Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Conclusions from a Seven-Year Inquiry into the Science and Ethics of Applied Behavior Analysis

This web log is about the ethics of behavior modification, a topic which includes issues pertinent to the professional practice of the science of human behavior known as Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA). After seven years of investigation into the science and ethics of ABA, as of today, this blogger is prepared to present all his general conclusions to date. Most of them are contained within the body of this paper.

Some Science of ABA

First of all, in a nutshell, ABA is mostly all about adding and removing various "schedules" of rewards and punishments contingent upon the emission of "target behaviors" in order to develop certain desirable behaviors in others or in one's self and in order to prevent or reduce certain "problem behaviors." Board Certified Behavior Analysts (BCBAs) know how to increase and decrease the frequency of occurrence of the specific behaviors they intend to modify. They also know how to extinguish behaviors, to make them disappear almost completely from the overall behavioral repertoires of human and non-human "organisms" alike. (See Pierce and Cheney, 2004.)

To their credit, they have discovered the alternatives to punishment. As though magicians cleverly twisting their positive techniques, they can make problem behaviors vanish into thin air while sparing the rod completely. BCBAs reinforce not-behaving ("badly"), they reward incompatible behaviors that cannot happen at the same time and place as unwanted behaviors, and they shape and reward lower and lower rates of responding of the behaviors they are paid to diminish by the parents, schools, and insurance companies who hire them. They establish positive instructional control by telling children to do something rewarding that they are already inclined to do and then later, when they teach them a skill that may tax them somewhat, they break it down into less taxing chunks, and rely on the pattern of instructional compliance previously habituated through positives to teach these kids some valuable skills. Under these conditions students do not try to avoid or escape challenging demands, because the consent of the child or incapacitated adult is automatic under total reinforcement. Punishment and noncompliance are non-issues when punishment is not necessary. (See Lavigna and Donnellan, 1986.)

Behavior analysts have also been known to punish self-injurious behavior, such as self-head-banging by people with severe disabilities, when they don't have enough positive methods or know-how at their disposal. They invented a device called The Self-Injurious Behavior Inhibiting System (SIBIS) which detects blows to the head and administers electric shock contingent upon the head-blowing behavior. When their work is ethically scrutinized, one can say that if and when punishment or coercion is temporarily and absolutely unavoidable to prevent, diminish, or eliminate seriously harmful rates of behavior, then the work of the analysts should never be considered satisfactory. They must return to the drawing board and try and try again until they find or create acceptable positive alternatives to punishment. (See Iwata, 1988.)

The Reputation and Promise of ABA

ABA has a bad public rap, however. Some of its reputation is warranted and most of it isn't. ABA is powerful. Power corrupts. The practice in the field can easily cross the line between helping and harming.

This blogger is helping them become more ethical so the public will more readily accept their work and so then we can move on to heal the world with broad-scale, ethical applications of human science. Since behavior analysts are good at changing the behaviors of people with less power, this blog challenges them to accept some modification of their own behaviors. Many of them appreciate it and many of them don't want to hear it, but what they dish out to others, they should be able to take in stride when they're treated with a dose of their own medicine. A bitter pill is hard to swallow, but good medicine is meant to heal.

I firmly believe that the environmental movement would benefit immensely if they knew how to use ABA to teach people how to reduce their carbon footprints by stressing the money savings quality of conservation and lightening up on its constant bombardment of doom and gloom scenarios off into the future and if they knew enough how to modify the behaviors of politicians with ample reinforcement, massive amounts of popular praise, for the things they do well. As seen in a count of BUYcott app users who sign up for campaigns to either reward or to penalize corporate behavior, more people prefer to penalize companies than reward them, which is a trend I might extrapolate to the possible existence of an aggregated public preference for punishment strategies over reward strategies. I have no doubt that an intense collaboration among greens and behavior analysts would stem the tide of global warming, but this will not happen if the ABA profession-at-large does not improve its ethics.

