Philosophic Doubt- When Scientific Inquiry Matters

There are important assumptions, or attitudes of science, which ground scientific study across all disciplines; Determinism, Empiricism, Experimentation, Replication, Parsimony, and Philosophic Doubt. The last one holds a key role in how we deal with the information we gain from science, and what we do with it in the future. Philosophic Doubt is the attitude of science which encourages us to continuously question and doubt the information, rules, and facts that govern our interpretation and understanding of the world (universe, etc). Philosophic Doubt is what has practitioners of science question the underpinnings of their belief, and continually do so, so that their understanding is based on consistently verifiable information. Philosophic Doubt cuts both ways- it can have a scientist test the truthfulness of what others regard as fact, but that means they also must take on the same level of scrutiny and skepticism in their own work. To some, Philosophic Doubt is a gift that has helped them expand on their ideas and shape them beyond the initial first experimental steps. To others, Philosophic Doubt is a detrimental form of skepticism clawing at information or beliefs that they hold dear. These views are not new, and in fact we can find traces of this disagreement going back to the 19th century. Here we will explore the assumption of Philosophic Doubt, including proponents and detractions both old and new.

Why do we need Philosophic Doubt anyway?

Philosophic Doubt is important to science because it has an effect on how the progression of scientific work takes place. It has scientists test their own assumptions, hypotheses, and underlying beliefs, even if those are held precious to them, against replicable evidence and new future findings. Philosophic Doubt drives experimentation, and it precedes replication as well. It is what underlies the empirical drive for seeking evidence. Without philosophic doubt, science can go wrong. A hypothesis could be formed based on inaccurate information which would never be retested. Subjective experience could entrench anecdotes in a study as a broader experience than they are. A scientist could start with what they want to find, and cherry pick only what fits their assumption. These examples are the risks of not taking Philosophic Doubt in to account. Sometimes it can simply boil down to the scientist wanting to be right, against keeping an open mind that they might not be. Holding the assumption that there is a benefit to questioning findings or previously accepted beliefs is not a slight against past experience or belief, but rather a better way of interpreting future information if it were to challenge it. Questioning is a part of science, but not everyone thought so.

“In Defence of Philosophic Doubt”

Authur James Balfour, a 19th century philosopher, debater, and scientist, took this topic head on in “In Defence of Philosophic Doubt”. Unlike today, opponents of Philosophic Doubt at the time were more interested in comparing the empirically-heavy scientific beliefs to a more open metaphysical series of alternatives- that is, they were more interested in comparing science to non-scientific belief systems as the truth of reality. When it came to psychology, there were idealists, and realists, and stoics at each others throats with concepts that could not be observed or proven. As you might already be able to see, comparing metaphysical constructs to an assumption that has them continually question their arguments and points, makes metaphysical assertions all the harder to make. Scientific points, however, make Philosophic Doubt a little easier to withstand:

Under common conditions, water freezes at 32 degrees Fahrenheit

Employing Philosophic Doubt, we can continually circle back to this assertion to test it again, and again. Pragmatically, there comes a point where we only question these basic and well founded particulars when we have reason to do so, but the doubt is always present. Sometimes for precision, sometimes to be sure that we are building off of the knowledge correctly, and others to help with the replication and experimentation assertions that grow science. Balfour was a strong proponent of natural sciences, and the use of this kind of questioning. Science founded on observation and experimentation was something truly important to him. Keep in mind, the 19th century was shaped by scientific discovery at a pace never before seen. Balfour kept an even head about this, and believed more in the assumptions of science as the path to understanding the natural world. Propositions which states laws, or which stated facts, had to be built on concrete science and not just personal belief or anecdote. Some of his points we would take as obvious today- for example, when using comparative probability, would we run an experiment or trial just once, or twice? Multiple times? If we ran something like this just once, it wouldn’t be comparative probability, but if we ran it twice and accepted this as the final answer to the question we would miss out on the further replication and experimentation on the subject. The curiosity that Philosophic Doubt embodies would keep the experiment and replication going. Without Philosophic Doubt, we fall into a trap of not questioning initial assumptions or findings.

Another interesting thing about Balfour’s work is that it came at a time where there was a great deal of belief in a mechanical universe that followed strict Newtonian laws. At the time, this was compared with more metaphysical alternatives. Balfour cautioned everyone to continually use philosophic doubt and to question both belief systems- even if the “mechanical universe” was winning by a landslide at the time. If we were to take Balfour’s points and stretch them into the future, we might see how he would have found some justification in further development in physics- quantum mechanics for example, where the Newtonian mechanical universe which was seen as sufficient to explain everything, falls a little short. Without that testing of the original tenets of physics, the use of Philosophic Doubt, we might not be where we are now. The analysis of Balfour’s work could go on for entire chapters, but I would like to top it off with an excerpt on the topic of the evolution of beliefs, and the reluctance to test our own personal beliefs:

“If any result of ‘observation and experiment’ is certain, this one is so- that many erroneous beliefs have existed, and do exist in the world; so that whatever causes there may be in operation by which true beliefs are promoted, they must be either limited in their operation, or be counteracted by other causes of an opposite tendency. Have we then any reason to suppose that fundamental beliefs are specially subject to these truth-producing influences, or specially except from causes of error? This question, I apprehend, must be answered in the negative. At first sight, indeed , it would seem as if those beliefs were specially protected from error which are the results of legitimate reasoning. But legitimate reasoning is only a protection against error if it proceeds from true premises, and it is clear that this particular protection the premises of all reasoning never can possess. Have then, then, any other? Except the tendency above mentioned, I must confess myself unable to see that they have; so that our position is this- from certain ultimate beliefs we infer than an order of things exist by which all belief, and therefore all ultimate beliefs, are produced, but according to which any particular ultimate belief must be doubtful. Now this is a position which is self-destructive.

The difficulty only arises, it may be observed, when we are considering our own beliefs. If I am considering the beliefs of some other person, there is no reason why I should regard them as anything but the result of his time and circumstances.” -Arthur James Balfour, “In Defence of Philosophic Doubt” (1879).

Back to Basics- Science and Philosophic Doubt

In “Applied Behavior Analysis ” Cooper, Heron, and Heward begin their first chapter with the basics of what science is, specifically behavioral science, and the assumptions and attitudes of science including Philosophic Doubt. Cooper, et al., consider these foundational concepts in science as a whole and relate their importance to psychology and behavioral science. In their words:

“The attitude of philosophic doubt requires the scientist to continually question the truthfulness of what is regarded as fact. Scientific knowledge must always be viewed as tentative. Scientists must constantly be willing to set aside their most cherished beliefs and findings and replace them with the knowledge derived from new discoveries.

Good scientists maintain a healthy level of skepticism. Although being skeptical of others’ research may be easy, a more difficult but critical characteristic of scientists is that they remain open to the possibility- as well as look for evidence that their own findings and expectations are wrong.” -Cooper, Heron, Heward, “Applied Behavior Analysis”, (2017).

Bonus! B.F Skinner
“Regard no practice as immutable. Change and be ready to change again. Accept no eternal verity. Experiment.”- B.F Skinner, 1979

The sentiment behind Philosophic Doubt and science is that of openness and humility. Not only is the scientific work we read subject to doubt, but our own as well. The latter is the most difficult part- challenging our own beliefs constantly, challenging our most cherished propositions and reasoning. To some, this is something that expands the horizon of future knowledge infinitely, to others; a hard trail to follow that is no easy task. In either case, perhaps this brought up the importance of Philosophic Doubt, and how it ties in with the other assumptions in science as a challenging but inseparable part of the process.

