By Chelsea Wilhite, M.A., BCBA (email@example.com)
bSci21 Contributing Writer
I recently sat (and passed, thankfully) the Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA) exam. I used no fewer than eight sources while studying and practicing for the test. In more than one of those sources, I found ideas put forth in Behavior Analysis inconsistent with developments in other areas of psychology. When my July/August edition of Scientific American: Mind arrived with a picture of an infant held by two sets of adult hands and the title “Wired for touch: New discoveries about the sense that binds us to others,” it reminded me of one topic with which I took particular issue.
One of my study questions asked something along the lines of, “A parent is using praise as a reinforcer. Why does the parent’s praise work as a reinforcer?” I remember the gist of two of the answer options: 1) “parent attention is a natural reinforcer,” and 2) “in the past, the parent has been paired with things such as food and toys.” These are all paraphrased, as I do not remember of which set of materials this question was a part. According to the key, the correct answer was the latter option. However, if you are familiar with the developmental psychology and behavioral neuroscience literature, there is evidence suggesting human contact, or touch, is one of the first “feel good” stimuli a person ever contacts. A parent touching her child is attention and certainly may have been paired with vocal verbal praise.
I argue the parent’s vocal verbal attention was paired with the reinforcing properties of touch before candy, treats, and toys were paired with vocal verbal attention. So, in the question and answer example above, depending on how you interpret “attention,” the first answer option would be the more correct of the two. I consider myself only minimally familiar with the developmental and neuroscience literature, but because I know some of the research on human contact, my first choice would have been answer option one. However, had that question been on the exam, I would have missed it, not because I was wrong but because the field of behavior analysis (or, in this case, study materials for the BCBA exam) is not up-to-date on information from other fields.
This disparity is disturbing for a number of reasons. One, behavior science is not as effective as it can be if we are ignorant of scientific developments in other fields. Two, we are at risk of doing to other specialists exactly what bothers us about outside perceptions of behavior analysis: that the field is antiquated and inaccurate. And finally, I wonder what else we have wrong. What have I learned during my behavior analysis training that is simply wrong?
I do not want to suggest everyone in our field is behind the times or that we are not making an effort to keep up; after all, advancements in science of all kinds are coming faster and faster. Many within the behavior analytic community are aware there is much outside of our little bubble we need to know. Todd Ward, Founding Editor of Behavioral Science in the 21st Century, recently wrote a piece about research on brainets, or animals with their brains connected to one another, and the relations between the connected brains and the animals’ behaviors. Another colleague, Tom Buqo of Brohavior, described his experience as a behavior scientist attending a mainstream psychology conference. And in the July issue of Behavior Analysis Quarterly, Amber Crane wrote on anxiety, a topic typically reserved for clinical psychology.
And these are only behavior analytic news media reports; there are many other examples of interdisciplinary work in the peer-reviewed journals. Numerous other behavior analysts are up to speed on developments in neighboring fields. To them, I say, “Yes! Keep it up! …and help keep the rest of us informed.” For others, I would like to encourage them, my fellow behavior scientists, to explore other areas of emphasis in psychology, sociology, education, and any science that pertain to their specialties.
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Chelsea Wilhite, M.A., BCBA has always wanted to better understand the world around us. As a television journalist, Chelsea worked her way up the ranks to produce the number one rated television news broadcast in the Fresno television market, an area covering five California counties. Along the way, she won two regional news Emmys and a Radio and Television News Directors Award for best news producer. In an effort to further her understanding of natural phenomena, Chelsea left television after more than a decade, turning to Behavior Analysis. She is currently a doctoral student at the University of Nevada, Reno. While behavior science research and instruction is now her primary interest, Chelsea never lost her passion for journalism and regularly contributes to behavior science oriented blogs, magazines, and newsletters.