Some Ethics of ABA

Science tells BCBAs how to change human behavior, but only ethical analyses can prescribe which behaviors ought to change, so ABA is no good without ethics. BCBA training does include courses in ethics, but ABA in practice has a good share of ethical problems.

Since its inception in 1968, their flagship "Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis" (JABA) has been identifying "problems of social importance" as targets for change. For example, while gay pride marches in New York City first began to commemorate the 1969 Stonewall Riot that sparked the modern gay pride movement, some JABA articles were also labeling gay sexual activity as aberrant behavior. The gay liberation movement had to fight long and hard battles to remove homosexuality from psychology's lists of "disorders."

ABA today targets for reduction certain autistic behaviors. Indeed, ABA "treatment" of autism has spawned into a major industry. Many atypical autistic behaviors such as body-rocking and hand-flapping cause no physical harm to people or property, but parents will pay BCBA's to squelch these behaviors because they're afraid they won't "fit in" with their peers. Meanwhile opposing communities of autistic adults are comparing ABA's history with gays to the current events involving autistic children. The leaders are saying, "Don't try to change us. Changing us hurts us. We are not a disease. We are proud of our autistic identity. Just change society so they accept us and embrace us for the atypical people we happen to be." Google "Neurodiversity" to witness the birth of a new movement.

Furthermore, young autistic children are virtually powerless on their own to stop behavior change plans once they're set into motion. Theoretically, the Behavior Analysis Certification Board (BACB) does recommend that their BCBAs seek the dual consent of both the parent or guardian and the child or incapacitated adult when they implement steps toward behavior "control," as B. F. Skinner called it. During practice, however, they have not been known to grant the recipients of their treatments the power to dissent from punishment when their surrogate decision makers had already signed legally-written informed consent documents. Child study teams may give them a seat at the table during behavior plan meetings and they may "cooperate" there out of fear of reprisals, not knowing what they're getting into, but under the terms of informed consent, young children and incapacitated adults have no authority to object to what's been approved, especially when their parent advocates are not watching the actual events unfold. (If parents do not observe the "treatments" taking place, then with the consent of their children, they could insist their BCBA contractors audio-visually film all the activities.)

BCBAs may say they are looking out for the "welfare" of the children when they punish them or reward them and most of them emphasize a predominance of skills training under positively reinforcing contingencies, but the denial of dissent when punishment does occur obstructs the free exercise of the right to self-determination, the equitable right to autonomy that everybody shares, regardless of age or cognitive ability. Even when they do consider the best-interest of the child, well-meaning parents and analysts can and do make harmful mistakes. If they listened more to the children, problems would be prevented. Taking us beyond the simple ABA-profession's notion of welfare without autonomy, nuances can be argued such that the autonomy of the child is vital to the best-interest of the child and the exercise of one right does not block the other.

To illustrate the ABA paucity of partners in consent, consider the most egregious case known in the press, where the staff at the Judge Rotenberg Center (JRC), near Boston, MA, present painful electric skin shock to autistic children and others soon after they "emit" behaviors as mild and harmless as not doing as they're told. When it was presented in a lawsuit against JRC, Fox News recorded the videotape evidence of JRC employees restraining a disabled boy face down upon a board and shocking him while he was "screaming for help." Warning: the footage is graphic. JRC shocked him 31 times that day. Fox News said they shocked him for "refusing to take off his coat." JRC called it "treatment." The boy's mother called it terror and abuse. She said to Fox News that when she signed him into the school, she "had no idea, no idea, that they tortured the children in the school." Fox News said she had testified to the jury about watching the video and hearing staff members laughing while her son was on the floor. "She got him to the hospital that day where he was diagnosed with acute stress response caused by the shocks." She told Fox news she tried to turn his head that day but it only stayed straight. When she waived her hand in front of his face, his eyes didn't blink.

The United Nations also called it torture. The Food and Drug Administration is currently deliberating on its upcoming decision on whether or not to ban JRC's patented Contingent Skin Shock (CSS) devices. The issue is still reoccurring in the mainstream media.

