A Call To Action:  Behavior Analysts, Its Time To Save The World

by | May 19, 2021

It was Sunday, midday, the sun was at its apex, perched commandingly at the top of a clear sky beaming sunshine down through the glass doors of my condo and into the living room mandating that I go outside and enjoy the day.  My behavior, at that moment, was compliant, and filled with purpose as I gathered together my towel, sunglasses, and sunscreen, with a mission to go to the beach and have fun, as ordered.

Then it happened…AGAIN…that irritating fluorescent red bar appeared at the bottom of my TV screen and in all capital letters it screamed at me to stop what i was doing and PAY ATTENTION.    As I watched the headline slowly crawl up from the bottom of the screen like the villain in a horror movie emerging from the depths of a dark and murky swamp… the title read:  BREAKING NEWS:  3 Officers Killed in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.  There it was, staring me in the face, another instance of senseless violence sensationalized on TV.  As I finished reading the headline, the grip that i had on my beach bag started to loosen and my legs began to feel tired, and the value of the soft cushions on my couch suddenly increased.  Sitting down and watching the events unfold was becoming more reinforcing than leaving the house and going to the beach, and I felt powerless to stop it.

After promising myself that I would sit down just for one minute to find out what happened, I found myself growing more and more frustrated by the information that was being spoon fed to me on TV like a helping of vegetables I was refusing to eat.  The cable news station that I was watching (with five letters in their acronym) thought it would be a good idea to discuss the previous month and review all of the awful things that had transpired around the world (specifically in the US) involving violence:

  1. A night club shooting in orlando that killed 50 people.
  2. Two killings in different states across the country by police officers of unarmed black men.
  3. Five dead police officers from an apparent retaliation of the previous week’s shootings.
  4. A truck that drove through the streets of Nice, France killing…I don’t know, a lot of people.
  5. A bomb set off in a Turkey airport, described as terrorism, again killing a lot of people

I watched gasbag after gasbag from the left AND the right vomit out their talking points avoiding the REAL issue as if they were purposely trying to evade it.  “Behavior!, the answer is behavior, you BLEEPING idiots! (edited for decency)”, i screamed at the TV, “why don’t they understand the problem is behavior?”, i repeated in frustration.

As each talking-head crashed the sets of major news outlets like waves from a typhoon, each delivering their own watered-down version of the same tired rhetoric, I immediately rebuked each and every point explaining the problem in behavior analytic terms.  Proud of myself for analyzing and interpreting the problems presented, I suddenly felt a cold shiver slide slowly down my back as I realized that I had missed something important:  this isn’t their fault, its ours, the behavior analysis community, for not effectively communicating the importance of the science of behavior to the world, and the assumptions and technologies of our science applied to these specific problems of violence such as:

  1. People are not racists, evil or otherwise, their behavior has simply been conditioned to respond a certain way when presented with certain stimuli, namely people of different color. This is a problem with pairing, not a problem with people being good or bad.
  2. Using aversive contingencies to reduce “racist behavior” is not as effective as using reinforcement to increase “inclusive behavior”. Moreover, using averse contingencies can produce side effects such as operant aggression where one person punishes another’s behavior and that person retaliates (Azrin & Holtz, 1966).  This phenomena has been prevalent in this country as of late, especially when prompted by the aforementioned talking-heads on TV.
  3. Socially mediated reinforcement is important when discussing instances of large scale violence. Every time a mass shooting occurs, the name, physical description, and entire history of the suspect is blasted throughout all media outlets.  This kind of attention can serve to positively reinforce this type of problem behavior (even if inadvertently), and then the problem behavior is more likely to occur in sillier circumstances (Cooper, Heron, & Heward, 2007) and inspire others to engage in similar behavior.
  4. Guns don’t kill people, behavior does. Removing guns is a possible intervention, but just an antecedent intervention and not the entire treatment package.  Solutions should involve reducing all behavior that serves the same function (i.e. people getting hurt), not just shootings.  If guns are removed and the behavior is not addressed, people will just find another way to hurt each other, see Nice, France.
  5. Labeling violence (e.g. muslim extremism), is just labeling, and is probably not an effective intervention, the violent behavior is the problem, not how we label it. Focusing on function-based definitions of problem behavior vs. those subjective labels is more effective.
  6. The public and media focus too much on subjective accounts of violence leading people to believe that things are worse or better than they actually are. Data is the great equalizer, it shows whether or not we have made a difference, it tells us how things were and how they are now, so we can identify whether or not things are getting better and allows us some perspective.  We can create goals from this data and
  7. Leadership is measured by follower behavior, not leader behavior. Its not the speeches that our elected officials make thats important, its the impact that those speeches have on the behavior of our citizens that matters.  When a politician makes a speech about violence and people claim it is good leadership, this may not be the case.  The only way to confirm that is making a difference is to establish a functional relationship between that speech and improved follower behavior.  It appears that more is needed than just speeches to solve these problems.

So I am making a call to action:  Behavior analysts of the world get the word about our science and how it can change the world for the better.

About the Author

Adam Ventura draws upon more than 15 years of behavior analysis expertise to help students, professionals and businesses adopt strategies that streamline efficiencies, strengthen relationships and improve quality of life in personal and professional settings.