Society Divided Series:
Lately I’ve been asking myself: “Why are we so divided as a nation, planet, and species?” “Have things ever been this bad?” “What will become of humans in the future?” To answer some of these questions, I created a series of articles aiming to analyze, interpret, and hopefully change for the better some of the most intriguing societal issues of our time using the amazing power of behavior analysis. I know it seems pretentious to think that I can fix the world’s problems, but we are bleeping behavior analysts and we can do anything! This is the second article in this series talking about change management at the societal level.
I Hate Change!: How So Many Of Society’s Problems Can Be Solved With A Little Change Management
It’s daybreak as I lumber out of my bedroom and clumsily wander into my living room. I manage to work the remote controls enough to turn on the TV. Vague and petty arguments between two politicians with attention-seeking repertoires attempting to win over disillusioned voters emanate out and echo through my condo.
Meanwhile, I judiciously spread jam on toast, humming a pleasant tune, looking forward to the day ahead. I sit down and actually pay attention to the cartoon characters engaging in gasbag behavior on-screen. I suddenly fixate on images of violent demonstrations erupting all around the country, protesting one thing or another from both sides of an imaginary reddish/blueish aisle. This is compounded by a panel of “experts” talking over each other and forcing their points into each segment before commercials demand attention of their own.
Following this barrage, I found myself frustrated trying to figure out why there is so much disagreement and why protests and demonstrations have now become commonplace in our society. My journey led me to the inexorable conclusion that so much of the outburst of emotion and aggression in our society can be linked back to a simple problem with change management. One party wants constant change and the other wants very little to no change. Where is the happy medium?
As a behavior analyst/scientist, I am a big fan of evolution: species amenable to conditioning survive, and those that are not, do not (Pierce & Cheney, 2013). However, behavior analysts can appreciate the importance of focusing not only on change occurring, but how it is done; in other words, change management. The evolution of society is one big change management project hoping for a behavior analyst/OBMer (practicing OBM professional) to carry it out smoothly and effectively. Like any behavior change endeavor, the change process matters along with the effects of that change on behavior and the environment.
People Don’t Hate Change, They Hate The Change Process
The end of the calendar year is usually a good time for my behavior analysis therapy company. The finance department staff are fluent in processing billing codes, the clinical staff know what the insurance companies expect from them, and the relationship between our case management department and the funding sources is in a good place. Then, the beginning of the year hits and a conversation occurs between executives at many different insurance companies:
Executive #1: Hey, it’s the beginning of the year and I checked the data from our ABA providers and things have been going really well the last few months.
Executive #2: Yeah, I noticed that in our reports as well. How do you think we should move forward based on these numbers?
Executive #1: Well, I was thinking we should probably merge a few departments, change clinical protocol, and then tell everyone about these changes last minute.
Executive #2: Perfect. Vacation in the Bahamas during the first week of implementation?
Executive #1: Already got my flip-flops packed.
Unfortunately, this is a common occurrence within the behavior analysis bubble and in society. Authorities and politicians often take a laissez faire attitude toward change management and/or just ram new policies into place without thinking about the impact they will have. If they focused on how they were changing instead of just forcing change, things might work out better.
People resist change for a variety of reasons; from the extra response effort involved with change to the eventual skill deficiencies with new tasks, overall, change can be a daunting endeavor. With such a formidable mission ahead, the process can be slowed even more when aversive contingencies (i.e. negative reinforcement, punishment) are the primary mode of change implementation.
Are there some careers that used to be prevalent during the industrial age that are going to be automated or replaced? Of course. Are there individuals working these jobs that have been doing them for a long time? Definitely. Does this mean there will be challenges in getting those people to adapt to change? Probably. However, that doesn’t mean we need to rub their nose in it or make them feel like they are obsolete.
Consider a worker who has engaged in their job for years with many trials. The more trials you have with a particular task, the better you are going to be at it (probably). Things people are good at tend to be the things that are the most reinforcing. And when those jobs are eliminated and those people are told that if they don’t find something else to do quickly or they will be out of work, not everyone is going to respond as sweetly as we would hope. The change process matters.
Are demographics changing in this country and around the world? All the data trends point to that hypothesis (Pew Research Center, 2016). When demographics change, culture usually changes with them. Skinner (1953) defined culture as the conditions, events, and stimuli arranged by other people that regulate human action. “Regulate human action” is very important; as demographics change, people’s behavior changes as well and how we go about that behavior change is important. Consider the public censuring involved each and every time someone says something that could be construed as offensive to a particular race, ethnicity, religion, etc. whether it was done on purpose or by accident. Again, the use of negative reinforcement or punishment may not be the best course of action in every situation. Again, the change process matters.