One day in the course of my study, I was tweeting with an anonymous user of JRC's Twitter account. I proposed several challenging tweets and he or she tried to defend them all, until I sent my final question and there were no more replies. I was asking him or her if JRC board members, administrators, staff, outside supporters from within the ABA profession, and especially the founder of the institution, Dr. Matthew Israel, had ever subjected themselves to the identical contingencies they were using to torture their children. This would include being tied to a board by people with more power who are laughing at you when they let you stand and you fall down to the ground while they're shocking your skin with the same intensity they have already used on their children, after they told you to take off your coat, but you refused to do it knowing your coat-less body would make it easier for them to shock you again and again, so they shocked you for disobeying this command, as one more shock out of a total of 31 shocks in one day, rendering you completely into a stress-induced zombie.

The Golden Rule of Ethics (empathy) requires us to do unto others as we'd have them do unto us. Therefore, any of the JRC members or supporters as listed above who do not voluntarily submit themselves precisely to this specific contingency cannot legitimately describe their professional work as ethical. Also, BCBAs and other behaviorists and public officials who know this has happened and do nothing to stop it are complicit in the torture.

Most unfortunately for the children, but also for the reputation of the professional community of behavior analysts, the Association for Behavior Analysis International (ABAI) gives JRC leaders an audience of their peers when they present and defend their "aversive therapy" at ABAI convention "symposiums." Critics of ABA hit them hard with legitimate arguments, especially regarding their ties with JRC. Obviously, their reputation suffers, yet they continue to support JRC or try to ignore the JRC controversy. It is quite unfathomable to this blogger why all the ABA professional membership organizations don't issue public statements about the harmful nature of painful electric skin shock contingent upon "noncompliance," as the JRC leaders proudly described to their ABAI audience.

Here's a clue to a possible answer. CQ Weekly reported that in March alone of 2010, JRC paid "the lobbyist, Edward D. Krenik of Bracewell and Giuliani, an EPA liaison to Congress in the Bush administration," $20,000 to "persuade senators to provide an exemption — in legislation that would deny federal funding to schools that physically restrain students — for the court-approved electric shocks that the Judge Rotenberg Center uses with some of its students." (Zeller, 2010) When there's a problem, it pays to follow the money. So to what extend does JRC lobby the ABAI?

The Future of ABA

To conclude the conclusions of this long-term investigation, ABA is ethical, in general, to a degree, but it has much need for improvement. It is vulnerable to other solid criticisms not mentioned above, such as the threat of its enormous potential falling into the wrong hands of authoritarian rulers. If the profession would publicly tackle its lingering deficiencies and build further upon its strengths, its reputation would no doubt improve. Then the world can move on and heal itself through the scientific design of culture, as the founder of their science, B.F. Skinner, had envisioned. This can only happen in a good way, however, when it's extremely well restrained.

If the ABA profession does not want to improve its ethical status and then involve themselves in cultural issues, then society needs to proceed without them and apply the principles of Skinnerean science without the aid of those individuals whose salaries depend on the control of autistic behavior, for instance.

As my psychologist said to me last week, Joseph Stalin had amassed nearly absolute power over the Soviet Union. Among his many atrocities, his followers executed about 250,000 people of foreign ethnicities. (From Wikipedia, Joseph Stalin, Purges and Deportations referencing Montefiore (2004).) While Stalin was corrupting the theories of Marx, French intellectuals on the left, supporters of communism such as the existentialist philosopher Jean Paul Sartre, did not break away from Soviet ideology. So what will become of the theories of behaviorism, my doctor wondered, if its own leading intellectuals refuse to denounce the JRC?*

Post Script

As a post script here, the most viewed essay in this blog describes at length how parents, teachers, and BCBAs can obtain the dual consent of the recipients of their behavior change programs along with their parents or legal guardians, if they have them.


