The Fuzzy Concept of Applied Behavior Analysis Research

Abstract

A seven-dimension framework, introduced by Baer, Wolf, and Risley in an iconic 1968 article, has become the de facto gold standard for identifying “good” work in applied behavior analysis. We examine the framework’s historical context and show how its overarching attention to social relevance first arose and then subsequently fueled the growth of applied behavior analysis. Ironically, however, in contemporary use, the framework serves as a bottleneck that prevents many socially important problems from receiving adequate attention in applied behavior analysis research. The core problem lies in viewing the framework as a conjoint set in which “good” research must reflect all seven dimensions at equally high levels of integrity. We advocate a bigger-tent version of applied behavior analysis research in which, to use Baer and colleagues’ own words, “The label applied is determined not by the procedures used but by the interest society shows in the problem being studied.” Because the Baer-Wolf-Risley article expressly endorses the conjoint-set perspective and devalues work that falls outside the seven-dimension framework, pitching the big tent may require moving beyond that article as a primary frame of reference for defining what ABA should be.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    For example, compare Einstein’s theory of general relativity, which for more than a century has withstood every empirical challenge (Halpern 2015), to Golgi’s (1873) notion of the nervous system as a single continuous network of tissue, which had already been disconfirmed by the time the work was recognized with a 1906 Nobel Prize.

  2. 2.

    Or “importance.” Debate could be waged over what defines “importance” but for present purposes, we invoke it in the generic sense of Baer et al. (“the interest which society shows in the problems being studied;” p. 92) and assume that, as with pornography, observers will know it when they see it.

  3. 3.

    History is written by the victors, and we will show that this was not the experimental-control camp. How members of this camp felt about the central controversy of their era we could not ascertain from the archival record and thus must rely on secondary accounts.

  4. 4.

    So he installed one—well, a response panel, anyway—into an air crib in which his daughter spent some time (Lindsley, 2002). From this, resulted the first free-operant cumulative record obtained from humans (Lindsley & Lindsley, 1952), as well as a photo in a national newsmagazine and criticism from people who thought the air crib to be inhumane (Lindsley, 2002). Such adverse publicity magnified the urgency that Baer et al. would later feel about distancing ABA from the experimental-control approach.

  5. 5.

    To be clear, we are aware of no evidence that Skinner had similar concerns about field extensions of behavior analysis, which he had anticip'ated in Walden Two (1948) and Science and Human Behavior (1953), and about which he subsequently commented approvingly in Reflections on Behaviorism and Society (1978). Moreover, the BWR framework, with its emphasis on empirical evidence of socially important change, can be interpreted as a hedge against the worst of the clinical drift about which Skinner warned.

  6. 6.

    Also with narrative interpretations of everyday phenomena. “We saw too many examples of behavioral researchers behaving like other psychologists and casually extrapolating their findings to account for things they actually knew little or nothing about,” wrote Risley (2001, p. 271), who dismissed Skinner’s (1953) Science and Human Behavior (1953) as, “three chapters [that] outlined an agenda for an inductive, empirical approach to a science of human behavior… followed by 26 chapters of a deductive, logical explanation of uninvestigated human behavior” (p. 271).

  7. 7.

    Though a nuanced one. Risley (2001) wrote that he and other early converts to the social-validity camp, “did not think that laboratory research findings are unimportant to human affairs -- quite the contrary” (p. 270). But they felt that ABA’s earliest pioneers had freed them from misconceptions derived from studying laboratory research: “Their most important ‘breakthrough’ contribution,” wrote Risley, “was the demonstration that naively simple things were actually powerfully important in the real lives of people. You see, at the time we were all talking about the principles of learning and behavior but we thought they would actually be expressed only in complex, multiply-interactive combinations in the ongoing actions of people in real life.... We assumed that their role could only be isolated and analyzed after carefully designed histories in specially arranged settings -- in other words, in laboratories” (p. 267). But in viewing the results of the first field interventions, “We had never seen or imagined such power! We were all amazed at the speed and magnitude of the effects of simple adjustments of such a ubiquitous variable as adult attention... [This was] the most influential discovery of modern psychology” (p. 268). Baer et al.’s zeal for the social-validity perspective was understandable.

  8. 8.

    Regarding field workers who engaged in Conceptual matters “so briefly that it is easy to miss” (p. 89), Baer (1981) advanced the analogy of the practicing physician, who he acknowledged did not operate much in the realm of the Conceptual, but who he praised for the utility of his, “very effective packages, his routine algorithm for when to apply them, and his simple empirical willingness to try another of them without amazement if the first choice did not work” (p. 87). Baer suggested that critics overestimated the Conceptual complexity of many applied problems. To those working in the field, he said, “a huge amount of the behavioral trouble that they can see in the world looks remarkably to them like the suddenly simple consequence of unapplied positive reinforcement or misapplied positive reinforcement” (p. 88), so “only the simplest, already validated, and most general of behavior-analytic principles are meant to be at issue in most applications” (p. 89).

  9. 9.

    Darwin apparently did not coin these terms but is remembered for applying them to biologists who employed relatively loose versus stringent criteria for distinguishing among species (see http://ncse.com/blog/2014/11/whence-lumpers-splitters-0016004).

  10. 10.

    Although suspicions of group-based research run deep, clearly there are differing opinions about the value of various designs (e.g., Madden, 2013). Our purpose in the present essay is not to debate the relative merits of different designs, but merely to point out that when evidence on a topic of societal importance is lacking from one source, it may be useful to examine evidence from other sources.

  11. 11.

    A reviewer of the present article advanced this position.

  12. 12.

    Such reflexive invoking of the BWR framework probably first arose as a side effect of the source article doubling as both “anthopologist’s account” (Baer et al., 1987, p. 313) and journal mission statement. As a result of the latter, the BWR “prescriptions, widely followed by contributors [who were] deeply interested in having their papers accepted in JABA, became assumed as the normal way of doing research in the field” (Carpintero Capell et al., 2014, p. 1727). To avoid overstating our case, however, we note that some of our papers that were evaluated in this fashion eventually were published because one reviewer advocated for them or because an action editor imposed a more expansive view of what counts as Applied. Clearly, differences of opinion exist, but nevertheless, BWR-framed objections have arisen too often for us to view them as isolated occurrences.

  13. 13.

    The astute reader will notice that some of our examples were published in applied behavior analysis journals. More telling is that many were not.

  14. 14.

    Jefferson’s colorful language (“barbarous”) is reproduced here for historical accuracy, not to suggest any disrespect for Baer, Wolf, or Risley. We employ this quote in the spirit of Hayes’ (2001) observation that, in intellectual pursuits, one moves forward or stagnates.

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Critchfield, T.S., Reed, D.D. The Fuzzy Concept of Applied Behavior Analysis Research. BEHAV ANALYST 40, 123–159 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1007/s40614-017-0093-x

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Keywords

  • Applied behavior analysis
  • History
  • Historiography
  • Translation
  • Social validity