What’s the point? People aren’t resisting change, they are resisting the manner in which change is implemented. Public use of aversive contingencies for everyone who has difficulty with change may not always be the best medicine.
We Are Reinforcing The Wrong Behavior At The Wrong Time
Behavior analysts are experts at identifying when change is commencing. We can tell when the behavior we are trying to reduce gets worse when extinction begins. Extinction or the discontinuation of reinforcement of previously reinforced behavior (Cooper, Heron, & Heward 2007)and all of its wonderful side effects (Bursts, response differentiation, emotional behavior, & spontaneous recovery) signal the beginning of something different and new: topographies change, frequencies change, and most dimensions of behavior changes during this time.
Because of this dynamic phenomena, most behavior analysts were taught one very important thing: Don’t reinforce the behavior you are trying to reduce during extinction, or else! Why? Because you will create a worse problem that will probably last longer than it originally would have i.e. the change agent should have been more consistent with implementation of extinction procedures. This, I believe, happens in our society too often: if we are going to change behavior, we need to be consistent when we decide on a course of action!
Every four years we have a presidential election, and governors around the country are elected/re-elected every four years but on different cycles depending on their state. Every two years, US and state congressman are elected/re-elected and every so often judges at the state and federal level are elected or appointed. This means that new ideas are constantly coming and going and some ideas come to fruition or are enhanced. To add to this, we are experiencing a gargantuan increase in technology (see Moore’s Law) that affects almost every aspect of our lives. This also, unfortunately, means that very few of our behavioral repertoires get to advance through the change process successfully simply because we don’t have adequate time to manage one episode of change before another is presented. As a result, our behavior goes through extinction unsuccessfully. We get stuck with resistance to extinction and the unwanted byproducts of extinction.
People get used to doing things a certain way for a long time, and over the course of the past decade or so life has changed a lot: the way we socialize and work changed, and our values have dramatically changed. Is it any wonder that behavior does not show a stable trend?
Here are some behaviors that get the most coverage and are possible associated side effects of unsuccessful extinction:
- Violent protests (extinction bursts, response differentiation)
- Verbal aggression (Emotional behavior, operant variability)
- Anti-(take your pick at suffixes) behavior (emotional behavior, spontaneous recovery)
Engaging in these behaviors is often reinforced with media coverage or political attention when elected officials implement new policy because of media pressure. Effectively implementing any behavior change is going to involve some kind of extinction procedure whether used alone or a part of differential reinforcement. If you want extinction or any other behavior intervention to work, you better be consistent and avoid reinforcing the behavior targeted for reduction during that process.
This Is How We Should Do It
If we want our society to grow and change, using behavior analytic technologies is a good idea. Here are some helpful hints on how to make this happen:
- Provide positive reinforcement for new behaviors: This isn’t always easy as change, especially at the societal level, happens without us being aware of it. However, it is important for people to experience the benefits of change the first day it happens (Daniels, 2000). Let’s discuss as citizens what we want to change and how we can ensure that positive reinforcement is available for behavior once it begins.
- Make old behaviors irrelevant, inefficient, and ineffective. Positive reinforcement in the form of grants and media coverage can be provided to municipalities and private companies that innovate the desired change, and stop providing those benefits to organizations that don’t.
- Prepare for extinction: When you remove reinforcement for a previously reinforced behavior, don’t expect things to go well right away; people need to adjust. Prepare with more positive reinforcement for new behaviors than old behaviors.
Society consists of billions of people engaging in trillions of behaviors, making the concept of change management difficult but not impossible.
Cohn, D., & Caumont, A. (2016, March 31). 10 demographic trends that are shaping the U.S. and the world. Retrieved March 26, 2017, from http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2016/03/31/10-demographic-trends-that-are-shaping-the-u-s-and-the-world/
Cooper, J. O., Heron, T. E., & Heward, W. L. (2007). Applied behavior analysis. Harlow: Pearson Education.
Daniels, A. C., & Daniels, J. E. (2007). Measure of a leader: the legendary leadership formula for producing exceptional performers and outstanding results. New York: McGraw-Hill.
Daniels, A. C. (2000). Bringing out the best in people: how to apply the astonishing power of positive reinforcement. New York: McGraw-Hill.
Moore’s Law: How Overall Processing Power For Computers Will Double Every Two years. (n.d.). Retrieved March 27, 2017, from http://www.mooreslaw.org/
Pierce, W. D., & Cheney, C. D. (2013). Behavior Analysis and Learning (5th ed.). Psychology Press.
Voting and Elections. (n.d.). Retrieved March 26, 2017, from https://www.usa.gov/voting