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