Comments? Thoughts? Likes? Questions? Leave them below.

References:

1. Balfour, A. J. (1921). A defence of philosophic doubt: being an essay on the foundations of belief. London: Hodder & Stoughton.

2. Cooper, J. O., Heron, T. E., & Heward, W. L. (2017). Applied behavior analysis. Hoboken, NJ: Pearson.

3. Skinner, B. F. (1953). Science and human behavior: B.F. Skinner. New York: Macmillan.

Token Economies: What Behavioral Science and Blockchain Technology Have In Common

“Token Economies”- two words springing up at Blockchain and Cryptocurrency summits and conferences with increasing regularity. Token Economies have been used by behavioral scientists and practitioners for decades, but recently they have taken off in the field of Blockchain and Cryptocurrency technologies. Both applications use the term “Token Economy” interchangeably. In technology conferences and summits, it is the original behavioral psychology definition that is used to describe the concept. The tech field is now using the original token economy concept and expanded it to apply to what some might call the future of commerce and currency. Exciting stuff. Here, I will break down the basic concepts of what a Token Economy is, and how both behavioral scientists/analysts use them, as well as the new application in the technology by Blockchain and Cryptocurrency developers.

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The Token Economy

Let’s break it all down. What is a token economy? A token economy is a system where tokens, or symbols, are used as conditioned reinforcers which can be traded in for a variety of other reinforcers later. It is not a bartering system or prize system where objects/access/services are given directly following a target behavior, but a conditioned stimulus (token) without necessarily any intrinsic value that is agreed upon to add up to exchange or buy another reinforcing item. A common example that most of us are used to is money. Paper money, specifically, can be considered a part of a token economy in that it is “traded in” towards some terminal reinforcing stimulus (or “back up reinforcer” as it is called in behavior analysis). The paper money is a conditioned reinforcer because it has no necessary intrinsic value but has conditioned value for what it can eventually be used for within the token economy.

This was taken up originally by behavioral researchers in the 1960’s, as a form of contingency management for the reinforcement of “target behaviors”- or prosocial learning, in therapy situations. Reinforcers are important psychologically because, by definition, reinforcers change the rates of behavior that they follow. They can help teach life-changing skills, or alternatives to some destructive or undesirable behavior quickly. But, reinforcers can be tricky too. People can become bored or satiated with tangible rewards, such as food, but within a token economy, reinforcement can be delivered in the form of tokens and allow for a later exchange or choice of any number of possibilities desirable to that individual. By pairing these tokens with access to “primary reinforcers” (reinforcers that are biologically important) or other “secondary reinforcers” (stimuli that have learned value), the tokens themselves become rewarding and reinforcing- thereby creating a sustainable system of reinforcement that defies the satiation and boredom variables that the researchers originally found as barriers to progress. Alan Kazdin’s work “The Token Economy” is a fantastic resource on the origins and research that began it all.

What can a token be? Nearly everything. But, it has to be agreed upon as a token (given some value for exchange) in order to serve as a token for the purpose of trading it in, or buying with it. Giving someone a high five after doing a great job at work, for example, is not a token. It is a reward, and possibly a reinforcer, but it was not conditioned to have value, and cannot be saved or exchanged. Tokens also need not necessarily be physical, or tangible. They can be symbols, or recorded ledgers, so long as that information can be used for the exchange in the corresponding token economy. This is where blockchain and cryptocurrency technologies tie in to the original behavioral science understanding of a token economy. Can data, or information, serve as a token and be used in a token economy if it is agreed upon to have value and worth exchange? If you haven’t heard of BitCoin (a Cryptocurrency), the answer is yes.

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Blockchains and Cryptocurrencies

What is Blockchain then? And what is a Cryptocurrency? Using our original definitions of tokens and token economies, for data or information to be considered tokens they have to be able to be exchanged and have value that can be traded within the token economy. Blockchain technology solves this by creating units of data called “blocks”. These blocks, simply put, are a growing list of data records that contain a “cryptographic hash” of previous blocks. These linked blocks form a ledger which is resistant to duplication and tampering. In layman’s terms, unlike most data that people can manipulate and come into contact with day to day, a “block” within this Blockchain cannot be altered or copied and maintains a faithful record of time and transactions. Resistance to copying/duplication means that it cannot be forged, and resistance to altering means that this data (the record of information) is seen as reliable. If we create a currency using this technology, then we have the means to create units, or tokens, that are individual, can be traded, and have a consistent and (for the cases of this introduction) unalterable record of transaction. Assigning value to this creates a digital currency called Cryptocurrency. Tokens. Transactions can take place using these blockchains. These transactions take place person to person (“peer to peer” or P2P), meaning that once a unit of cryptocurrency is exchanged from one person to another, it resembles very much a physical exchange of all other forms of currency. This exchange does not require any medium, such as a bank, like physical currency does in online banking for example.

Blockchain and Cryptocurrency developers, then, would be looking to create a form of token currency that can be traded within this broader token economy- that is both reliable enough to be used by enough people to catch on or become commercially viable, while still maintaining the benefits of a cryptocurrency (security, privacy, etc) over traditional currency. These cryptocurrencies, these units of data, these blocks, have no intrinsic value themselves. They are tokens in the very real sense that the original behavioral research intended. Their usage and effects, then, appear to follow in the same vein. Currency can be reinforcing, reinforcement can alter behavior, and once a token takes on value through the conditioning process; it can be truly valuable in its own right as a “generalized reinforcer”- a reinforcer that is backed up by many other types of reinforcers. A dollar, for example, as a widely used currency can be used for a nearly countless number of goods, services, and transactions. This makes it a good generalized reinforcer. The more a token can be traded for, the better a generalized reinforcer it becomes.

Will a form of cryptocurrency, like Bit Coin, gain this same traction as a currency, or token, to access other reinforcers in trade? Many people say yes. That’s where both behavioral scientists and blockchain developers can both find excitement in each new development and innovation.

Likes? Comments? Questions? Did I get it wrong ? Leave your comment below!

References:

  1. Alan, K. (n.d.). The Token Economy: A Review and Evaluation. New York, NY 1977: Springer. doi:10.1007/978-1-4613-4121-5
  2. Blockchain. (2019, January 13). Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blockchain
  3. COOPER, JOHN O. HERON, TIMOTHY E. HEWARD, WILLIAM L. (2018). APPLIED BEHAVIOR ANALYSIS. Place of publication not identified: PEARSON.
  4. What is Simple Token (OST) [Audio blog post]. (2018, August 22). OST Live Podcast

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http://www.smilemakers.com

May I have your attention please? The Nominal Stimulus vs. The Functional Stimulus

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Hm?

What’s that?

Sorry, I wasn’t paying attention.

You’ll see this happen in some case studies, research articles, classrooms, and even therapeutic practice. A situation laid out with everything in mind to elicit the predictable response. You ask “What’s two plus two?” and eagerly await the “four!”…but it doesn’t happen. You call out to someone who’s wandered off “Hey! Over here!”, and they keep on walking. You picked out your discriminative stimulus so well but the response had little or nothing to do with it. You were missing the big piece of responding to stimuli that is absolutely obvious on paper, but so easily overlooked: Attention.

