What makes a behavior analyst? March 22, 2016

We call ourselves behavior analysts, but what does this mean? Some may remember a time when we had no particular label for our shared interests, perhaps because they were still being developed. With only a phrase or two, however, we could recognize a fellow traveler. As JEAB and JABA came along, we developed a more considered identity, and the growing impact of early academic programs added still more clarification.

Of course, the credentialing movement has had an explicit and widespread influence on our identity as behavior analysts. The formal processes of professional certification and licensure require clear coursework and experience standards, not to mention individual examination. And then there is the fact that these credentials have proven popular beyond anyone’s imagination. Practitioners far outnumber researchers or any other classification within the field.

Not that credentialing standards should define behavior analysis. It may be especially important that they should not, otherwise we might foresee the specter of the technology wandering away from its science. Besides, credentialing standards are no more than a means for preparing not practitioners, but behavior analysts who want to specialize in delivering services. These requirements are supposedly rooted in a larger and more well rounded sense of what makes a behavior analyst. Don’t we mean for the Venn diagram circle of credentialed ABA practitioners to be fully enclosed by the circle of behavior analysts?

The big four

There are many ways we might define the fundamentals of being a behavior analyst, but I’ve always reduced them to four. First, behavior analysts focus on behavior. This may seem too obvious to count, but no other community shares this preoccupation. Our focus on behavior is thorough, pervasive, unyielding, and unique among the behavioral and social sciences – not to mention the culture at large. It is the core of who we are and the context for our other characteristics.

Second, this focus on behavior is not otherwise content free. It is fully circumscribed by many decades of a scientific literature defining our understanding of operant behavior – a literature that shares the fundamentals of other established natural sciences (see the January 19th post on this point). Behavior analysts know that their interests in behavior – even when speculative – must be consistent with this literature.

Third, our curiosities about behavior and offers of practical assistance are pursued in an analytical style that suits its fundamental characteristics. We appreciate that the way we turn our behavioral interests into experimental and practical action matters very much, and we value the impact of these methods on our behavior as both investigators and practitioners.

Fourth, our interests in behavior are filtered through a philosophical framework rooted in the science. This point of view – radical behaviorism – touches the smallest details about how we talk about behavior and enables us to escape the bonds of not only psychological jargon, but also everyday mentalism.

A proper argument on behalf of these defining features of behavior analysis would take too many pages. Short of this, would you be inclined to drop any of them? Do any of the four go beyond the minimum necessary to make a behavior analyst? If a colleague’s work embodied only three of these characteristics, would you consider the person a behavior analyst? We might appreciate and encourage those who are well intended but still fall short, but we must draw a line somewhere.

For me, this is where. If I shared a beer with someone at a convention bar who I learned – pick one – did not focus solely on behavior or did not understand or could not live with operant principles, or failed to accommodate the nature of behavior in research or clinical methods or embraced mentalism in explaining behavior, I would not call this person a behavior analyst. I’d still be nice and maybe even pay for another round out of pity, but I wouldn’t compromise my standards.

How good are we at making behavior analysts today?

Given this definition of what makes a behavior analyst, are we doing a good job at making new ones? This is a difficult question to answer, if only because behavior analysts are being minted under widely varying circumstances. For instance, some are coming out of doctoral programs and aiming for research careers, though by itself this doesn’t say anything about the quality of their behavior analytic preparation. Doctoral training can involve a systematic and thorough program of behavior analytic study directed by expert faculty or only a few non-programmatic courses offered in the context of a more general psychology or education curriculum.

It may be easier to answer the question by limiting it to the modal behavior analyst being trained today, who comes out of a BACB-approved course sequence with a master’s degree. Whether we like it or not, these behavior analysts are increasingly coming to define the field simply because of the large and growing proportion they represent. Because of the BACB requirements to take the BCBA examination (I’m not considering the BCaBA credential here), we know their minimum training standards and have the additional benefit of individual testing to determine those graduates who are allowed to characterize their behavior analytic status as board certified.

The credentialing process is not static. Coursework and other requirements have steadily increased since its inception and this trajectory will continue for a while yet. In other words, we can always do better, so how high should our standards be? How thorough does a course in operant principles have to be? How well does a student need to understand direct measurement and within subject designs? How deeply must a course plumb the depths of radical behaviorism? Having some training in core areas of the field – even in the context of a BACB approved course sequence – is not even enough for the BACB to certify all graduates. The posted record of program performance shows that many graduates who qualify to take the exam still fall short. This prohibits them from saying they are board certified, but it does not preclude them from calling themselves behavior analysts – a professional label the BACB has not been able to trademark.

Behavior analysis or…

There is still another way to assess the field’s training agenda. Although BACB requirements focus on behavior analysis, the programs that adopt them often have other interests as well. More than half are located in colleges of education, for example, particularly in departments and programs addressing developmental disabilities and other educational populations. Whatever the administrative status of programs, BACB requirements are largely met in the context of serving individuals diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders, and three-quarters of ABA practitioners work with this population.

The larger context of training in behavior analysis raises questions about priorities. Are applicants attracted to training in the field because they want to be behavior analysts or because they want to work with the ASD population – or for less noble reasons such as high salaries? Are programs offering behavior analytic training because faculty members have a singular commitment to the field or because behavior analysis is the vehicle for an ASD focus that insures plenty of applicants? Does a preoccupation with autism or the development of practitioner skills take precedence over core training in behavior analysis? Such questions about the motivations of faculty and students matter because the answers may influence the selection of courses offered, the textbooks used, and the focus of syllabi, not to mention other program features such as the details practicum training.

For graduates, although BACB certification offers a distinctive professional identity, it is not clear that being a behavior analyst always comes first. I’ll admit that calling oneself an ABA practitioner instead might seem much the same thing, but is it really? What about attaching one’s professional identity to a treatment population, such as ABA autism therapist? And then there is the option of giving priority to other professional identities or credentials that served as the context for training in behavior analysis (e.g., certified teacher). Do such alternative identities say something about the nature of training in behavior analysis?

Who you are

There is an old argument that we should be giving our technology away, encouraging anyone and everyone to learn what they can about behavior analysis and use what suits their needs. Parents need some things, supervisors need others, teachers have their interests, and so forth. Most will not become behavior analysts, nor should they.

But what about those who ostensibly train to become full-fledged behavior analysts and actually earn the membership card and learn the secret handshake? Don’t we want them to get the works? To be thoroughly trained in the big four? To return to the earlier theme, aren’t there some minimum standards for what makes a behavior analyst? And don’t we want those who meet these standards to identify as a behavior analyst above all else, at least personally if not professionally? Isn’t this identity the natural – even inevitable – result of being thoroughly trained in behavior analysis?

Saying that you are a behavior analyst should mean that your understanding and commitment to each of its defining features – not just two or three of them, but all four – trumps other interests you may have. You may depend on a professional credential for your daily bread or you may focus on ASD services, but you know you are an unadorned behavior analyst first and foremost and are not tempted to clarify with modifiers. This identity pervades all your other roles in life and cannot be abandoned. This is who you are.


What makes a behavior analyst?

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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.

What makes a behavior analyst? March 22, 2016