One onlooker, Dr. Robin Drew, did muse about what Lisa might do with what she had learned – so far. His graduation with a PhD from the same department had occurred nearly 20 years earlier. Since then, he had worked in public schools, state agencies, and several units of higher education. In those settings, he had applied a great deal of what he learned in graduate school, but he was acutely aware his work experiences had taught him skills and perspectives he never imagined during doctoral studies. In fact, many times over the years he had said to friends, “I feel a PhD is only a ‘license’ to become one. That is, you learn principles and methods in graduate school, but you learn what they mean for society and how to use them appropriately as you apply them in the real world.”
Lisa told Frasier she considered concepts to be wonderful and potentially useful ideas. She said when concepts were put into statements of relationships, principles emerged about how actions or events are related to one another. She wanted him to use his exceptional abilities to ferret-out orderly relationships others had not previously observed.
But for direction, or even informal guidance, regarding exactly how he was to be “innovative,” Lisa’s narratives were not really helpful. Functionally, he was on his own regarding how to mine new ideas out of mountains of facts and identify appropriate ways to apply what he unearthed. So, he was both bored with the tasks facing him and unfocused about what tasks to select for himself. He frequently asked himself,
“What do I know that others do not?”
“How does one innovate?”
“What should I do with innovations if I recognize them?”
And with noticeable frustration, “Where can I find guidance for accomplishing ‘higher-order’ thinking and actions?”
Just as his frustrations were high and still rising, insights about his nagging concerns and answers to questions of global importance were coming his way.
Eva recalled this interaction as humorous; that two mature behavior analysts had failed to recognize a behavioral answer during a half-hour of discussion but Karl had provided an answer in a second. She and Karl chuckled a bit, but Frasier was listening intently from his perspective. He thought he had just heard that there are behavior science explanations useful for constructively approaching complex human learning and performance topics. Because his job was to develop strategies to address opportunities or challenges facing humans, including economic, environmental, political, educational and social matters, he concluded he must examine the science of behavior for promising strategies useful for addressing important issues.
Just then, Lisa returned from what she called “an extended lunch break” and said, “Frasier, what did you do for lunch?”
“Worked through lunch, as always,” he answered, while noticing and appreciating the warm glance she aimed his way. She looked especially lovely today, he thought, and wondered with whom she had dined while he was attending to business. He set aside his curiosity and went on to describe his “visit” to the analysis of behavior basic and human research laboratories and the scenes of excitement he had witnessed.
There are 64 school buildings containing about 88,000 students in the District where I work, so a ‘buffet’ of opportunities is there for me to visit classrooms and talk with teachers and principals. I’ve heard complaints about too much paperwork, difficult children causing problems in classrooms, and about teachers who were excellent and others who should be fired, but could not be let go.
I intervened with “serious problems” of various types, including:
- A boy in 5th grade who was reported to be bullying girls in the classroom and the teacher feared he might stab someone with scissors;
- A 2nd grade boy who pooped in his pants;
- An entire “out of control” junior high classroom where the teacher was afraid to enter without two or more male escorts;
- A case of “severe” learning disabilities where the student wrote his spelling words backwardly, and
- A teacher the principal was going to fire because ‘she doesn’t fit in.’
In view of the time, I will just mention that all of the ‘cases’ I described earlier and those I just listed were dealt with successfully in generally the same manner. That is, with the understanding that human behavior is learned and changed by aspects of the environment that precede and follow it.
All of us, all the time, are being affected by ‘Contingencies’ (The next slide appeared).
From an interpersonal perspective, Lisa and the rest of the psychology faculty were content to live parallel existences with “those behavior-types” and the disregard appeared to be mutual. On the other hand, Lisa thought, Bert’s presentation was impressive. The methods he applied in classrooms were clear and simple yet the data he shared were almost startling in showing significant student successes along with high levels of teacher and parent satisfaction. Lisa concluded it is probably appropriate for Frasier to build his competence with basic and applied behavior analysis, but she was not convinced her time should be invested in that manner.
Frasier concluded Bert is a capable person, likely one from whom he could extract information functional for him and observe for human behaviors identifiable as humorous along the way to useful edification. He said, “I appreciated your presentation about your applications of behavioral science to problems in the school system. I’d love to hear more. In fact, I saw you in the basic behavior lab so wonder if you have time to say something about the relationships of the basic lab to problems in the real world?”