Stimulus-Response contingencies are a good place to start with explaining why this is so important, because they’re often the simplest and easiest to explain. One thing happens, a response follows it. The in-between that goes unsaid is that the respondent was actually able to perceive the stimulus, otherwise the response was either coincidental or unrelated. The stimulus that is never perceived, or attended to, is called a Nominal Stimulus. It happened. It was presented purposefully. It’s not a discriminative stimulus. It plays no role in selection. The individual is unaware that it even occurred. Nominal stimuli are the “everything else” in a situation that the intended respondent is not attending to.

Imagine a teacher in a classroom helping a student write their name. They first prompt by demonstrating how the name is written. The student does not copy it. So they take the student’s hand and physically guides them through the name writing start to finish, then they reinforce with some great descriptive praise to reinforce. Great! The student learned something, right? They’re more likely to at least approximate name writing in the future, right? How about the first letter?

Not if they were looking up at the ceiling the whole time. Nominal Stimulus.

The teacher may have set up a great visual demonstration, planned out a prompting strategy, and planned out a reinforcer to aid in learning the target behavior- but not one of those things were effective, or even meets their respective intended definitions, without the student’s attention. What the teacher was actually looking for, with any of their attempts, was a Functional Stimulus.

A functional stimulus, attended by an individual, that signals reinforcement for a specific behavior? That is the feature of the discriminative stimulus (SD) that elicits previously reinforced behavior. It’s received by the respondent in a meaningful way.

The lesson here in this distinction is that observers can sometimes assume stimulus-response relations or failures in responding because they are working with situations that present Nominal Stimuli instead of Functional Stimuli. Without distinguishing the attendance of the respondent, one could simply document a discriminative stimulus occurred when it had not. That would lead to inaccurate data, and further inaccurate intervention development based on those inaccuracies.

Check for attention. Always. It may not always be the easiest thing to discern. Auditory attending is not as easy to infer as visual attending is, but by keeping the nominal and functional stimuli in mind, you are in a better place to test for conditions that better facilitate both.

Let’s try one more example.

Take this guy in the car. He’s got his phone out. Just got a text. Now THAT was one sweet discriminative stimulus. Tons of reinforcement history signaling behind that one.

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The street lights in front of him? Nominal stimuli.
The stop sign down the road? Nominal stimulus.
The cars on either side of him? Nominal stimuli.

Not all unattended stimuli are nominal stimuli exactly, but in a society, these signals (lights, signs, other people’s proximity) are delivered with the intended purpose of changing or governing the responses of people in order to make sure everyone drives in an orderly and safe(ish) way. Even when a person is attending, partially, to an array of stimuli around them; all supposedly “important” in one way or another, some don’t actually register without specific attention.

One more example. Last one, I promise.

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An instructor is working with a non-verbal child to build communication. They are seated at a desk. The child is staring off at one of the walls and reciting some continuous vocal stereotypy to themselves. The instructor is guiding a communication board- a page with the alphabet on it.

They… rapidly… move the board’s position in front of the child’s finger, anticipating and…prompting… the words “I W A N T L U N C H”. They stand up with glee and reinforce this…method… with a “Great job! Let’s get lunch!”. The child continues to stare off at the wall, and continue the repetitive stereotypy until lunch is brought over.

What might that instructor infer from this process if they were not thinking about nominal stimuli? Well, they might infer that the process was in any way impacted by the child’s responding. Or, that the board and prompting was received in any way by the child. It could get a little confusing.

That’s the importance of nominal and function stimuli.

Questions? Comments? Likes? Leave them all below!

References:

Healy, A. F., & Weiner, I. B. (2013). Experimental psychology. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.

Ormrod, Jeanne Ellis. (2012) Human learning /Boston : Pearson

How I Designed An Effective RBT Training Program

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When the BACB introduced the Registered Behavior Technician (RBT) credential, I remember reading the email all the way back in 2013 and having my brain race over just how credentialing the entry-level ABA practitioner might work. It was in a sense revolutionary- how many people in psychology or education undergraduate programs would believe that they could work full time in a field related to their study before graduation, and be credentialed for it? I knew that eventually it would be my role to design an effective and efficient RBT training protocol to give the new ABA practitioners a solid education in the basics of ABA and therapy implementation. I started as a therapist myself. I went through the process that eventually lead to my BCBA graduate studies and certification. The question now was, if I were starting all over what would I have wanted to set me up for the greatest chance of success?

The BACB Standards

The RBT Task List and the training guidelines are essential. These are necessary for counting towards the credential. There are certain things you can expound on, and present in variations of practicality, but everyone passing the 40 hour training essentially has to learn the exact same thing as it’s listed by the BACB. Think of this as you would an approved course sequence for BCBA classes. I think it has the best current structure to the material necessary for this level of service, so even if you are thinking of using training that does not necessarily require the RBT credential, this is a great “ABA style” guideline for the necessary skills.

I like to think of it this way: You don’t want to train staff for just the challenges they face right now for clients, you want them to be prepared for all the appropriate behavior-analytic necessities down the line too.

When I designed my first RBT training protocol in 2015, I stuck to the RBT Task List and BACB standards for RBT training to the letter (I still do, but added and improved upon it). My picks for what would be used as the source material to fill out this training were: B.F Skinners collected works, the Baer, Wolf, and Risley article, and my favorite, “Applied Behavior Analysis” by Cooper et al. For my first run at this, I broke it down into modules with discussion board posts, quizzes, and “chapter exams” for each section. While this material was being run, I also preferred to apply these to real-world client situations so that what they saw on the pages could be implemented. Every trainee would meet a real client, see how the material relates, and practice shadowing/running some of the techniques.

Some of the trainings I was seeing online were just Q&A material presentation with quizzes, but no actual practice. That gave me pause because I knew the next step required by the BACB was the competency assessment and that requires actual in vivo clinical skill usage for most sections.

Training to meet the standards of the Competency Assessment and the RBT Exam

My initial 40-hour training program was built from the ground up based on the framework that the BACB set out. It was not until the actual trainee feedback came back from both the competency exams (in clinical skills judged by a BCBA), and the results of the RBT Exam (a Pearson computer testing center exam) that I was able to get the correct amount of information to expand on the areas where most were finding the difficulty. If you’ve taken the BCBA exam, the RBT exam is very similar in style. It’s tough, but has a smaller and more appropriate task list for the job. Multiple choice, but best answer. None of that easy 3 answers are wrong, 1 answer is right. My second training, which I created at the tail end of 2015 and revised twice into 2016 aimed to treat a common difficulty that was arising from my experience with the gaps between the Competency Exam and the RBT Exam. The RBT competency exam was a breeze for people who could use the language and run the data collection, graphing, and skill acquisition skills with clients in the real clinical setting, but when it came to the Pearson exam; using the terms to answer the questions was much tougher. Familiarity with terms was good enough to pass clinical muster, but that RBT Exam was a tough nut to crack.

I adjusted my training to fill this skill gap I was seeing with some of the applicants by testing the terminology during the competency assessment during the option interview section. The BACB has a great sheet they included onto the RBT Competency checklist, which has a series of opened ended topics that the applicant discusses with the testing BCBA. I took those, and adapted some of the tougher relations- People could tell me what frequency data was, but they couldn’t explain what continuous measurement was used for. People could tell me when we used partial and whole intervals, but couldn’t describe why discontinuous measurement was appropriate for a situation. People could use prompting during a discrimination training program, but couldn’t always figure out how to stimulus fade if they saw improvement. Could a 40 hour training really condense all of this down to meet the rigor of the exam? The competency was a breeze for most applicants after the training, but the test required some considerable additional studying if they had never practiced ABA clinical work before. So, I kept going with it, tweaking my training to give some obvious terminology repetition, gain some fluency with the practical in-person time during the 40 hour training. Pass rates went up. Not to 100%, but higher than the first version.

