“Can,” “can’t,” and self-fulfilling prophecies July 6, 2014

Our daily dialect is laden with implications.  Take the words, “can” and “can’t.”  When we say that we can do something, we make an implicit prediction.  We are saying that even though there may be no evidence, we are able to behave as promised.  The statement does not indicate that we will, only that we could if required.  On the other hand, when we say that we can’t do something, the implication is that it is not possible, regardless of motivating circumstances.  We are not allowing that we could if we wanted to, but saying that it is simply not possible, whether the limitation is temporary or permanent.  “Can” statements are optimistic about our potential; “can’t” statements are pessimistic.

Because “can” and “can’t” statements about behavior carry an implicit prediction, they also say something about behavioral capacity.  If you say that someone can or can’t do something, you are making a statement about the potential of the person’s repertoire.  If someone can behave in a particular way, the fact that they may have not done so in the past need not hold them back.  The behavior can be motivated or learned as needs be, so the challenge is merely to figure out what it is going to take.  If someone cannot do something, however, the game is over.  It is not possible, and there is no point in trying.

Judging what is possible

These linguistic implications are especially pertinent for applied behavior analysts.  After all, part of what we have to offer from our bag of tricks is some skill at judging what changes in a person’s behavior might be possible.  We’re supposed to be able to say with some confidence what a person can learn to do, or learn to stop doing.  Then we’re supposed to be able to make the promised changes happen.  Why would people pay for our services if we weren’t pretty good at estimating what behavior change is possible and then coming reasonably close to delivering?

In fact, we’ve learned that the predictions implied in “can” and “can’t” statements are often rather iffy.  Meaningfully predicting behavior requires accurately identifying what action will occur when and where.  Depending on the allowed margin of error, this is difficult under even restricted conditions.  That autistic boy you’re working with –  can you predict when he will have a tantrum?  Sure, sometimes, but every time?  Predicting behavioral capacity, especially with reference to specific behaviors, is probably even more problematic.

Tempered by our understanding of how behavior works, and with the benefit of having faced these challenges over the years, applied behavior analysts long ago learned to be respectful of our limitations.  We learned that there is only so much we can discover about an individual’s behavior and its controlling variables, and only so much we can do to arrange the environment in ways that will induce targeted behavior change.  As a result of these limitations, we learned that our ability to locate the line separating what is possible from what is not is often less impressive than we’d like it to be.  With a nod to our scientific attitudes, we err on the side of caution by avoiding making strong “can” and “can’t” statement when talking about our clients’ behavior.   At the least, we temper any necessary predictions or promises with the appropriate qualifying phrases, such as “It may be possible…,” “Under the right conditions…”  “If we are lucky…,” and so on.

Self-fulfilling prophecies

This caution is especially important when working with individuals who are intellectually disabled.  This diagnosis is largely based on what they have not yet learned to do compared to normative standards, although this is not a politically correct view these days.  Given that intellectual disabilities usually have a biological basis, the diagnosis further implies limitations in behavioral capacity.  That is, not only have these individuals not learned age-appropriate behaviors, it is often evident that it will be difficult or impossible for them to catch up, whatever help they might be given.

This prediction leads down a slippery slope, however.  Given the variation from one person to another in the biological basis for their disabilities, not to mention differences in the sophistication of remedial efforts, what cannot be known in each case is what progress might be made by trying to overcome specific behavioral deficits.  If we accept the implications of a diagnosis of intellectual disabilities, perhaps guided by the ubiquitous IQ score, we risk falling into the trap of fulfilling our prophecies by failing to try to contradict them.  If we do not try to teach, how can we be sure they cannot learn?

As a result of this reasoning, applied behavior analysts long ago realized that the best approach was to make no assumptions about what an individual could learn, intellectually disabled or not.  This tactic was seen as best not only for the individual being served, but for our field.   In practice, we make only the most obvious predictions about behavioral capacity.  For example, we are willing to make the assumption that there are many complex skills that individuals functioning at a severe or profound level are surely incapable of learning.  These judgments are usually straightforward and justified by the need to use resources wisely.  However, predicting what they may be able to learn is still a guess that can only be resolved by making a good effort.

As if this tactic isn’t sufficiently cautious, it has a corollary feature.  If someone fails to learn a skill in spite of a thorough teaching effort, rather than assuming that the limitation lies in the person’s ability to learn, we turn to another possibility – that the instructional effort was short of the best that our technology has to offer.  We then look for more effective teaching procedures or consider the possibility that a colleague might find success where we could not.  In other words, even after failing to find success we avoid making a prediction about the person’s behavioral capacity and instead attempt to mount a better effort.

This approach to the issue of behavioral capacity came not just from our field’s appreciation of the strengths and limitations of its emerging technology back in the 1960s.  It was also a reaction against the long held cultural view that “those people just can’t learn,” – a declaration often followed by the deduction that there was no reason to waste time trying.  It was easy for ABA professionals to see that this premise and its conclusion were technically incorrect.  However, we also realized that it encouraged a perspective toward society’s obligations to individuals with intellectual disabilities that was detrimental to both this population and to society at large.

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“Can,” “can’t,” and self-fulfilling prophecies

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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.

“Can,” “can’t,” and self-fulfilling prophecies July 6, 2014


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