It struck Bert that unfounded denial and biased opposition to the natural science of behavior is not a victimless crime. Each and every person deserves supportive parenting, effective education and fair opportunities throughout life. We are all victims to the extent our homes, communities and institutions are not applying science-validated practices due somewhat to the counter-productive effects of naysayers. On the other hand, we all can gain from well-designed teaching and learning circumstances, and that’s been my mission for years.
“By the way, some of us feel calling our research designs single ‘case’ or single ‘subject’ is problematic because it may sound like participating humans are demeaned as only valued as cases or subjects. Possibly labelling our designs as ‘person-centered’ or ‘person-focused’ would be more diplomatic and precise. Personally, I would prefer ‘person-focused’ because you know ‘person-centered’ would be contracted to ‘p-c’ and I do not want people to think I am being politically correct!
He decided he would first read the content of an editorial or letter to discern the writer’s perspective, then try to use what he was learning about behavior science to write a tentative translation of what he had read. He kept notes under the headlines that caught his attention.
It was a pretty mid-morning on campus, warm and sunny. They walked toward the Student Union building quietly and a little slower than usual, Eva noticed, as though Lisa was distracted from walking and talking by personal thoughts. About halfway to the Coffee Corner they could smell bean-grinding fragrance, but their attention was caught by the sight of squirming groups of young children showering energy all over the colorful play area the College of Education had installed recently.
They watched the energetic scene for a few steps, then, Lisa asked, “Do your behaviour analysis students or faculty do work in that campus Lab School?”
“No, we do not. We’d love to, but we need to bridge gaps between Education and behavior analysis that are pretty wide right now. Maybe soon,” Eva offered.
Lisa looked at Eva and said, “Yes. Sure. Gaps is why I asked you for coffee.” They walked the remaining short distance to the coffee shop in silence.
“I know this is a simplistic example, but the point is there are scientific principles underlying human learning and doing. These principles have been empirically and socially validated so are available for use in promoting our wellbeing. But not much of what we do has been systematically clarified in behavioral terms. There are huge vistas of concerns, challenges, desires and opportunities described in books, news shows and various social media that almost literally beg for translation. Upon adequate behavioral translations, proficient interventions could be developed to the benefit of all of us.
Each member commented about looking forward to stimulating exchanges on topics appearing on the preliminary “Nominated Topics” list Frasier had distributed. He had compiled this list from all suggestions sent him by participants. To no one’s real surprise, he announced the final list contained over 100 topics. Among these, several dozen topics were repeatedly mentioned, including, altruism, autism, books in the popular press (n=16), crime and punishment, design of cultures, economic development, employee training and motivation, education reform, frustration, the idea of a federal “Behavior Analysis Office (BAO)” to join with the Government Accountability Office (GAO), global warming, the GMO debate, income inequity, the international space station, obesity, parenting, politics, population control, power, racism, refugees, religion, reorganizing the Federal government, road rage, short-term profit versus long-term loss, terrorism, travel to Mars, and who could replace Skinner. The group had plenty to talk about.
Frasier was intrigued by Eva’s organized view of road rage and the possibility of interventions, but was not completely clear about what she meant by functional analysis. He’d heard the term ‘functional’ used in earlier conversations and had been comfortable with his common sense understanding of the term, but in the present context the exact meaning of the term seemed to be crucial. So he asked, “Eva, I know everyone else here knows what is meant by functional analysis, but I am insufficiently prepared. What is a functional analysis?”
Eva said, “Sure” to Frasier and announced to the group, “Maybe this is a good time for folks to take a stretch or grab a drink ...”
Eva offered an example, “Take a child’s tantrums as an opportunity for completing a functional analysis. Tantrum behaviors would be defined, then the behavior analyst – or maybe a parent or other caregiver prepared to do so – would observe the number of tantrums and note the characteristics of the child’s environment just before and immediately after each tantrum. Observed motivational antecedent events might be a stranger or pet or sibling entering the room, or words or actions of a parent – whatever – occurring just before each tantrum, are noted. And the consequences following tantrum behaviors might include: the parent scolding or comforting the child; siblings helping the child or taking a toy; or the child escaping doing something requested of him or her; or gaining access to something, like playing in a kitchen cabinet.
