The Government Shutdown: A real-life reversal design.

Photo by Jomar on Unsplash

Todd A. Ward, PhD, BCBA-D

bSci21Media, LLC

In the real world, our behavior is nested within systems – behavioral systems comprised of the actions of millions of people around the globe which generate aggregate outcomes not otherwise possible by people acting alone.

A hugely influential group of systems relates to economics and government.  B.F. Skinner called these “controlling agencies” in his influential book Science & Human Behavior due to their ability to mediate reinforcers for large segments of society.

Now we are in the midst of the longest U.S. government shutdown in history, and its effects are felt far and wide, many of which were unforeseen.  In fact, CNN is keeping a running tally of sorts, tracking the ways in which the shutdown affects our lives.  One way behavioral scientists can view the shutdown is as real-life reversal of controlling agencies.

A reversal design is a procedure wherein an intervention is applied, then briefly removed, to better assess its behavioral effects.  For example, if you wanted to assess he effects of performance feedback on your employees, you might provide feedback for a week, then remove it for a week, and reinstate it again.  If you see changes in performance that corresponds to the reversals, you can more confidently say that performance feedback helped your employees work more effectively.

In our case, large portions of the government have been shutdown – a reversal – and we see the effects.  Not only are hundreds of thousands of people now without a paycheck, including Secret Service agents, and air traffic controllers, but many are also being forced to work without pay, such as IRS employees who process your tax refunds.  Even a branch of the military – the U.S. Coast Guard, can’t pay its members.  They are even encouraged to have garage sales in lieu of pay.

But the effects go beyond pay.  School districts can no longer afford healthy foods, airport security checkpoints and entire terminals are shutting down, federally funded research is shutting down, and the nation is more vulnerable to cyberattacks due to a shortage of cybersecurity contractors.

The message – the contexts in which we live depend on the actions of other people.  Interlocked Behavioral Contingencies and metacontingencies are embedded into the fabric of society.  To read more on these topics, check out our past article here.

In the meantime, be sure to let us know how the government shutdown has affected your life in the comments below.  Also be sure to subscribe to bSci21 via email 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,  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]

About bsci21 703 Articles
President, bSci21 Media, LLC Editor,


  1. As a surviving spouse of a USCG member, my family will not receive my late spouse’s annuity (like retirement) which is half our income. Thankfully I have a wonderful job as a BCBA but many of my dear fiends who are married to active duty Coast Guard members do not have employment. As we share our ideas for making the income we have work I’m hearing similar realizations- we need to rethink how we attain fun, activities…reinforcement. I believe the longer term impact will be a reduction in spending. Those affected currently will stop getting their nails done, eating out will be rare, extras at the grocery store will stop. The memory of this stress will linger for a long time. Hopefully those affected will pay down debts and save which could be a benefit. I don’t know that we will see a true reversal design because I don’t believe condition A will be the same.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.