* October 16, 2014 Google Scholar searches of the exact phrase: "Judge Rotenberg Center" in leading ABA journals returned no articles. Searches included the Behavior Analysts, published by ABAI, JABA, published by Society for the Experimental Analysis of Behavior, and Behavior and Philosophy, by the Cambridge Center for Behavioral Studies, Behavior Analysis Digest, Behavior Analyst Online, etc.

Reference List (being compiled)

Zeller, Shawn. "Client of the Month: The Judge Rotenberg Center." CQ Weekly (July 12, 2010): 1675.

Montefiore, Simon Sebag (2004). Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar. ISBN 0-7538-1766-7

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Some History and Consequence to the Dialectical Notions of Absolute and Relative Freedom

A person can believe there are no such phenomena as absolute freedom and a freely-selecting, behavior-inducing "mind," which signify together the meaning of free will. The same person can believe, based on her or his own experiences, in the existence of relative freedom instead. Both beliefs generate real-world consequences. Generally speaking, the end results of the former are negative, such as the non-stop flood of unwarranted sentences to fill an ocean of prison cots, and of the latter, the results are more positive, such as a logical foundation for disabled advocates to support their arguments for the right to dissent from the punishments of people with more power who have no idea how their punishments feel if and when they supply them to others without "tasting their own medicines."

A Brief History of Free Will

Over the centuries the West has shifted its general outlook on the freedom of action from one that was curtailed by the gods to an absolute freedom granted by God and independent from his will. In the second half of the Twentieth Century B. F. Skinner

After their linguistic analysis, Altschuler et al. (2013) "estimate(d) a date of approximately 710–760 BCE" for the Homeric epics. Throughout the Iliad, humans had no power over their actions when the gods chose to control them.

Plato (1892, pp. 159-194) set Phaedo in "399, the final day of Socrates’ life, in his prison cell" (Anderson and Osborn, 2009, p. 261).

Epicurus was an Ancient Greek philosopher who lived between 341 and 270 BCE. He was cited as the original source of an argument called the "logical problem of evil." Since evil exists, he was said to have claimed, an all-good, all-powerful, all-knowing God cannot possibly exist. (Wikipedia, Logical problem of evil).

Augustine of Hippo (AD 354–430) led the Catholic Church away from this problem with his antithetical "theodicy" argument. While citing Augustine's Confessions (VII.x.16), Mendelson (2012) said, "It was the books of the Platonists that first made it possible for him to conceive the possibility of a non-physical substance."

According to Wikipedia, Augustine asserted that 1) humans are born with the original sin of Adam; 2) sinful acts follow from the original sin; 3) they will suffer just spiritual consequences for their actions; 4) free will exists in the human soul; 5) God is perfectly good; 6) Evil is the absence of good, negative, unmade 7) Humans are imperfectly good, corruptible; 8) so He didn't make evil; and 9) therefore He exists. (See (Augustinian theodicy) citing Menn (2002), Bennett, Peters, Hewlett and Russell (2008, p. 126), and Svendsen and Pierce (2010, p. 49).)

Under Augustine, therefore, the Western transition from a pre-Socratic belief in a shortage of self-determination was solidly transformed to the Catholic belief in a will that was exercised independent of any godly impetus.

Jumping ahead about 850 years, Thomas Aquinas (AD 1225-1274) and other Catholic scholars followed Augustine with similar arguments (Augustinian theodicy).

Leaping ahead to today, Skinner (2014, p. 10) said, "The conception of a free, responsible individual is embedded in our language and pervades our practices, codes, and beliefs."

Skinner (1971, p. 42) also said, "Man's struggle for freedom is not due to a will to be free, but to certain behavioral processes characteristic of the human organism, the chief effect of which is the avoidance of or escape from so-called 'aversive' features of the environment."

He called the mind an "explanatory fiction," a weak explanation of the causes of behavior. When people ask why someone did something they don't like, the mentalist might say, "She has a bad attitude," or "His mind wasn't working." According to Skinner, the explanation stops there. Mentalists block themselves from analyzing the true causes of behavior, such as how a consequence to a response can increase the probability that the behavior will reoccur. (See Skinner, 2014, Chapter III, "Why Organisms Behave," pp. 23-42, especially, the chapter section, "Psychic inner causes," pp. 29-31.)