Lisa took a pastry – Karl seemed less happy – and welcomed the group, then looked expectantly toward Karl. He began his comments by saying, “The idea of there being a federal office charged with promoting the precise and appropriate application of behaviorally sound practices in the conduct of national affairs is very attractive. Such an agency might be called the Behavior Analysis Office, the BAO, and serve to review or help design federal laws and practices to assure they reflect principles of behavior and emphasize recommended positive practices.”
“Usually we are content with doing research to confirm or discover behavioral relationships, and in making use of principles of behavior to promote wellbeing at the individual level. However, we should realize that accomplishing meaningful changes at the systems level really is the primary strategy for improving everyone’s quality of living. Everyone lives in a context of systems; school, work, government, and so on, even families, are systems in that they generate particular contingencies on all those within their purview.
“I say it is appropriate for us to focus our discussion on the huge and complex ‘system’ called the federal government. Generally speaking, the federal government is supposed to accomplish actions to keep us safe and happy, and it does this by passing laws and spending money. Actually, of course, ‘government’ comprises thousands of individuals whose behaviors impact us as they enforce laws and make expenditures. That is, the behaviors of government personnel function to enact contingencies on us that alter our behaviors, whether they or citizens in general know it or not.
“Sometimes the fact that federal programs function to change behaviors is fairly obvious, as in how contingencies in welfare programs sometimes build and maintain counter-productive behaviors, but federal contingencies can be more subtle, like how requirements in the tax code produce behaviors that are more or less desirable. Of course, we can interpret the enactment and enforcement of the myriad federal regulations as functioning to apply contingencies to business and industry, actually, all of us. But the government does not phrase its actions in terms of applying contingencies or making behavior changes.
“I suggest these issues present perfect opportunities for constructive actions by a federal Behavior Analysis Office. The personnel in the BAO could work to bring behavioral competence into federal laws and practices.”
The large pine trees marking the south boundary of campus were casting long shadows when the trio began dinner, but now were difficult to see in the darkness. Conversation had touched on work matters through vacation plans to things a bit personal as drinks progressed from the first glass of wine through the second bottle. Just when it seemed folks were about to head their separate ways, Eva asked Rob if he had read “the Nudge book?”
“Oh yes,” he answered, “but I didn’t really study it; just read it like a novel, quickly for impressions – why?”
“I’ve heard it mentioned several times recently, but it’s not a new book – just wondering why it is getting attention.”
He continued, “This adjustment from commonsensical to procedurally precise – from haphazard or informal to validated and effective – is crucial. You do not provide incentives to get folks to do something, you provide motivational operations and contingent effective reinforcers after each person shows approximations and a desired behavior – crucially different!”
“The choir – we – agree, of course,” said Rob, “we know ‘Reinforcement Works’ and what that means, procedurally. And we know how to translate what Murray and the other authors are saying into science-validated procedures that could be implemented in welfare programs or education, early childhood, parenting, and so on.”
In preparation for the impending discussion, Eva decided to re-read her copy of Nudge, and because of Rob’s heads-up she Googled for information about the “Nudge Unit.” The search produced pages of entries showing sources related to Nudge and the Nudge Unit. Reading several of these sources, she was surprised to learn that nudging was a policy of the government of the United Kingdom. Apparently, leaders in the government across the pond had found the concept of nudging to be desirable, so in 2010 they adopted nudging strategies as official practice. She became more interested in re-reading the book and eager to talk with the group about their perspectives on Nudge and nudging.
Before the meeting Frasier reviewed media responses to President Obama’s formation of a Nudge Squad, actually the “Social and Behavioral Sciences Team,” and found these reports to be predictable. No surprise; human behavior, including that of members of the media, is established and altered by contingencies, so their behavior is predictable if one knows the learning histories and reinforcement contingencies in effect. Conservative news outlets posted photos of Obama looking stern, pointing his finger at the camera (you and me) and wrote “he is planning to use mind tricks and behavioral insights to subtly influence people’s behavior.” Other perspectives were variously more informative or more alarming.
Rob initiated discussion by saying, “I am most curious about what are ‘behavioral insights’ and how they will be implemented. Particularly, I think we want to know how transparent each and every application of ‘insights’ will be. You know, in applied behavior analysis we are meticulous about announcing what principles and methods are being applied; what data are collected and what they show; and, adjusting interventions in accordance with the interests of those impacted by the intervention. In fact, the individual interests of those for whom we design, apply, evaluate and refine interventions drive us. It is hard to believe the panel will apply ‘nudges’ through government programs in adequately transparent ways.