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Competency Exam as Feedback

The Competency exam step was really something interesting. It was where we saw the independent clinical skills of the RBT, therapeutically, with real clients, and measurable results. It had interobserver agreement (IOA) built into it. It hit on every topic of the task list, but on the other hand, an applicant could potentially display 1/4 skills and still pass a section which had its own challenges. But we got great feedback from the applicants during the process, how they saw the training, how comfortable and proficient they felt they were, how proficient they actually were.

The competency exam did allow for some limited roleplay where the in-vivo skills were impractical for the situation, but we used those sparingly. The real situations often challenged the applicants in ways that we the observers could not have thought up. There were teachable moments, there were even sometimes failures of the competency, but the next week they were back to try again.

We all learned a lot.

The trouble was that the competency exam was technically separate from the 40 hour training. Someone could come to apply for a position, require a competency exam, but already have a 40-hour certificate from an online training site. More often than not, when it came to skills like discrete trial training (DTT), or other skill acquisition routines that required more than objective maladaptive behavior measurement; these applicants would simply struggle. The prompting techniques were sloppy. “Least to most” was not in their vocabulary. “What is chaining?”– we’d hear. Orientation for the position was not enough, even with a legitimate online 40-hour training. This was also feedback. Was our training process over teaching? Was it too difficult or complex for what the RBT role was designed for? Were we demanding too much from our applicants during the RBT process? If so- how were we to measure that? And how exactly were these materials we were training with, and competency testing with, serving us so well with the applicant results on the RBT Exam through Pearson. Did these outside trainings have the same post-training measures? Did they use feedback? It would be impossible to survey them all. The answers came from somewhere else. The people who actually trained and tested with us the entire way through. Our first year RBTs. They did my training, they passed the competency, they passed the RBT Exam, and they were still working under qualified BCBAs directly in therapy every single day.

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Registered Behavior Technicians as Models in the RBT Training Process

If I were to say one thing that gave the greatest leap in how well we could get new applicants through the process, pass the material, retain the material, and pass both the competency exam (which was a little subjective based on BCBA), and the RBT Exam (which was the be-all objective computer test)- it was the inclusion of practiced Registered Behavior Techs in the 40-hour initial training process itself. They had the viewpoint that a veteran BCBA might not. They went through the most recent RBT Task List updates. They passed their renewal competencies. They knew what these new applicants would have to know not only to pass the competency, but the RBT exam, and prospective employment under a BCBA. They knew it all.  It was late 2017. We had feedback from applicants, we had feedback from post-exam takers, and now we had feedback from the VIP RBTs that were involved in training the new staff.

We had the process down to a well oiled machine. Sometimes we had people slip through the cracks. Sometime we had no calls and no shows. Sometimes people just had test anxiety and had to retake. But the actual practice and feedback from all pieces and perspectives at all levels helped shape it to the form I currently use today. It kept it fresh. I cut out some of the useless parts that didn’t seem to help as well as hands on practice- the discussion board posts. I added more hours into the 40 that were hands on. More terminology usage. More skill transfer checks. Same RBT Task List. Same BACB framework, but with a multi-level feedback and checks and balance system. Everybody had a part to play in the training of the applicants now, and those applicants held on to the things that they would teach to the next applicants that came through once they were RBTs.  Then those RBTs wanted to be BCBAs. Tens. Maybe close to a hundred now.

Three years. Enough time for a graduate program. Enough time for 1500 hours of supervision. Enough time for a BCBA exam cycle. I saw the next generation grow up with ABA right before my eyes.

I love it.

 

Questions? Comments? Leave them below.

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A Dad’s Role in ABA Therapy

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Don’t let the title fool you into thinking about this as a division. A father’s role in therapy is the same as a mother’s role in therapy, or any guardian in therapy. Responsibility, respect, love, and contribution. That should be a given. But sometimes it’s not always treated that way.

A recent intake for a client stuck with me. In this intake we were discussing prior ABA services for the child, and how parent training was done, how programs were generalized, and what seemed to fit best with their prior therapy experiences. It’s good to get an idea of these things. Parent participation is important in therapy. Incalculably important. In this particular one, the father mentioned their prior BCBA tended to discard his suggestions on targets, or socially relevant behavior goals. This caused a second or two of an awkward pause where the mother jumped in with a humorous aside about how the BCBA got along much better with her. The thing is, you could see that the way the professional handled that situation limited the father’s future enthusiasm to engage with the process. Some people could often mistake that as the “Dad being distant” cliche, and everything continues as these expectations play out. The problem is, we had a parent interested in a process, who had a voice, and that voice was silenced (ignored) and guided to a false consensus.

There are sometimes these unspoken things, or expectations, in parent roles. Some are traditional things that stick around, some are just artifacts of a bygone era that do more harm than good. Rooting those kinds of things out and making more functional alternatives tend to help the whole process along, relationship wise, responsibility wise, and makes people all together wiser about how they’re behaving and what the expectations are for how therapy will work. Parenting is sometimes rule governed after all. In therapy, professionals, like BCBAs, can sometimes make unspoken rules with unintended consequences. Inferences here. Ignoring something there. The feeling I was getting from this situation above was that there was not an equal input in the last experience with ABA therapy. So, with a little back-stepping to basics, I wrote down all the suggestions both parents had for goals, and funny thing was, Dad said more, and the Mom was surprised. We all learned something. It sounds like a small thing, but imagine what a trend like this could have been long term.

I suggest some very simple ground rules, which should be very obvious:

A client’s mother can have great ideas about therapy goals.

A client’s father can have great ideas about therapy goals.

Any other suitable guardian can have great ideas about therapy goals.

The client themselves can have great ideas about therapy goals.

 

Sometimes these suggestions don’t make sense to us as professionals, sometimes they aren’t age appropriate, sometimes they don’t fit current skill levels, but we don’t just ignore them and silence the people who are invested in the client’s well-being and growth. The whole point here is that there should not be this great distinction between what the Mom can contribute, and what the Dad can contribute. Once we assume one has better ideas, or more time, or more commitment, we do a disservice. Situations may play a role in what happens in actual practice, but those are going to be based on actualities, and not preconceptions. Preconceptions acted on as though they are obervations are not behavior analytic.

Now, there also may be things that we notice between male parents and female parents that are a little different. Sometimes these things are stereotypical. Sometimes the interests follow expectations that we see generalities of in our daily life. We need to make sure we don’t assume too much with these. Treat every situation as though you will be proven wrong. Treat every situation as though you will learn something. Assuming too much is where we always get it wrong. Overlooking things is not scientific.

Data Point of One (Personal Experience Talking)-  On a case, I had a father once who had a different view point on some social goals. There are some situations where the current social goals put the client in what the father called a “weak position” to their peers, based on some peer interactions that had gone a bad route.  At face value, we could either say “NO! The client is expressing themselves! That’s good! What happened wasn’t their fault! Get out of here with that victim blaming!” or, we could take a minute and understand the meaning and sentiment of that worry. The client could be taken advantage of. Social hierarchies exist. Kids take advantage of other kids. Kids hurt other kids. The specific operant behaviors we were teaching here might actually be reinforcing peer aggressive/hurtful verbal behavior. It’s possible. We should probably take a look. Behavior does not occur in a vacuum. It ended up being more complicated than that, but the analysis was warranted. It helped.