So people will claim the environment does not influence the occurrence of behavior because people  have the perfect ability to invoke their own will-power, their absolute freedom of choice, and make themselves respond. So when the "bad" people do "bad" things, they must hold them "responsible" for the choices they freely invoke. They must pay the price. They must suffer the consequences.

The Consequences of the Notion of Free Will

Skinner's philosophy is not just academic. As it has played itself out, mentalist language has evoked human calamity. When people accuse others of crime, they cry out for revenge. "Punish the bastards! Lock them away! Let them fry in the electric chair!"

Undoubtedly, such spoken word has provoked the mass incarceration of U.S.A. citizens and migrants. False charges often lead to guilty verdicts, including murder and rape. The Judicial Branch prosecutes drug "offenders " because of their medical problems, substance addiction, but they survive in prison with insufficient medical attention. The prison system, with its cruel and unusual, virtually-endless solitary confinements, also known as "time out seclusion," but a corrupted version of the behavioral strategy, makes no decent attempt to rehabilitate.

Generally speaking, incarceration only makes things worse for everybody, especially the children of people in prison. While some people who are "formerly incarcerated" advocate for each other in a constructive manner on and their 99.5 spot on the New York City FM dial (Listen to "On the Count: The prison and criminal justice report."), others may leave the prison environment having learned some lessons in more serious criminal behavior than the original ones they were accused of committing. It's not their fault, however, because, as behaviorism teaches, we do what we do because of the past and because of the stimuli in the current environment where behaviors takes place.

The prison/judiciary industry and its brethren corporate sponsors of corporate television commercials profit immensely when they fill up their beds in their unjust, discriminatory manner. They depend upon the public's belief in free will. With the appeals for retribution supporting them, politicians enact all the so-called "get tough on crime" policies we have witnessed. So "when it bleeds, it leads" on the eyewitness news, their ratings stay high, and they provoke their viewers to call out for revenge in the name of "justice." A student of Skinner, however, would understand how punishment causes escape and retaliation and it does not teach a responder what he or she should to do in lieu of the punished response.

It is not necessary, however, to subscribe to the faith that nonphysical entities can cause physical events to take place. The alternate freedom suffices.

Relative Freedom and Its Behavioral Consequences

On the other hand, the notion of relative freedom is very different from that of absolute freedom. Skinner also said, "Almost all living things act to free themselves from harmful contacts (1971, p. 26)." The Supreme Court recognized the relativity of free speech when they decided we have no right to shout "fire" in a crowded theater. A man chained to a bed in a prison cell has less freedom than an unchained man in the same cell. Along these lines, Mortimer Adler (1958) said in his "Dialectical Examination of the Idea of Freedom" that "Circumstantial freedom” is "freedom from coercion or restraint." (From Wikipedia, Problem of Evil).

This dual-freedom context allows an advocate for disabled people to generate behavioral language in support of the right to autonomy, also known as self-determination. In relative terms, "incapacitated" people should have more power than they do have to dissent from the implementation of decisions to punish their behaviors. Teams of professionals who follow scientific and philosophical literature on behavior analysis, judge their actions as "problematic."

These teams do approve restraint, holding the "patients" down or mechanically restricting their movements (contingent upon self-injurious behaviors, for example.) See the official policy Statement on Restraint and Exclusion of the Association for Behavior Analysis International. (ABAI, 2010).

ABAI (2010) suggests to its members that "duly formed treatment teams" should include the voices of the recipients of their interventions. Should they give them a seat at the meetings? Do they sit at the head of the table? The document doesn't say. If they really do allow these persons to speak in their meetings, it is difficult to fathom how the objections of children or incapacitated adults to professional plans that allow institutional staff to immobilize them would hold any weight in the outcome of these decisions, especially when such people are deemed incapable of making informed decisions. Nobody would understand the exact nature of a punishment proposal, including a punisher, a parent or Board Certified Behavior Analyst, unless he or she felt it before. So the punishees may "cooperate" out of fear of further punishments. The best time to listen to their dissent is after the meeting, while they're holding them down and they shout, "Let me go!" It is not until later that they or anyone else would understand the exact nature of their punishments, but then it's too late to say, "Leave me alone!"