“And,” he added, “what the heck are nudges?”
Bert replied, “I don’t know for sure, but I think my sports car nudges me to drive slower. I have radar evidence to prove the speedometer reads 2 miles per hour faster than my actual speed. Of course, I know that so I drive at least 2 miles over the limit.”
“Good observation,” acknowledged Rob. “My daughter drives a car I know registers 3 miles over her actual speed, so she is being nudged to drive slower and I appreciate that. In fact, now that I’m thinking about it, I might have been nudged as a child into taking an interest in cooking when the counselor at summer camp invited me to help in the kitchen. I began cooking at home after camp and still enjoy preparing meals.”
“Sure, sure,” said Eva, “We know the speedometer is providing incorrect feedback and the camp counselor provided a model of doing and enjoying cooking. It is not really useful to call those nudges, but I’m thinking the commonsensical idea of nudging is attractive; that a gentle and basically unsystematic feature of the environment – could be called a nudge – can lead to noticeable change in behavior. I think people might embrace the notion of simply nudging to get behaviors by others where they would not be attracted to the technical steps of defining selected behavior, observing baseline rates, then prompting and reinforcing to get behavior change.
“We can appreciate that most of the time desired changes in behavior are for minor issues of only minor concern, not requiring full blown behavioral intervention. The simplicity and ease of nudging might seem appropriate. Maybe a mom would say, ‘look at the time!’ to encourage her kids to get ready for bed. If after that her kids start their night time routines, then the ‘nudge’ was sufficient, but if the kids rudely refuse to follow her directions, mom should be able to use established methods of behavior change to replace resistance with cooperation.”
Bert offered, “I see what you are saying. It’s kind of like using a powder-puff versus a steamroller for explaining and changing behaviors. But folks who embrace nudging are much better prepared if they understand a nudge is an antecedent, ‘by any other name.’ Then, if the antecedent-nudge is ineffective, they know there are procedures available for obtaining desired behavior changes, and for establishing the effectiveness of antecedent-nudges.”
“I wonder,” asked Lisa, “if the Insights Team will look only at how to make citizens behave better or will they exert control on government functions, maybe affect decisions by Federal personnel on grant funding for sciences the Team wants to see do more or even do less? Maybe groups the Team appreciates as ‘social and behavioral sciences’ will get more grant funds while other groups they do not respect as meeting their understanding of behavioral science, will be less represented in the grant review process and receive less or no funding?”
“You can be sure,” offered Rob, “writers of grant applications to the Feds are already scrambling to include wording that reflects what they feel will sound like nudging to grant review panels and Federal agency personnel.”
“Maybe the Team will tell the White House how to nudge that clumsy Congress. Of course we mean apply contingencies to members of Congress, to make them make Better choices; or even Good or Best choices,” laughed Eva. “We can only hope so!”
Frasier recognized all those goals are merely labels for circumstances and not directly addressable. For example, Poverty, Hunger, Good Health and Gender Equality are labels for measurable circumstances of living. Clean Water, Responsible Consumption and Sustainable Cities are concepts related to how people interact with their environment and with one another. Global measurements of the status of these goals probably will focus on outcomes, like levels of pollutants or numbers of individuals with disease, but should – really must – account for these outcomes as products of individual and collective behaviors of people.
The gap between knowing and doing was a point of particular importance for Rob partly because he had seen many new graduates of human development, social work, psychology, educational psychology, counseling and guidance and similar programs enter work roles that matched their degree title but not their applied “tool kit.” They, like him, had to learn skills related to being effective and appropriate in their work roles. Some learned applied lessons quickly, but many failed to hone skills they needed to be efficient in their work roles. In view of this problem he had designed exercises for each of the many classes he had taught at several universities over the years to shape students into using principles to analyze problematic human behavioral events and develop action plans to intervene constructively.
Lisa noted major factors determining the quality of early experiences are the levels of skill and attitudes of the primary caregivers of children; most often this is the parent or parents, extended family, often grandmother, and early care and education personnel. Lisa proposed some aspects of parenting or child development and support skills would be important performance targets they might select for their first project.