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Both parents can contribute. No matter the gender, no matter the outlook, most of the time if you find a parent who cares about their child enough to attend meetings, put the time into the trainings, and are enthusiastic about transferring and generalizing skills, you’ll find someone who can make a contribution to the growth and progress that can not be underestimated. The more hands on deck to getting the client the skills the better. We want more people on our team. We want more people showing love to the client to get them where they can thrive. A large support structure that loves and cares for an individual can make all the difference. We as professionals don’t get to decide who gets a voice and who doesn’t. That’s the lesson.

 

Comments? Questions? Thoughts? Leave them below.

 

Photos: http://www.pexels.com

Getting a Behavior Analyst House-Call

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Behavior Analysis is different from other psychological therapies. First, it is considered a natural science, meaning that its interventions rely in manipulation of real world variables that can be observed. This removes some of the stereotypical therapeutic long talks on a couch for viable behavior analytic therapy, but don’t sell behavior analysis short just yet.

The best evidence based practices in applied behavior analysis can be found in the natural environment, both studying participants behavior across those environments. It looks at the patterns of either prosocial behavior that can be therapeutically reinforced , and identification and reduction of maladaptive behaviors which get in the way of a fulfilling life.

One of the founding psychologists of behavior analysis, B.F Skinner, wrote in “Science and Human Behavior” (1951) about both the experimental setting for behavior analysis, and the paramount importance of seeing behavior in the environment in which it behaves. Doing tests in a lab may be helpful to get behavior analysts some solid and clinically controlled data sets, but it could never tell them if those skills or patterns would generalize a certain way in the world outside. There’s an importance to that. One of the founding dimensions of behavioral analytic science demands that the products have Generality meaning that the effects of therapy occur across environments and time. The benefits of therapy must outlast the clinical visits. This is helpful to the clients and consumers of behavior analytic therapy (ABA) for obvious reasons; you want the therapy to work in the places you need it most.

ABA practitioners use two broad tools to shape the direction of therapy a Behavior Plan to identify maintaining factors for maladaptive behaviors, and a Skill Acquisition Plan to build up the better patterns, skills, and coping behaviors to replace them. It is all about identifying the problems fast, and implementing actionable change. To that end, they need all the information they can get. Location matters.

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When it comes to the location of services, both for client/consumers, or perhaps the children of client/consumers, age becomes a factor in where this therapy takes place. In many cases this could happen in a school setting, or clinical center setting. This is a practical and commonplace service location for clients of therapy of younger ages. The school setting does have naturalistic opportunities that the clinical setting does not, and having the opportunity to receive therapy in both has its benefits. Clinical settings can focus on the skills that can be practiced with controllable conditions and stimuli that do not have the scheduling drawbacks of an academic setting. School settings have the benefit of natural peer environments, and natural contingencies for task demands if behaviors are dependent on those factors. What is often overlooked, however, is the home setting. I practiced as a School Counselor, and although certain types of therapy worked in the school setting and helped the students, once they walked out the door, the practitioner had no idea. It was all self-report from homes, and those can be misleading.

The benefits of having a house call from a behavior analyst (BCBA), and getting ABA therapy at a residence, is that the practitioner can see the conditions outside of the clinical and academic sphere that may be relevant to either stifling patterns of prosocial behavior, or feeding into the maladaptive behaviors. Sometimes the home environment is rich in information and reinforcement history that an analyst can work with. Routines, schedules, and practice can all be built into a home visit to work on the things that need the most work. Sometimes the privacy and comfort of the home also helps with going through dry runs of new skills without the social pressure of the outside world. When a Behavior Analyst comes in through the front door they are interested in getting to the bottom of the problem behaviors, teach socially relevant alternatives, and most of all, to help. I’ve seen first hand how just a change to familiar scenery can open up dialogue and planning for therapy directions that might be uncomfortable, or even embarrassing elsewhere, so never underestimate the power of an environment change on behavior.

Some Practitioners might not be able to deliver consistent services in the home, but even one occasional house call, one single visit, could open the lens on new conceptualizations on the therapeutic framework. I’ve experienced this countless times. As a practitioner, you think you know what’s going on, and then you’re in the client’s place of residence and a big piece of the puzzle falls into place. This is advice to any behavior analytic practitioner; if you have the opportunity to make that house call, don’t wait. It could change your entire idea of what is going on and save hours on dead end functional analysis hypotheses. House calls can also get the broader family involved with services that they might have otherwise been unfamiliar with. This opens up dialogue, and questions, which could lead to greater support both inside and outside of the home. There is a well known tenant in behavior analysis called dissemination. That means, this natural science works best when people know about it and understand it. Spreading the word, and being correct in the delivery of what ABA therapy is, is important. There is no short supply of misinformation out there. A home visit with the family, willing to participate, can break down the barriers of hesitancy, and show just how effective and useful this therapy can be.

So potential clients and consumers? If you can swing it, call for a home visit.

Behavior Analysts and ABA practitioners? Don’t be afraid of house-calls. You’ll be kicking yourself for not doing it sooner.

Questions? Comments? Thoughts? Leave them below.

Interest in ABA therapy for resources in getting services, or practicing? Feel free to email the address below.

References:

Cooper, John O, Heron Timothy E.. Heward, William L.. (2018). APPLIED BEHAVIOR ANALYSIS. S.l.: PEARSON.

Skinner, B. F., & Skinner, B. F. (1951). Science And Human Behavior. Riverside: Free Press

Photo Credits: http://www.Pexels.com

Beyond Good, Evil, Freedom, and Dignity

BF.NA comparison of concepts from B.F Skinner’s “Beyond Freedom and Dignity” and Friedrich Nietzsche’s “Beyond Good and Evil”.

 

There was something about these two books that piqued my interest, and it was not until reading them again, together, that I saw that the similarities went beyond the titles. For those who have not been introduced to these individuals and their contributions; Friedrich Nietzsche was a 19th-century philosopher known for dealing with topics of existentialism and nihilism, and Burrhus Frederic (B.F) Skinner was a 20th-century psychologist and behaviorist interested in the natural science of behavior. Aside from the similarities in their names, and the names of the titles of their two works, few parallels have been drawn between these figures. I think there is a great deal of overlap, conceptually, between these two books, and although the conclusions of both authors diverge quite differently, the path and observations on the world and history are strikingly alike.

When it comes to B.F Skinner, I have been interested in the academic and philosophic lineage of his work, and existentialist philosophers have never been a reference or topic I’ve noticed before. Pragmatism, yes, and Roy A. Moxley (2004) did an amazing piece on the influences of Charles Sanders Pierce & John Dewey on Skinner’s conceptualization of the three-term contingency and broader behavioral selectionist theory. No Nietzsche. Not even once as far as I could tell. It raises some questions with me, then, in how these two books are so similarly constructed. Both seem to tackle a very similar topic, broad as it is, the actions of people, and their morality (which comes very close to dignity, in Skinner’s usage, in my estimation). They start with Western history and philosophy and even reference the same ancient Greek precepts as foundations to build their arguments and points from. Both appear to lead up to their current history and take into account their contemporary issues when presenting their philosophical conclusions. I am not a professional book reviewer or a literary scholar, so this process of literature exploration is outside of my wheelhouse, but I would like to lay out some pieces from both of these works to open the door comparatively. Both of these authors picked the right word “Beyond”. Both works present a series of presuppositions in their contemporary times and aim to progress past them rationally.