Unfortunately, however, according to anonymous sources, in a more restrictive environment, it looks like punished children or adults with incapacities have very limited power on their own, legal or otherwise, to stop punishment once it's been set into motion. The "team" may claim it acts in the best-interest or the welfare of the "client," but it devalues the right to self-determination. The behavioral scale of justice should balance the right to dissent with the right to have a parent or guardian look after one's best interest, but it leans heavily in favor of the surrogates and their paid professionals, who have been shown to make well-intentioned mistakes.

Furthermore, screaming and squirming to escape from restraint is a clear form of speech. So how does the staff of an institution listen to dissent when they carry out these teams' "well-informed" decisions to bind these individuals? Do the organizations who write these unenforceable restraint guides consider the freedom to speak for one's self a part of one's best interest? It doesn't appear that way to me.

Reference List

The reference list is being compiled.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Cable Guy Avoids More Bumps on the Head: A Behavior Analysis

So the internet cut out and Verizon took ten minutes to answer the phone after they put me on hold and after I pressed so many wrong buttons trying to find someone who could answer my question.* A computerized lady interrupted the lovely music and said they were recording the call. Then the tech-support guy answered and I told him I would also be recording. He said, "We don't allow customers to record our calls," and he hung up the phone.

Then I called back and waited again. As soon as I reached a live human being I read her a litany of complaints. She remained calm, apologized, trouble-shot the troubles, and told me to go outside to reset the box or else they would send someone to do it the following week.

So with tools and flashlight in hand, I went out to the windswept rain, unscrewed the lid to the cable box, tugged the inner box from off its receptors, reconnected it, secured the lid, went back inside, removed my clothes, hung them to dry, climbed into my pajamas, and returned to the internet to watch the Simpsons.

The next day it rained again and the internet went down on Verizon for the very last time. I fired them and hired the cable company, the only other home-based internet service provider in this town.

Within a few days the installer arrived in the company van. He stepped inside our two-man, bunk-bed efficiency and bumped his head on the chandelier.

I said, “I’m sorry. My goodness, you’re tall.”

He said, “Don't worry. It won’t happen again.”

I said, “You have learned to avoid that thing after just one bump? The handyman kept hitting it.” I don’t know why he laughed. I was only asking a behavior-analytic question.

* (Is the first sentence here cool or uncool? Against my better nature, I'm trying something new. Maybe I’m a fuddy-duddy, but I get annoyed when progressive radio talk-show hosts interview these young intellectuals and the first word they utter is "so." I lie in bed wondering if their opening statement is a conclusion or a transition. If so, it's a transition from what? As it always turns out, it's neither. They use it as some kind of queer introduction and it takes my grammatically-correct concentration away from the message they're trying to communicate. What am I missing here? Maybe I'm pathetic in copying their style, behaving like someone I'm not, like the chubby-old-man I happen to be stuffing himself into young men's surfer-dude shirts rather than wearing the outfits from Frank's Big and Tall Men's Shop which he really should do instead.)

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sent is not responsible for links on the site. For example, I use keywords "Operant Conditioning" in the YouTube search field for the videos displayed below the archives on the left. Google selects the videos and the results change from time to time. Please email me if anything is not educational and germane to the subject and I will reevaluate the search.

I am an advocate for people with disabilities certified to teach special education with a Master of Arts in Teaching. I am not a Licensed Psychologist or a Board Certified Behavior Analyst. When in doubt, seek the advice of an MD, a PhD, or a BCBA. My ability to analyze the ethics of ABA stems from the fact that I am disabled and ABA interventions are often done to people like me, which I voluntarily accept, but only when I alone am the person granting consent, and not a parent, sibling, guardian, or institution.