The role of behavioral science in the Thai cave rescue.

Photo by Jeremy Bishop on Unsplash

Todd A. Ward, PhD, BCBA-D

bSci21Media, LLC

By now you have probably heard about the Wild Boar soccer team trapped in an underground cave in Thailand since going missing June 23rd.  CNN reported that the team, along with their coach “entered the cave during fine weather but became trapped when a sudden downpour flooded the narrow tunnels.”

The team is trapped deep below the surface, only accessible through narrow passage ways that take 5-6 hours for divers to reach.  Recently, an experienced Thai Navy SEAL diver passed away on the return dive to deliver oxygen to the group.

Today, Elon Musk, the tech billionaire, announced that he is sending a team of engineers to the site to help in rescue efforts. Possible solutions from Musk’s team include battery packs, water pumps, ground penetrating radar, and a 1m wide nylon tube to create an air tunnel through which the team could be evacuated.

While such efforts should be applauded, little has been said about the role of behavioral science in such a situation. Below are three potential areas in which behavioral scientists can collaborate.


The New York Times reported that the team initially went to the cave as part of an initiation ritual of sorts.  The boys left their belongings behind in an effort to get to the end of the tunnel, write their name on the wall, and return.  Unexpectedly, a sudden downpour trapped the team inside the cave with sparse supplies.

Prevention efforts could approach the problem from a number of angles.  For instance, the Thai government could help ensure antecedent stimuli are in place, such as warning signs and barricades, that communicate the dangers of entering the cave during the rainy season.

As a more drastic measure, automated ticketing technology could be put in place at cave sites, that record the identities of individuals and mail them fines for entering dangerous areas.  Similar technologies are already in place to enforce traffic laws in the U.S.

Lastly, we are entering the age of “smart cities.”  Data on our behavior is everywhere as our behavior becomes mediated through mobile technologies.  Automated systems could be put in place that track and warn people in dangerous areas not to proceed, and potentially enforce the warnings with tech-mediated fines.

Psychological Wellbeing

Being trapped in a cave with few supplies is bound to take a psychological toll on everyone involved.  Reports suggest the coach is teaching the kids meditation techniques in an effort to cope.  Meditation is a type of defusion technique prominent in behavioral approaches to psychological wellbeing, such as Acceptance & Commitment Therapy (ACT).

In short, defusion is a process wherein one comes to experience their thoughts and feelings as simply acts-in-context, devoid of any inherent “truth.”  Defusion is the difference between saying “I am going to die in this cave” and “I am having the feeling like I am going to die in this cave.”  In the former example, one is looking at the world through their own language, in the latter they are looking at their language as part of the world.

Behavioral Skills Training

Most of the kids in the cave reportedly don’t know how to swim.  A plan discussed prominently in the media involves divers teaching the kids how to swim in order to make the treacherous 5-6 dive out of the cave.  The low visibility and tight spaces encountered in the dive is widely expected to cause panic during the journey as well.

Behavioral Skills Training is a systematic, science-based, method of teaching skills that place accountability on the instructor.  The four main elements of BST include instruction, modeling, rehearsal, and feedback.  While expert Navy divers certainly know how to teach diving skills to kids, BST could potentially save precious hours in the process.

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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  1. With all due respect, there are posted signs warning of the dangers of entering the caves. The danger was understood by those entering.
    I disagree that cave systems should be closed off to people, or that anyone entering should be fined. Caves are part of our geography, and should not be restricted. I do agree that the signs must be present to make the dangers known, but there must also be a level of accountability for anyone who is entering: the risk is understood and accepted.

    A modified/informal process which mirrors BST was used by the rescue divers, very effectively, when they were learning to dive. However, there are not suitable conditions, resources, or time for the rescuers to now implement these procedures during the process of teaching those who are trapped. The soccer team will not be learning to dive; they will only be learning how to breathe underwater and not panic while they are being moved along through the cave.
    Which leads me to….

    I do agree that meditation, mindfulness, and defusion techniques would be incredibly helpful for those who are trapped (as well as the rescuers themselves) to have in their repertoire, especially during the process of moving the boys out. However, don’t you think that these would need to have been learned, rehearsed, and mastered before being placed into this situation?
    They are desperately pressed for time now, trying to prepare the boys to be taken out; they can’t delay the process any further by spending time teaching these mindfulness techniques. Other very real threats to their survival (e.g. drowning and suffocating) are more pressing concerns.

    This is just my two cents. I’ve been thinking about this too much for the past week. :-/

  2. The we’re trapped for 10+ days without food, plenty of time for their coach to model and teach mindfulness in order to prevent panic.

  3. NUT! Karen nailed everything I wanted to say!
    I am left with only one item, which is I would favor TAGteaching the young learners. That might be sufficiently positive to build their swimming and breath holding skills while also reassuring them. Right now they need reinforcement more than task analysis, and building up their willingness to TRY is going to be very important. TAG is already a highly successful approach to teaching complex skills such as surgery, professional level sports, and competitive dance–along with more basic skills.

    But there’s no doubt. For whatever reason the coach ignored multiple warning signs. Maybe they could have been more assertively written or better highlighted, but the coach should never have brought his team to this potential tragedy. It seems all too likely that multiple children will be lost without incredibly creative training and resource distribution. I foresee a line linking the children, SCUBA tanks and places where additional tanks are located along the way. But the darkness, the rising waters, and the very dangerous conditions are all a severe challenge.

  4. Kara – The coach was doing exactly that. Before becoming the football coach, he had been training to become a Buddhist monk, and he is being credited with keeping the children calm (and, possibly, keeping them alive) by using meditation practices with t hem during their 18 (!!!) days in the cave.
    The below text is copied from the following article:

    “‘Look at how calm they were sitting there waiting. No one was crying or anything. It was astonishing,’ the mother of one of the boys told the AP, referring to a widely shared video of the moment the boys were found.

    Turns out that their coach, Ekapol Chanthawong, who led them on a hike into the cave when it flooded on June 23, trained in meditation as a Buddhist monk for a decade before becoming a soccer coach. According to multiple news sources, he taught the boys, ages 11 to 16, to meditate in the cave to keep them calm and preserve their energy through their two-week ordeal.”

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