Skinner and Nietzsche: The Problems of Their Times

Context is important when reading and interpreting both of these authors. They were both big thinkers. Brilliant. Both wildly controversial. That tends to mean they had opinions, unpopular ones, but ones that they put out into the world rigorously supported by the assertions in their work.

Nietzsche was born in 1844, in Germany, and served in the Franco-Prussian war where he received grievous injuries that he never recovered from. “Beyond Good and Evil” was written after that. After the war, he wrote on the contemporary topics that he believed were essential to human progress and critiqued entrenched falsehoods that he believed were subverting people’s potential and lives. Morality was a big subject for him. Unlike other existentialist philosophers of his time, he was not so backseat and uncertain about it. He proposed that morality was separate from the Western religious belief systems and structures that were entrenched in society, and believed that willpower had the power to transcend these societal limitations. Traditional morality (societal and religious), to him, was making people weak. They needed to improve themselves, with their own morality and their own will, to be strong. In “Beyond Good and Evil” (1886), Nietzsche suggests that the words “Good” and “Evil” were malleable concepts that change over time, and were not fixed. Fear was a motivator for morality, he proposed, and that there was a mistake in believing that “mass morality” or the moral beliefs of the groups/society had any higher importance than an individual’s personal morality. Hold onto that thought.

Skinner’s work in “Beyond Freedom and Dignity” (1972) came from a very different time historically. In the 1970’s, the Cold War raised probabilities of worldwide escalation and catastrophe. In the first chapter alone, Skinner broached the topics of overpopulation, global starvation, nuclear war, and disease. Skinner did some philosophical work himself, but his main focus was as a psychologist and behaviorist interested in focusing on psychology as a natural science, to see human behavior as measurable and observable, and aim scientific pursuit as a “technology of behavior” to solve the problems of our time. In many ways, it was a utopian idea, and he expands on that vision in his fictional work “Walden Two”. Engineering society with this science was within humanity’s grasp. Skinner looked broadly at the ills of the world, and believed that there were some pieces of cultural and societal misunderstanding that was holding it back. Like Nietzsche, his observations strayed away from metaphysical interpretation. Skinner believed that natural sciences like physics and biology had made the leaps that psychology had not. People were still hung up on antiquated interpretations of human behavior. To Skinner, it was the environment and history of reinforcement/punishment that could be used to describe human action. He believed that mentalistic concepts such as “inner capacities” were circular, and lead to no useful distinction of a phenomenon or process that could benefit scientific discovery. Human behavior could be shaped by environment, and act on the environment as an operant. His work aimed to remove the ideas of absolute human freedom, and dignity in the sense of viewing the human being as the “fully autonomous man”; these were not practical representations of human behavior to Skinner. Full autonomy, free choice, with no input from the environment was nonsensical, which begged the question as to how free will was actually free when it was under the control of environmental stimuli, to begin with. Conceptualizing human behavior under the contingencies that Skinner proposed, including reinforcement and punishment, removes those antiquated and pre-scientific distinctions, and by removing them, people would no longer be under any false illusions and could take control of their behavior.

 

Where They Come Together, and Where They Differ

Both Nietzsche and Skinner’s line of thought come from a disagreement with the broader idea of humanity by contemporary society. For Nietzsche, it was a societal and religious misunderstanding of morality. For Skinner, it was a societal and historical pre-scientific misunderstanding of human behavior. Both “Beyond Good and Evil” and “Beyond Freedom and Dignity” do touch on similar points by their end: human behavior and morality. Both authors hit the same nail in two very different ways, both using historical context to do so and their own interpretation and findings from their own work and lives. There are some interesting divergences too, mainly on the topic of science and empirical materialism. B.F Skinner was very much interested in the material world and observable findings, which nearly 100 years prior, Nietzsche also had to deal with. In Nietzsche’s time, the late 19th century, these concepts were still budding, but rational observation of the world and the field of psychology was relatively recent in the form of psychoanalysis. He describes some of his ideas on the topic of science and the metaphysical soul in “Beyond Good and Evil”:

“Between ourselves, it is not at all necessary to get rid of “the soul” thereby, and thus renounce one of the oldest and most venerated hypotheses—as happens frequently to the clumsiness of naturalists, who can hardly touch on the soul without immediately losing it. But the way is open for new acceptations and refinements of the soul-hypothesis; and such conceptions as “mortal soul,” and “soul of subjective multiplicity,” and “soul as social structure of the instincts and passions,” want henceforth to have legitimate rights in science. In that the NEW psychologist is about to put an end to the superstitions which have hitherto flourished with almost tropical luxuriance around the idea of the soul, he is really, as it were, thrusting himself into a new desert and a new distrust—it is possible that the older psychologists had a merrier and more comfortable time of it; eventually, however, he finds that precisely thereby he is also condemned to INVENT—and, who knows? perhaps to DISCOVER the new.

Psychologists should bethink themselves before putting down the instinct of self-preservation as the cardinal instinct of an organic being. A living thing seeks above all to DISCHARGE its strength—life itself is WILL TO POWER; self-preservation is only one of the indirect and most frequent RESULTS thereof. “- Nietzsche (1886)

You can see here that Nietzsche is still strongly proposing that even in the area of science, psychology, and the soul, that willpower is an overlooked and undeniably important factor. I do find an interesting subpoint in there, in the process of invention and discovery by new psychologists, which nearly a century later would include Skinner himself. Although Nietzsche was strongly against the idea of science reducing everything to material reality, and I believe would take strong opposition to Skinner’s ideas on mentalistic representations of “soul” and morality, there is a great deal they share in their ways of tackling broader problems of their time, and interpretations of humanity as open to the future and unfixed. Humanity, to them, was not something that is and always will be the same. For very different reasons, Skinner and Nietzsche had a strange optimism of humanity in the wide and open possibility that either willpower, for Nietzsche, or contingencies for Skinner, could do for humanity as a whole.

B.F Skinner took a look at human morality himself in “Beyond Freedom and Dignity” when exploring the concept of cultural control, or behavioral control from the contingencies of a broader group, which included cultural, or rule-governed behavior and walked the line of evolution in both cultural and biological aspects both effecting one another to form a morality that was also “created” in a sense by evolution and sensitivity to cultural factors of control. Biological evolution making us sensitive to the evolution of cultural contingency. It’s a point that packs a punch.

“The practical question, which we have already considered, is how remote consequences can be made effective. Without help a person acquires very little moral or ethical behaviour under either natural or social contingencies. The group supplies supporting contingencies when it describes its practices in codes or rules which tell the individual how to behave and when it enforces those rules with supplementary contingencies. Maxims, proverbs, and other forms of folk wisdom give a person reasons for obeying rules. Governments and religions formulate the contingencies they maintain somewhat more explicitly, and education imparts rules which make it possible to satisfy both natural and social contingencies without being directly exposed to them.

