You don’t have to understand August 3, 2017

One of the more common convictions shared by everyday folk – that is, those who haven’t been enlightened by training in behavior analysis – is that it is necessary to understand a contingency in order to succumb to its effects. In spite of obvious evidence to the contrary, this assumption should not be surprising. Since when did obvious evidence about the nature of behavior rule the day?

Misunderstanding the role of awareness

In searching for the basis for believing that a cognitive understanding of contingencies is an important part of the mechanism underlying their effects, it is necessary to appreciate the role of awareness. As Chapter 4 explains, we say that we are aware of something when we can describe or merely label or recognize it in some way, even if only privately. We learn to describe our environment, including our own behavior, as we acquire a verbal repertoire. When we engage in such behavior, we call it awareness.

It’s understandable that behavior we are aware of seems much more important than behavior passing by unnoticed. It’s not that people can’t appreciate that much of their behavior is acquired without their noticing or don’t realize that their behavior adapts to changing circumstances even though they’re not looking. Most will concede, for example, that when we are driving down the road lost in thought and paying no attention to what we’re doing we are actually engaging in the minimally necessary behaviors of steering and adjusting throttle input. It’s just that when we are paying attention to our actions they seem especially significant and it seems clear that “we” are then in charge.

Being aware of our behavior means we are engaging in at least minimal verbal behavior about it, though often privately, and the way we understand our behavior comes entirely from our verbal community. This everyday explanatory perspective about how behavior works depends largely on an invented domain of mental processes. We have been taught to explain behavior, both ours and everyone else’s, in terms of an endless variety of fictional mechanisms that “exist” in a non-physical domain.

Although there is usually some allowance for the physical processes of learning in this explanatory model, they are customarily seen as superseded by mental processes. So people acknowledge that they may do something partly because of its obvious consequences, but they reserve the option of overriding such influences by such mental processes as deciding, changing our mind, and so forth. It’s as if contingencies have their effects only after being given permission by our “self,” the repository of mental processes that are actually in charge. Furthermore, behavior-environment contingencies aren’t viewed as even necessary to motivate or explain behavior. The mental processes are seen as sufficient by themselves.

And the resulting consequences

This colloquial misdirection underlies the assumption by parents, other caregivers, and even professionals in other fields that it is necessary for a client to understand a contingency in order for it to be effective. Any effect of the contingency is seen as secondary to the role played by mental processes. From this perspective, it follows that caregivers must explain a contingency to the point of understanding for it to work, or at least to work well. Of course, such explaining itself becomes part of the immediate contingencies and may have effects contrary to those intended for the contingencies. For instance, although specified consequences may be designed to reduce the occurrence of a target behavior, the act of explaining to the individual what they are and how they should change behavior may function as positive reinforcers.

A corollary assumption is that environmental contingencies will not work, or at least work as well, if the individual cannot be made to understand them. This position is the basis for believing that individuals who are significantly intellectually disabled or otherwise not fully sentient are not susceptible to contingencies or that efforts to change their behavior are likely to be insufficiently effective. This point of view was until recent years one of the justifications for a “warehousing“ service model that focused on basic care rather they active treatment of behavioral needs. The a priori assumption that “they can’t learn” was due in part to their difficulty in understanding treatment contingencies.

“Shoulds and oughts”

As behavior analysts are well aware, of course, there is abundant scientific evidence that learning does not require awareness. Yes, this should be obvious even without scientific training, but that it is not shows the pervasive power of mentalism. It should be easy to see that members of non-human species, which lack a means of acquiring the self-descriptive skill we call awareness, somehow acquire a repertoire that goes well beyond what they are born with. You would think people would at least have more respect for the fact that much of their own behavior is learned without needing to be aware of what is going on. Certainly early childhood ought to provide a clear example.

“Shoulds and oughts” aside, ABA practitioners all too often encounter the conviction that learning is most effective when the individual is aware of it and that behavior change contingencies must therefore be explained and understood for optimal effectiveness. As a result, we become good at patiently explaining the contrary, scientifically supported position while trying hard to avoid coming across as condescending. We are alert to the risks of caregivers trying to explain contingencies and try to make careful judgments about how behavior change contingencies are introduced. We know that there are circumstances in which description of contingencies can facilitate the intended outcome, but that this tactic must be selected on a case-by-case basis.

All in a day’s work for ABA practitioners.


You don’t have to understand

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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.

You don’t have to understand August 3, 2017