An essential curiosity August 9, 2018

We all know that moment when we’re talking with someone we’ve just met and they ask that question that you don’t really want to answer – “What do you do?” It’s not that we’re not proud of our profession, but that it’s hard to explain what it is. We’ve got our stock responses, which vary depending on how long you want to wait until their eyes glaze over.

The answer lies in our title – behavior analyst. We analyze behavior, though that’s the last way we might want to describe our profession, lest our listener then ask if we’re analyzing them right now. The easiest explanation is to focus on behavior – how it can be a problem and how we’re here to help. Our new friend will certainly understand at least that much. Trying to explain the analysis part is more challenging.

Analysis versus curiosity

Being a behavior analyst means not just focusing on behavior but doing so in some very particular ways. Our training tells us that doing analysis requires selecting and implementing specific procedures, whether as researchers or practitioners. There’s all the business about defining and measuring target behaviors, for example. The procedures available for changing behavior, whether to answer a research question or resolve a practical problem, give us seemingly endless options, often quite technical in their details. Even how we handle the data can make or break our analysis.

Those details are the formalities of analyzing behavior, but they can accidentally lead us to ignore a simpler and more fundamental aspect of analysis – merely being curious. Analysis means more than just figuring out the sources of control over a piece of behavior – breaking it down, in contrast with its antonym, synthesis, or building it up. Analysis means trying to understand. Wondering why. Asking “what if “ questions. Simply being curious.

Analysis in the style of a diffuse curiosity may seem familiar, but our interests often lie with the role of obvious factors, such as the independent variable in a research project or even salient extraneous variables. Practitioners are understandably concerned about the impact of intervention procedures and their components. There is another level of curiosity, however, that is subtler. It goes beyond established interests or particular worries to wonder about possibilities that may not be evident.

Take the example of a practitioner implementing a shaping procedure to establish and develop a target behavior. Shaping may seem simple, but it is actually a complex procedure with a lot going on. Doing it well means making a continuing flow of decisions about tiny adjustments in stimuli and timing in relation to a trainee’s behavior. At any point, there are plenty of subtleties to be curious about. How might performance change if the positioning of a stimulus were changed slightly? What if the performance criteria for adjusting trial parameters were tightened or relaxed? How might minor variations in prompts affect progress? What alterations in reinforcement features would improve learning? Shaping is not so much a procedure that can be plugged into an application as it is a collection of behavioral and environmental variables that allow endless decisions and adjustments, if only the practitioner is sufficiently curious about what is going on and how to optimize learning.

Every treatment plan brings opportunities for small curiosities. Even after carefully selecting and designing its major features, an inquisitive practitioner should see lots of details that raise questions such as: What if one component or another were adjusted slightly? Why are certain changes in behavior occurring? What is going on in the background that could be having some effects? Why does the target behavior vary so much from session to session? The closer we look, the longer the list of interesting subtleties.

Are we ever really off duty?

One of the fun things about being a behavior analyst is that our subject matter is around us all the time. If you’re like me, you’re never really off duty, and our analytical curiosity is like that tune you can’t get out of your head. I’m never more than a moment away from wondering about the history and current influences on the behavior of others I’m around. For example, going out for dinner tempts me to start guessing about somebody’s behavior. Why is a parent reacting to a child in a certain way? Why do waiters so often refer to a party as “you guys?” What cues prompt a waiter to visit a table during a meal?

This unending curiosity has always been part of the entertainment of being a behavior analyst. In the early days – for my generation, this means back in the 1960s and 1970s – it was not uncommon for behavior analysts to wear a wrist counter of some sort. These were usually just modified golf counters, although the truly geeky used abacus-style beads attached to a leather wrist cuff. What for? Why to count behavior, of course, merely because we were curious how often it was occurring under one circumstance or another. What kind of behavior? Just about any would do, whether someone else’s or our own, in which case we might well have graphed the data. If you were trying to be polite, you counted someone’s behavior on the sly, but it you really wanted to be naughty, you let them see you counting. In hindsight, perhaps the popularity of wrist counters faded because the field was moving on from such elementary curiosities to more formal questions.

So, this month’s assignment is to strap on a wrist counter and count some behavior just because you’re curious. As you observe, you should find that your initial curiosity blossoms into more questions, which only more data will satisfy. This is the essence of being a behavior analyst.

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An essential curiosity

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Jim Johnston

Dr. Johnston received his doctorate from the University of Florida in 1970 and held faculty positions at Georgia State University, the University of Florida, and Auburn University. He has published both laboratory and field research with both human and non-human species on a variety of topics. He has longstanding interests in the area of developmental disabilities and founded the Master’s Program in Applied Behavior Analysis in Developmental Disabilities at Auburn University. He has served as editor of The Behavior Analyst and on the editorial boards of the Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior and the Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, among others. He has served as president of the Association for Behavior Analysis International, as well as for the Florida, Alabama, and Southeastern behavior analysis organizations, and was the first president of the Behavior Analysis Certification Board and the Association of Professional Behavior Analysts.

An essential curiosity August 9, 2018


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