Do you distinguish between professional and personal? May 13, 2016

We go to work. Maybe have lunch with a friend who is in town. Back to work. Take a phone call in the afternoon from hubby. We pick up the kids from daycare, stop by the store, and then cook dinner. We write a case report after the kids are in bed. On Saturday night we get together with ABA friends for dinner, but it’s Sunday dinner with our extended family. Back and forth throughout our days, putting on our behavior analyst hat, taking it off, and putting it on again.

In graduate school, it was easy to just live in the unfolding world of behavior analysis. To enjoy the embrace of its science and methods and philosophy. To relish friends who were becoming colleagues and who shared our passion for this special discipline, this commitment. Reality awaited. We soon learned we had come so far in our understanding of behavior that there was no one else around. Couldn’t explain what we were learning to our parents, and no body else was even trying to understand.

There was never any choice about being bilingual. As we learned what it meant to be a behavior analyst, we maintained our everyday dialect for “the great unwashed” out of necessity – and maybe because it’s familiarity makes it easier. Who can talk without mentalism anyway? And yet…we know better. We know how behavior really works. As we are watching our dog jump up on guests, we know why that behavior is still in its repertoire. When our neighbor explains why their child is misbehaving, we silently translate past the mentalism.

Off the clock

Although all sciences may share a foundation in methods of discovery, the resulting literatures lead in different directions. Where they go is way beyond the understanding of anyone who has not received advanced training in that field. Those who have quickly learn that few are interested in the details, so these specialists avoid burdening others with how their slice of nature actually works. A physicist knows what microwave ovens do and could explain the mechanism in the time it takes to heat a cup of tea but doesn’t, if only because such behavior has been sufficiently punished. Behavior analysts know about social punishment too.

So scientists and those who apply scientific knowledge go about their daily lives with a well-practiced schizophrenia – being an expert at work and a more or less normal person everywhere else. It’s not so hard. After all, scientific dialects evolved for rather specialized functions, not for everyday discourse. Aside from the lack of a receptive audience, it’s quicker and easier to use common parlance than to talk in the formal language of science.

I don’t know how chemists or geologists or microbiologists view the world around them when they’re off duty, but it wouldn’t surprise me if they pretty much let it go. Their technical knowledge is so detailed and thorough that it would seem unnecessarily burdensome to filter everyday moments through a professional lens. Although I imagine they can shift gears at a moment’s notice, I’m guessing that they generally put aside their hard won expertise when it isn’t called for, even privately.

Are we different?

Are behavior analysts any different? How often do you simply put your training entirely aside? Is there a line between professional and personal we routinely cross? When you’re out on a Friday night with friends celebrating the opening of that new brew pub, are you still thinking like a behavior analyst? When you’re attending your third-grader’s thespian debut at a school play, are you blending your parental role with your professional self, if only privately? When you’re in church, do you muse about the origins of religious behavior as you’re listening to the sermon?

Maybe behavior analysts are a bit different from other scientists and related professionals. If so, our propensity to keep our professional hat with us at all times lies in our philosophy of science, which is a real game changer. Although our philosophical framework is like that of other disciplines in restricting inquiry to physical phenomena, the dialect of our scientific philosophy is quite different. In fact, the vernacular dialect shared by other scientists – not to mention the culture at large – is part of our subject matter, and the impact of this difference is profound.

In becoming behavior analysts, we learn not only how behavior works, but also a way of talking about it that is inextricably tied to how we use that knowledge. We cannot make the most of our science without talking about behavior differently than other scientists talk about their subject matters. Our dialect has its roots in radical behaviorism, and its implications are the foundation of what it means to be a behavior analyst.

This unique dialect transforms those who master it in ways that are impossible for others to appreciate. You know you’re there when you realize that you can’t turn it off. You’re never more than a moment away from your professional self. You get to the point that you can’t avoid thinking as a behavior analyst. It’s not that you don’t sound reasonably normal to everyone else, but you know you’re not. You can’t help but remain aware of behavior from a professional perspective, a parallel stream of usually private observations and curiosities. We may distinguish between professional and personal in our daily activities, and we can hope that others see a difference, but we know we’re faking it. We’re always behavior analysts.


Do you distinguish between professional and personal?


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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.

Do you distinguish between professional and personal? May 13, 2016