How would they have learned that? November 13, 2016

For behavior analysts, talking with other people about behavior can be trying. Knowing that they lack our professional training, we make an effort to be patient with their understanding our subject matter. It’s difficult because their history prepares them with a ready and apparently endless supply of explanations – both explicit and implicit – that have utterly no scientific foundation. As we long ago discovered, however, they aren’t usually all that interested in our counter-intuitive, technically obtuse, and painfully laborious explanations. And you’ve got to admit their way is familiar and almost effortless.

Our “reputation problem”

The problem is that our conversational partners get off easy. They don’t have to describe or justify how their explanations work or even make sense. It’s just a discussion, after all, and it would be out of place for us to turn it into an oral exam or worse – a lecture. That wouldn’t accomplish our objectives, if only because we’d soon be talking just to ourselves.

When I was discovering behavior analysis in graduate school, my fellow travelers and I wanted no quarter, blood on the floor purity in our attempts to explain behavior. That was part of the excitement of the discovery – to test ourselves and anyone else who got in the way. All was fair when our opponent was another behavior analyst, but it didn’t help us make new friends outside of our bubble.

From what I hear these days, we’ve been slow learners. We’ve still got something of a “reputation problem,” and the price can be high when most of us are now out there providing services to the public. We may have an amazing technology, but it doesn’t sell itself like we think it should. So we have to not only be good at resolving behavioral issues, but no less skilled at having convincing discussions about behavior when the need arises.

Getting ready

It helps to be good at picking your battles. You may find opportunities to enlighten unwashed souls at every turn, but only some of these turns provide good occasions for selling behavior analysis. Picking up your dry cleaning? Probably not worth getting into what you do for a living. Talking with a parent? Maybe, but why exactly this conversation? Is there a point to be understood that is really important? Are they likely to be receptive? Is today a good time for a pithy discussion? How about explaining something to a non-behavioral colleague? Again, it’s not a matter of whether you’re right, but whether it’s important that they see your point. Sometimes yes, but not always.

One of the prerequisites for a successful discussion is having a participant who is interested in understanding what you’ve got to say. There needs to be a good reason for them to struggle with your point of view. Do they see the discussion as solving a problem for them? Are they curious about what you have to say? Will they be receptive to points that are contrary to the way they see things? If not, how do you get them ready? Can you get them to welcome you to disturb their explanatory framework? If not, this is not the right time.

Finally, there are two tactical maneuvers that are really important preconditions. First, you must get agreement early on that there is an explanation for the behavior at issue. No waffling allowed on this point. You don’t want them to try to slide past this requirement when the explanatory going gets tough. It is critical that the other party agree up front that behavior doesn’t just happen for no reason. They must start out with the understanding that there are always reasons, even though we may sometimes have to identify them by science-based speculation. Without this agreement about determinism, there is no point in going further.

Getting to this point is not usually too difficult, but the second tactical agreement is more challenging. You need to convince them that mentalistic “explanations” don’t count. Of course, they won’t even know what one is, so this is going to take some skillful, though gentle, explaining. You don’t need to whip out references here, just get them comfortable with the idea that explanations must involve physical phenomena, even though we might not see them.

The big question

Ready for the meat of the discussion? Most often our agenda is to get someone to understand the environmental reasons for a particular behavior. We want to replace a colloquial explanation with one rooted in our science. Practitioners know this approach will lead to intervention procedures that are likely to resolve a behavioral problem. The really fun discussions may be less focused, however, such as when we’re just talking with friends and want to seduce them with our point of view.

Whatever the occasion, the operational question for explaining a bit of behavior is “How would they have learned that?” Having already taken fictional explanations off the table, we can cast about for environmental explanations, and we know they must be ordered in a learning history, whether traced from the present backwards or starting at the beginning. In general, the more complex the behavior, the better it is to start with how it originated, back when it was very simple. That way, the long history helps explain how it got complex.

One of the benefits of this question is that it presumes the behavior of interest is learned, as it usually is with humans. This focus helps keep the discussion in a scientific context and encourages the listener to consider the role of contingencies, an approach that is especially valuable when alternative explanations are mentalistic. Mentalistic references tend to imply that the behavior is unlearned and simply part of what it means to be human. Turning mentalistic speculations into a search for contingencies shifts discussion to how the behavior got started and how it evolved into its present form.

Take reasoning, for example. No one but a behavior analyst would try to explain it outside of a mentalistic framework, but it can easily be recast as behavior, whether covert or overt. (Chapter 6 shows how to do this.) Once the focus is on reasoning as verbal behavior, explaining how such behavior is gradually acquired removes much of the mystery that makes mentalistic explanations seem a more appealing alternative.

How about sensory behavior? Transforming the seemingly unlearned acts of seeing, hearing, and so forth into behavior allows searching for a learning history that can explain its features, including such fascinating skills as seeing “images” that are not present. (See chapter 4).

In addition to encouraging a productive focus,the “How would they have learned that?” approach has the advantage of focusing on a question. Instead of promoting declarative statements, which tend to invite argument, we’re just asking a probing question. Wondering how a particular behavior came to be in a repertoire seems appealingly simple, though we know it’s not. This question not only takes advantage of the fact that questions tend to encourage looking for answers, it can be used again and again in the same discussion, pushing for more historical details and clarifying the consistent theme we’re working from. This leads away from mentalism and toward building an explanation in terms of a history of contingencies between behavior and environment.


How would they have learned that?

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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.

How would they have learned that? November 13, 2016