This is all part of the social environment called a culture, and the main effect, as we have seen, is to bring the individual under the control of the remoter consequences of his behaviour. The effect has had survival value in the process of cultural evolution, since practices evolve because those who practise them are as a result better off. There is a kind of natural morality in both biological and cultural evolution. Biological evolution has made the human species more sensitive to its environment and more skilful in dealing with it. Cultural evolution was made possible by biological evolution, and it has brought the human organism under a much more sweeping control of the environment.”-Skinner (1972)

Two very different views, both denying a common cultural interpretation or framework for psychology, human behavior, and morality, but leaving a wide berth for future change, that in a sense is within humanity’s realm of control. I found those two shades of interpretation to be incredibly interesting, especially in morality. Remember that Nietzsche was well aware of the impact of “group morality”, and advised against its importance over the individual’s morality. Skinner also makes a nod to group forms of morality and seems to believe we are uniquely and biologically sensitive to it. I would love to have heard a conversation between the two of them on that. This is just the tip of the iceberg too. I suggest anyone who found their interest piqued to read both works and come to conclusions of your own.

By Christian Sawyer, M.Ed., BCBA

Thoughts? Comments? Questions? Leave them below!

 

References:

Moxley, R. A. (2004). Pragmatic selectionism: The philosophy of behavior analysis. The Behavior Analyst Today, 5(1), 108-125.

Nietzsche, F. N. (2007). Beyond good and evil. Place of publication not identified: Filiquarian Pub.

Ozmon, H. (2012). Philosophical foundations of education. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson.

Skinner, B. F. (1971). Beyond freedom and dignity. New York: Knopf.

 

Image Credits: Wikipedia

Overcoming the Fear of Failure

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This is a topic I see very often in clinical practice. Not only that, but it affects everyone at one point in their lives. When I am working on skills with my clients who are able to vocalize and express these fears, I see a pattern inherent to everyone who has ever encountered something new. In Applied Behavior Analytic research, sometimes we like to operationalize this phenomenon as “aversion”, or “presentation of an aversive novel stimulus”. Whatever we call it, it is the same thing. Engaging in something new and uncomfortable in a goal directed way is a challenge that we have to confront. Clinically, I prefer to have the individual guide their own process and become aware of their own specific aversions and behaviors. It makes the practice of confronting these stimuli as self-initiated, and self-guided as possible.

I prefer the word confront because it has a better ring to it than “desensitization”. When it comes to coming face to face with a stimulus or situation where we have to either perform or adapt, confront just seems to carry the operant theme more than the passive “desensitizing”. Failure is a scary and aversive thing.  We can define it as a condition where our operant behaviors are unsuccessful. Efforts which are not reinforced. It’s perfectly natural to want to avoid a contingency with no reinforcement. When we face something we are afraid of, or a new situation where we might not be sure we can succeed; we are facing that fear of failure. Maybe it is a fear of not being able to complete a required activity of success, or putting yourself out there socially and being received amiably. There is something universally human to that kind of hesitation. In ABA we call that an “escape-maintained” behavior, and when the behavior serves no real purpose to protect us, it tends to hold us back. When failure is that fear, then we tend not to even try.

In clinical practice, be it Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) or any other Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT) the advice is all the same; it takes presentation (and sometimes repeated presentation) of that stimulus in a controlled situation until that aversive situation becomes neutral. This is called controlled exposure. That is where the real progress happens. When someone meets that situation, faces it, and can come through the other side fearing it less (or finding it less aversive), it is a step in the right direction. You may also hear the term “graduated exposure”, which denotes the concept of fading in stimuli or related stimuli in from least to most in order to acclimate in steps. A common example is if someone is scared of spiders or animals, they would be shown a picture first across the room, and gradually get closer to the picture before moving on to any examples of the real deal. Habituation is the term commonly used for becoming used to something, to the point where the stimulus becomes tolerable, if not neutral.

These same principles can be used when actively trying to overcome a fear of failure too. Generally, we come across things that are new to us. These can be either unconditioned stimuli (things we are “naturally” fearful of) and conditioned stimuli (things we have learned to be fearful of). Public speaking in front of large groups is an example of an unconditioned stimulus (for some, but it can be conditioned for others) while taking tests is a common example of a conditioned stimulus. Both present a challenge that we have to act on (engage in operant behavior) in order to be reinforced. Be it someone you are helping in clinical practice, or yourself, you can use these same foundational principles of graduated exposure. If the situation is not reinforcing in itself, keep in mind that you can always improvise your own reinforcement (reward) in order to make adapting easier. Using reinforcement alongside challenging situations can make them less aversive through a process called conditioning. The act of practicing this process on yourself is called self-management.

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Consider these steps when trying to formulate your own graduated exposure:

  1. Find the situation which you feel is important to engage in or achieve (Target).
  2. Break it down into it’s smallest components (Task Analysis). 
  3. Pinpoint which part, exactly, is causing the most aversion or fear (Aversive Stimulus). 
  4. Document, to the best of your ability, the behaviors you engage in along the way (Data Recording/Self-Monitoring). Do these behaviors help, or do they hinder? 
  5. Practice engaging with a facsimile or similar situation where the stimulus or stakes are not so high (ie. If public speaking is the target try practicing a speech in front of 1 person first). 
  6. Reinforce (reward) any toleration or approximation of success! This is the most important step. 
  7. Gradually shape these practice simulations to simulate the “real” objective as closely as possible. 
  8. Do not rush it. Challenge yourself, but be mindful that this is a process, not a race.

Take it slow. Document everything you can. Learn. Improve. The process is where the fear of failure is overcome. Often it takes more than one contact with the situation to get accustomed. I’ve used this process on myself more times than I can count. As a person who has found large exams, public speaking to crowds, public competition, and even engagement in new and unfamiliar situations; the end-goal is all the same. It is something that is worth facing because the outcome is a socially important, or beneficial to us. The aversion, or fear, is not helpful or adaptive. Facing these situations and designing the process oneself is empowering.

Self-Management is one of the greatest strategies in ABA. If someone can find a way to manage their own behavior successfully then it is the ideal situation. Self-monitoring and self-management also have the unique bonus of being able to handle what Behaviorists call “covert behaviors” (thoughts, etc). Covert behaviors are things that are not visible to outside observers but are still able to be tracked and recorded by the person experiencing them. Accuracy and specificity is important here, and can vastly improve a personal insight into their own patterns of behavior. This doesn’t have to be a single person job either! Even though someone can monitor their own behavior, they can also bring trusted friends/family/cooperators into the process of reinforcement and help to keep them on track.

Independence, and knowledge about yourself, while overcoming a challenge.

What could be better?

 

Comments? Questions? Leave them below!

 

References:

  1. Cooper, J. O., Heron, T. E., & Heward, W. L. (1987). Applied behavior analysis. Columbus: Merrill Pub. Co.
  2. Wood, S. E., Wood, E. R., & Wood, E. R. (1996). The world of psychology. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

Photo Credits:

  1. pexels.com Pexels Stock Photos

 

Behavioral Therapy (ABA): Beyond Ethical

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This is an opinion piece which was inspired by a few sources recently, which I believe although anecdotal, has some insight from 10+ years of doing therapy, both behavior analytic and counseling. I was reading an article that came up online, one of those anti-ABA groups that search the internet selectively, for studies that support their views on this specific type of therapy. This article in specific was called “Evidence of increased PTSD symptoms in autistics exposed to applied behavior analysis”, and it seemed independently researched and not peer reviewed, whose findings were based off of subjective surveys, with questions worded negatively suggesting inherent bias. I am not here to review it. Suffice to say, I found it unconvincing, but it did raise questions. What if there were practitioners out there that were causing harm? Subscribing to a set of ethics is not too difficult, but if you don’t know why, you might lose sight of the principle of it being there; to do the right thing.

