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Why We Are Still Not Acting to Save the World: the Upward Challenge of a Post-Skinnerian Behavior Science

Abstract

Basic research on derived stimulus relations reveals many effects that may be useful in understanding and resolving significant and complex societal problems. Applied research on derived stimulus relations has done little to fulfill this promise, focusing instead mainly on simple demonstrations of well-known phenomena. We trace the research tradition of derived stimulus relations from laboratory to wide-scale implementation, and put forward several suggestions for how to progress effective and impactful research on derived relational responding to issues of immense social importance. To advance a science of behavior from relative social obscurity to the developing world-saving technologies, we must evaluate our own behavior as scientists in the grander social context.

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Notes

  1. These world issues are a still present concern, as we are again witnessing nuclear threats, resource depletion now carries the added concern of short and long term environmental sustainability, and the global population continues to rise.

  2. As a point of clarification, we are not proposing that contingencies, immediate and delayed, do not influence behavior of verbally sophisticated humans, as recent research has shown that quantitative contingency-based models (e.g., matching law) predict several instances of human behavior (Hantula & Crowell, 2016; Hantula, Brockman, & Smith, 2008); rather, that both contingency governance and rule-governance must both be considered for a complete account (see Belisle, Paliliunas, Dixon, & Speelman, in press, for a study with recreational gamblers that synthesizes matching and derived rule following).

  3. As noted by Hayes and Sanford (2014), over 25 years of research on equivalence responding in animals has failed to find systematic and replicable evidence that non-human animals can demonstrate symmetrical or transitive relational responding, which can be readily demonstrated by human infants, suggesting that language defined consistent with this and related accounts (RFT) describe a potentially exclusively human behavior.

  4. Also referred to as transformation of function (e.g., Dymond & Rehfeldt, 2000), for reasons that will be addressed shortly.

  5. With this expansion came a change in vocabulary. Sidman (e.g., 1994) had referred to such phenomena as symmetry (when two stimuli can be identified as “going together” regardless of which is presented) and equivalence (as described above). In RFT these are replaced by mutual entailment and combinatorial entailment, terms that are more readily adaptable to a variety of types of derived stimulus relations; for further explanation see Hayes, et al. (2001).

  6. In effect, “degrees of separation,” defined as the number of steps of direct experiential association separating indirectly-associated stimuli.

  7. Whether presumably nonverbal nonhumans show any of these effects is a matter still under debate; see Galizio (this issue) for a representative discussion.

  8. A possible objection is that, whatever advances may have been made in behavior science, the means do not exist to distribute behavioral technology on a wide scale. We regard that objection as justification for a lack of ambition, or at least ingenuity, and point to promising examples of how behavioral technology might be adapted to mechanisms that support broad implementation. For instance, Root, Rehfeldt, and Castro (under review) described an online equivalence-based training system, in which instruction was presented online using a university learner management system, and generated better learning outcomes than traditional teaching practices. Rehfeldt, Jung, Aguirre, Nichols, and Root (2016) took the approach a step further by creating the first Massive Open Online Course (an electronically-delivered course available to anyone, anywhere) in which the instruction was designed with derived stimulus relations in mind. To date, unfortunately, few have attempted such in-the-trenches applications targeting large numbers of potential beneficiaries.

  9. For example, ACT addresses the role of unproductive rule-governance in human problems. RFT provides insights about how stimulus relations contribute to rule development and rule following.

  10. Cooper et al. (2007, p. 398) describe equivalence as the demonstration of reflexivity, symmetry, and transitivity, noting only that following A = B and B=C in a linear arrangement, that the transitive A = C is needed for equivalence; however, as noted by Sidman and Tailby (1982), both A = C and the bidirectional C = A are required.

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Dixon, M.R., Belisle, J., Rehfeldt, R.A. et al. Why We Are Still Not Acting to Save the World: the Upward Challenge of a Post-Skinnerian Behavior Science. Perspect Behav Sci 41, 241–267 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s40614-018-0162-9

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Keywords

  • Stimulus relations
  • Relational frame theory
  • Verbal behavior
  • Social behavior