The value of values April 10, 2018

Everyday references to values don’t provide much in the way of hints about their fundamental nature. Our vernacular way of talking about values generally suggests that they crudely identify what we like (or don’t like, depending on how they are expressed). The possibilities range widely, from specific things (vintage Porsches) to activities or experiences (riding roller coasters) to more abstract conditions or states of affairs (democratic government).

It doesn’t help the colloquial understanding of values that their referents often serve as nouns in our syntax. This tends to give them a “thing-like” quality, though no one would suppose that values actually have a physical existence. Nevertheless, this connotation implies that values lie out there somewhere, perhaps even in a mental domain, and it is not difficult to assume that they are therefore available to influence our behavior. For example, we say that it is important that people be kind and respectful to others, as if this value can – or at least should – encourage everyone to behave that way. This might seem reasonable, but is it the value as such that is responsible for any associated behavior change?

How do behavior analysts view values?

Behavior analysts approach values from a more technical perspective rooted in a scientific understanding of behavior. Nevertheless, we agree with the general idea that the labels customarily described as values are a colloquial way of summarily identifying reinforcers or reinforcing circumstances. However, behavior analysts carefully stop short of the everyday tendency to reify values and on that basis assign them a causal role in any associated behavior. Values are no more than an informal summary reference and have little utility in our technical vocabulary.

Of course, the impact of reinforcers on behavior means that a person’s behavior tends to be labeled in a manner that is consistent with the labeled value. That is, if Jenny says that she believes people should avoid eating meat (a value), she will likely stick to a vegetarian diet (a behavior). It might be tempting to describe her vegetarian practices themselves as a value, but it is technically important to label such behavior more descriptively and maintain a clear distinction between behavior and its reinforcers.

The fact that the reinforcers we label as values are related to behavior that could be similarly labeled makes it tempting to say that values influence or explain associated behavior. Because values are merely summary terms for reinforcing conditions, it would seem that this is a reasonable causal statement. The problem, however, is that such attributions feed into the colloquial notion that values are something more than just reinforcers, that they have some special kind of existence. However, it is reinforcers that explain the origin and maintenance of value-related behavior, not values in and of themselves.

As vernacular labels for reinforcing conditions, the origin of a person’s values lies in his or her ethical communities. Although certain values may be shared within these communities, they are neither inherently good nor bad for the individual or for the culture in the long run. Someone may hang out with others who reinforce robbery or other illegal behavior, leading to that person engaging in such behavior because it yields not only direct benefits of such behavior (stolen goods, for example) but reinforcement from peers. Someone else may participate in a religious community that supports helping those who struggle to find enough to eat each day.

An example from the early days of ABA

As behavior analysts, we share ethical communities as well, and our professional behavior may be described in terms of various values supported by these communities. Consider, for example, the use of aversive events in therapeutic interventions. In the early days of ABA, practitioners routinely employed a variety of aversive stimuli to decrease unwanted behavior. The values associated with that professional behavior might be described in terms of our respect for the scientific and real-world evidence of the effectiveness of these practices (e.g., Axelrod & Apsche, 1983, Johnston, 1972), as well as our obligation to offer effective treatment services (Association for Behavior Analysis International, 1989).

Our ABA colleagues are not the only ethical community in which we are involved, however. Over the years, other professional communities pushed back against the use of “aversives” in ABA and the resulting brouhaha even spread beyond professional boundaries (Johnston, 1991). Although the history of these events is complicated, the controversy encouraged our field to reconsider our values regarding the use of aversive stimuli. Research increasingly pointed to alternative ways of addressing problematic behavior, mainly by identifying the influences on problem behavior via functional assessment and focusing interventions on those factors (Hanley, Iwata, & McCord, 2003). Over time, the ABA clinical model evolved to one in which “aversives” play a relatively minor role, accompanied by careful restrictions. In other words, the values associated with ABA regarding aversive consequences gradually changed to a substantial degree, from routine use of them to routine avoidance. Indeed, most of today’s practitioners are probably unaware of the values concerning “aversives” that were widely accepted in the early years of the field.

Engineering our professional values

With the advantage of an enlightened understanding of values, behavior analysts have the opportunity not only to reflect on the origin of various values that seem to characterize our field, but to adopt values we believe are in its long term interest. We need not naively accept professional values just because they seem apparent. We can assess their origin and impact and then engineer changes in shared values that we believe will be best for the ongoing development of the discipline. Pushed by the contrary values of other professional communities, as well as the culture at large, this is what happened as a result of the aversives controversy.

In fact, we are presently in the process of engineering a broad set of professional values as a result of the rapidly increasing professionalization of ABA. When the Behavior Analyst Certification Board (BACB) was formed in 1998, ABA was still muddling along at a decidedly amateur level of professionalism. It was not until 2001 that the BACB adopted its Guidelines for Professional Conduct, which described for the first time a comprehensive set of values for the behavior of its certificants. The articulated values were the result of considering ethical values adopted within related professional communities, though adjusted and extended to accommodate the unique features of the field of behavior analysis.

The guidelines were initially only advisory in nature, but they were joined by Professional Ethical and Disciplinary Standards, which was a set of more legally based criteria for disciplinary action. Revisions of these initial guidelines and standards over the years refined the description of these values and developed enforcement contingencies, gradually linking them into an enforceable code of ethics (BACB, 2014).

Of course, merely publishing these values and enforcement protocols did not immediately yield widespread compliance by ABA practitioners, but they constituted a basis for differential reinforcement of behavior within this ethical community. The BACB encourages certificants to learn about these values and to behave in ways consistent with them by requiring continuing education training on this topic and incorporating them into certification examination content.

It will certainly take some years before these efforts by ABA community, led by its certification body, yield acceptable correspondence between these values and the behavior of all certified practitioners. Nevertheless, this initiative shows how a behaviorally based understanding of values can enable a large ethical community to systematically develop an extensive set of values and to arrange a system of professional contingencies using the values as performance criteria in shaping the professional repertoires of practitioners.


Association for Behavior Analysis International, 1989. Statement on the right to effective behavioral treatment. Author; Kalamazoo, MI

Axelrod, S., and Apsche, J. (1983). The effects of punishment on human behavior. New York: Academic Press.

Behavior Analyst Certification Board, Inc. (2014). Professional and Ethical Compliance Code for Behavior Analysts. Author; Littleton, CO.

Hanley, G. P., Iwata, B. A., & McCord, B. E. (2003). Functional analysis of problem behavior: A review. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 36, 147-185.

Johnston, J. M. (1972). Punishment of human behavior. American Psychologist, 27, 1033-1054.

Johnston, J. M. (1991). What can behavior analysis learn from the aversives controversy? The Behavior Analyst, 14(2), 187-196.


The value of values

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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.

The value of values April 10, 2018