“For example, we could develop an intervention to increase language acquisition of children by improving how the adults in their lives speak and interact with them. You remember the two powerful books by Hart and Risely, Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experience of Young American Children (1995), and The Social World of Children Learning to Talk (1999), and how they documented it is vitally important for young children to hear and practice vocabulary and speaking. How can we pass up this pressing need as our target for intervention?” concluded Lisa.
As midnight neared, Frasier said to Lisa, “While it is interesting to converse with you about various areas of concern and how we might assist with improving matters in those topics, I conclude we should continue to hold early childhood as our top priority. In fact, I retrieved a passage we shared a few months back that reads:
A child’s ability to think, form relationships, and live up to his or her full potential is directly related to the synergistic effect of good health, good nutrition, and appropriate stimulation and interaction with others during early childhood. (Naudeau, Kataoka, Valerio, Neuman & Elder, 2011, p. 103).
“I calculate that you and I working together, in collaboration with adequate others, can successfully apply an intervention in some aspect of early childhood. We could design a project to address health, nutrition or stimulation, but I believe ‘appropriate stimulation’ might fit best with our commitment to behavioral and social considerations.”
... 10 seconds later he alerted the entire Thursday group to this event. The group convened about an hour later.
“Well,” Rob said to the group, “nudging has gone from an emerging fad to a policy of the United States. I believe this development is because nudging appears to be a behavioral dynamic of apparent utility and nudging is an attractive label. That is, I think there is widespread interest by leaders and ordinary people for tools for obtaining behaviors they want, and folks – including leaders in government – are beginning to see nudging as that needed tool.
The Thursday group recognized they had been pushed by nudgers and tried to push back, but had actually lost ground. Now they were taking a different tack and were interested in seeing what collaboration might build. Perhaps, as they had discussed earlier, they could emphasize the companion concepts of nudging and boosting to foster mutual interests across academic programs for building popular and effective strategies of behavior change.
Welcome to the behavioral 1%
Assuming you digested a good amount from the previous 10 chapters, you know more about how behaviors are learned and favorably altered than almost everyone! You are basically oriented toward making important parts of your life more positive. By this I mean you are aware of some principles of behavior and key lessons for using them so you could apply this information to obtain important features of a better life.
Nudge Self and Others Better. Nudging “better” can be judged with regard to the qualities of the behaviors to be aroused by the nudge or the quality of the nudge. Assuming a desirable behavior was identified, then a nudge or other form of antecedent should be explicitly identified as the condition under which the behavior or an acceptable approximation is to occur and be reinforced.
We know a nudge or other form of antecedent is the first aspect of an A-B-C event, that is, an intentional nudge is provided to bring about a behavior that should be reinforced. Why nudge a behavior (e.g., to show polite behavior or begin to study or be on-time to a meeting) if you do not want to strengthen or maintain it with intentional and differential consequences? And we know nudges and other antecedents obtain their influence over behavior as an outgrowth of the consequences following behaviors, therefore, consequence delivery is crucial for giving the power to the nudge and building or maintaining desired behaviors.
Knowing the general dynamics related to understanding or dealing constructively with human behavior can be fascinating and rewarding. This text is intended to intrigue readers into learning and doing more in behaviorally sound ways. Toward that end you might have recognized explicit or implied themes in the preceding chapters. Below, I briefly note some of those themes for your consideration or application in your behavioral-living circumstances.
You are aware of the principles and dynamics involved in clarifying and improving matters of teaching, learning, and altering what people do. You can choose to apply what you know to improve your own circumstances or contribute to improving the world around you!
Regarding the target for his initial interventions he has no hesitation; his spotlight will be intensely focused on early childhood. In contrast to his earlier “deliberations” with Lisa, he knows, and knew then, that raising a healthy and educated population is the pathway for each and every individual to have a desirable Quality of Life and for the Earth to be returned to ecological health.
A glance at education, elementary through high school, disclosed to Frasier a broad array of opportunities for improvements. He saw many children inadequately prepared for school and classroom teachers insufficiently equipped with evidence-based practices, so children are less likely to be prepared for and receive the instruction and reinforcement they should. Teachers must be supported in their classrooms with coaching, performance feedback, problem solving and technical assistance they deserve and ...
Frasier turned his calculations to the re-design of the U.S. government.