specific detail in the article, but in terms of creating problem solving occasions for graduate students in sustainability, we can take small steps. I’m including a link for the MIT Climate Colab contest, an example of the type of activity that if students participated in, would enhance and expand their skill sets. Enterprises like these if fostered at the graduate level, provide us with great opportunities for pairing and integrating with other sciences.

    …Additionally I like the contest aspect. 🙂

  5. Kurt Carlson | July 18, 2016 at 6:14 am | Reply

    I guess my undergrad in Natural Resource Science and my masters in ABA might be applicable here…

  6. It certainly doesn’t help that the BACB has eliminated masters degrees in social work or other fields outside of education or psychology/behavior analysis from qualifying for the exam. Imagine a BCBA with a natural sciences or public policy degree! What inroads we would have!

  7. I agree totally! We, as a field, need to broaden our focus, not over specialize in the “hot population” of the moment. We have a unique body of knowledge that is applicable to many areas of human behavior- but the current educational system does not encourage a broad understanding of the principles of learning and the applicability to solving many human problems. We can do better.

  8. Hi Molly,
    I was wondering whether you’ve made any further progress since this article? I’ve been working with children diagnosed with Autism in the UK for five years, but I am now looking for jobs that would enable me to use my ABA training in sustainability and environmental work once I take the BCBA exam this year. Pickings still seem to be slim, but I hoped you might have come across some contacts since this article was published!
    Hope this finds you well in any case.

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