In Applied Behavior Analysis, there are rigorous codes of ethics. Codes that have to be studied and make up a large portion of the board examination, and beyond that, ever re-certification cycle requires hours of continuing education on the topic. However, I find, that it’s still hypothetically possible to meet all of that ethical rigor, and still fall short of doing a proper job of maintaining a positive and supportive relationship with clients. Nothing inherently dangerous, or harmful, per say, but still leave a neutral or negative view of the experience down the line. I don’t think any practitioner, BCBA or not, would want something like that if they could help it.

A famous humanist psychologist named Carl Rogers came up with one of the best precepts for therapy I’ve ever heard of. He called it ; Unconditional positive regard. It is exactly as it sounds; acceptance and respect from the clinician towards the client, no matter what. It doesn’t have to be continuous genuine joy, or merriment for every second of each session, but it does require the clinician to have one thing if they want to keep this therapeutic relationship going, and expect it to work well; positive regard for that individual no matter what happens in that session. Mainly, because all therapy, even ABA, is a relationship. It requires two people, or even more, and those interactions are in a sense what we model for our clients. It’s important that they know that they are respected, and the door will be open every time for them, unconditionally, and it has to be genuine.

There are situations that can cause some friction in any therapeutic relationship. Every single therapeutic field has it. With ABA it takes on a more difficult form, I think, especially when some of our clients do not have language, or any interest in forming a rapport, or even interest in any other person at all, therapist included. Sometimes clients can get aggressive; both verbally and physically, and sometimes therapists take on both kinds of scars. It’s not easy work. Sometimes that unconditional positive regard takes some effort. Behaviorally, you could call that all of the operants in your “positive regard” repertoire. Maybe it’s how you look at the client, or how you speak, or the tone you use, or even the direction of how you present your session. If it’s not aiming for the betterment of your client, then that’s the wrong direction.

Another concept from Carl Rogers is, the client has to want to change, or engage in therapy for it to work. B.F Skinner also talks about this type of engagement in his book “Science and Human Behavior”, but from a behavioral standpoint it all comes down to the same thing: positive reinforcement. There has to be something there that the client wants, for this change to take place. Don’t punish when you can teach instead. With non-verbal clients, sometimes they might not know why they are there, or understand what exactly is going on; we can’t say. It’s unspoken, and we can’t guess at it, but what we can do is make sure that their process is one that leads them towards that independent and socially significant lifestyle without harm, interpersonal or otherwise. Behavior change is hard. The targets we introduce, even if we aim them for exactly their level of proficiency, will challenge our clients, and we can not underestimate the effort in that challenge. We have to use positive reinforcement that works, and is strong enough to make the client “happy” to keep trying. That is ethical, but more than that, is the right thing to do. In ABA we are taught to avoid “default technologies”; unnecessary punitive procedures of disciplining, or appeals to authority. I can not imagine a condition where we would need to make a target where a client does something solely “because __ says so”. Would we accept that kind of contingency without questioning it? Of course not. As practitioners, we have to look beyond the short term and away from the older forms of discipline to help individuals go as far as they can in their lives. Long term strategies kept in mind while working on the short term, and while all that is going on… unconditional positive regard, positive reinforcement, respect for our clients and respect for what we are doing.

I believe this form of therapy is a force of good, and progress, in this world. It is evidence based, and supported tirelessly by decades of researchers, for the purpose of getting it right. When we use a therapeutic technique, we back it up. Every time. And always for the betterment of the client. That’s the point of removing the guesswork and ambiguity of the techniques; so we can shape it to work for that individual. We make it applied. Practitioners are trained endlessly on single subject designs for the purpose of avoiding the rut of comparing one person to another statistically. That puts the blinders on. The individual client comes to us for their progress, not in regard to their cohort. From that perspective, every individual does deserve that level of respect and regard for their future, and their life. As a practitioner, that’s a large responsibility, and it takes going beyond just ethics. It’s not just following a guideline. It takes doing the right thing, and knowing why.

Sources:

COOPER, JOHN O.. HERON, TIMOTHY E.. HEWARD, WILLIAM L. (2018). APPLIED BEHAVIOR ANALYSIS. S.l.: PEARSON

Rogers, Carl (1995). A Way of Being. Houghton Mifflin; 1 edition (1980)

Skinner, B. F. (1953). Science And Human Behavior. Riverside: Free Press.

Image Credits:

Clark Tibbs- unsplash.com

Symbols and Notation in Behavior Analysis

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Symbols and notation in behavior analytic research is fascinating. I find myself thrilled coming across the diagrams in the professional literature and getting so much from so little. A few letters, an arrow, a nice Δ (delta); it’s beautiful. If you are familiar with journals like the Behavior Analyst, The Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis (JABA), or The Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior, you might have encountered some of these symbols. Now what these symbols and notations do, is help take large concepts like a Response, or Stimulus, or Reinforcement and Punishment, and lay them out into an orderly system of presentation without the need for paragraphs of explanation. Let’s look at this one for example:

SR

It shows some very common symbolic notation.

S, stands for stimulus.

The arrow, stands for “followed by” or “elicits” depending on whether it’s operant or respondent.

R, stands for response.

These are the foundational pieces of behavior analytic symbol and notation. I’ve created a chart below to show you these and some of the other variations you might come across.

Symbols

We can see some interesting variations between the notation symbols, mainly when it comes to how we use them in terms of conditioned and unconditioned. When we are talking about stimuli and responses that are not reinforcers/punishers, we use the abbreviations; S for Stimulus, R for Response, C for conditioned, and U for unconditioned. The status of the stimulus or response as either conditioned/unconditioned always comes as the first letter of the initialism.

When we talk about reinforcement, punishment, discriminative, and delta, the S for stimulus always comes first as a capital letter, followed by the type of stimulus in superscript. Now, unlike the basic conditioned/unconditioned stimuli/responses above, these superscripts use capitalization to distinguish between a conditioned reinforcer/punisher, and an unconditioned reinforcer/punisher, so remember to keep an eye out for that. Unconditioned punishers and reinforcers use a capital letter in superscript, while conditioned punishers and reinforcers use a lower case letter in superscript. Following the conditioned/unconditioned formatting, we distinguish between “positive” and “negative” by using + for positive reinforcers and punishers, and – for negative reinforcers and punishers.

This is very helpful when we want to nail down exactly what kind of contingencies we are seeing. You may remember that reinforcement is a process where a behavior is more likely to occur in the presence of an antecedent, because it has been reinforced in the past in those conditions. What that kind of reinforcer was, is important. Was it unconditioned? Things like food, water, etc. The basics things we as humans seek out naturally.  They are very effective, but can become subject to satiation. Now what about an unconditioned reinforcer? Something trained, or taught, through past experience. Money is a common one, tokens as well, or even art. The distinction between conditioned and unconditioned is no small gap, conceptually, so we want to be clear when we read these symbols as to what we are actually talking about.

Now that we have the symbols, let’s combine what we know to examine this example!

SR+

We would read this as, a Stimulus (S) is followed by a Response (R) which is followed by the presentation of an Unconditioned Positive Reinforcer SR+.

What kind of examples can you come up with? Leave them below!

 

 

 

Sources:

COOPER, JOHN O.. HERON, TIMOTHY E.. HEWARD, WILLIAM L. (2018). APPLIED BEHAVIOR ANALYSIS. S.l.: PEARSON.

Sundel, M., & Sundel, S. S. (2018). Behavior change in the human services: behavioral and cognitive principles and applications. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, Inc.

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