Thursday, February 26, 2015

B. F. Skinner made costly mistakes in his Behavioral Ethics leadership.

Noam Chomsky (1959) delayed the wide-scale application of behavior modification technology when his critique of Skinner’s book Verbal Behavior became largely responsible for the substitution of behavioral science with cognitive science as the predominant branch of psychology. Human behavior science needed delay, however, given the weak part of Skinner’s ethical record, his argument against a thorough evaluation about how to judge behaviors as right or wrong, and given the break away of most his followers from the most ethical part of his work, his early approach against punishment.

Here's some ethics on value judgments about human behavior.

In the first reprinted essay from his book, Cumulative Record, Skinner (1955/1961, p. 6) said, “To confuse and delay the improvement of cultural practices by quibbling about the word improve is itself not a useful practice (italics added). Let us agree, to start with, that health is better than illness, wisdom better than ignorance, love better than hate, and productive energy better than neurotic sloth .” He also said, “Now, among the specifications which might reasonably be submitted to a behavioral technology are these: Let men be happy, informed, skillful, well-behaved (italics added), and productive (p. 3).”

Behavioralists cannot find a criterion for demarcation between “well-behaved” versus poorly-behaved people when they describe discussions about the relative degrees of “importance” of so-called “problem behaviors” as useless “quibbling,” mere delay and confusion during their rush to apply human science in its wide-scale application toward the improvement of culture. Ethical analysis shows how mistaken and damaging this portion of Skinner’s lead has been, notwithstanding his valuable assessment of the problem of punishment.

So here is some background information on one of his assignments:
The Society for the Experimental Analysis of Behavior (SEAB) publishes both the Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior and the Journal of Applied Behavioral Analysis. SEAB was formed in 1957. The Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior (JEAB; pronounced JAY-AB) was founded to meet the needs of those who had been attracted to the behavioral analytic approach but were unhappy with the lack of a journal specializing in that rapidly growing area. As described on its inside front page ever since, the new journal is “primarily for the original publication of experiments relevant to the behavior of individual organisms....”  The initial Board of Editors of JEAB also served as the first Board of Directors of SEAB. In 1968, heartened by the success of its first venture into publishing, SEAB founded the Journal of Applied Behavioral Analysis (JABA), established for “the original publication of reports of experimental research involving applications of the experimental analysis of behavior to problems of social importance.” (SEAB, retrieved February 26, 2015)
Skinner served on the JEAB's founding Board of Editors (SEAB, 1958). Therefore, he was also a founder of SEAB. He was also a founding member of JABA's Board of Editors (SEAB, 1968).

While Baer, Wolf, and Risley were setting scientific standards for the up and coming age of Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA) in the first issue of JABA with "Some Current Dimensions of Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA),” their ethical standards proved inadequate. Their main criterion to assess the problematic nature of unwanted behavior was the popular norms of the day. They said, “If a behavior is socially important, the usual behavioral analysis will aim at its improvement (italics added). The social value dictating this choice is obvious (1968, p. 910).... The evaluation of what is a 'good' society is in itself a behavior of its members (p. 91).... Application typically means producing valuable behavior; valuable behavior usually meets extra-experimental reinforcement in a social setting (p. 94).” Baer, Wolf, and Risley implied that society is the judge of which of "its important behaviors" it will "allow" behavioral analysts to manipulate when they said, "Society rarely will allow its important behaviors, in their correspondingly important settings, to be manipulated repeatedly (by experimental behavioral analysts) for the merely logical comfort of a scientifically skeptical audience (1968, p. 92)." They explicitly valued the development of heterosexual behavior while implicitly devaluing homosexual behavior (p. 96).

Meanwhile, in the same inaugural issue of JABA, in a report of an experiment on a so-called "deviant" six-year-old autistic girl, Risley said, "Midway through Session 108 (arrow, Fig. 5) the following procedure was introduced. The experimenter shouted "Stop that!", seized S by the upper arms, and shook her whenever she began rocking. He would wait until her eyes were closed or fixed on her hand before abruptly shouting and shaking her. This event invariably produced a "startle reflex" and flushing in S. This contingency, which terminated each rocking episode, of course, decreased the time spent rocking from 25% to less than 1% of the session (top graph, Fig. 5). More important (italics added), the frequency of rocking episodes also decreased steadily from 0.94 per min in the first session where this contingency was applied, to 0.03 per min in the tenth session. This indicated that shouting and shaking S was a punishing stimulus which decreased the probability of the behaviors... (Risley, 1968, p. 31)." So he decided it was “important” to decrease the young girl’s rate of body rocking, but nowhere in the article did he say why the reduction was so important.

ABA literature has been targeting for modification physically harmless autistic behaviors of the kind, so-called "stereotypy," body rocking, hand flapping, and the like, since before the beginning of JABA, the flagship ABA publication, and forever thereafter.

Here's some ethics about coercive punishment.

Skinner (1938/1991) had discovered the basic principles of operant conditioning during which human and non-human organisms operate upon the environment which in turn determines their subsequent rates of relevant behaviors with the environmental consequences to the behaviors they've emitted. The consequences are the various time-interval schedules and numerical-frequency or ratio schedules of continuously or intermittently reinforcing and punishing stimuli and events immediately following the emissions of behaviors.

Skinner (1953/2014, p. 183) warned the world against its strong tendency toward the self-perpetuating nature of worldwide punishment run amok. "In the long run, punishment, unlike reinforcement, works to the disadvantage of both the punished organism and the punishing agency."

Unfortunately, however, big chunks of the ABA profession have broken away from his admonitions against coercion. Risley's (1968) subject was also a furniture climber which he and her parents had deemed a "dangerous" behavior, so dangerous, in fact, that after unsuccessful attempts to reduce it with the time-out and with reinforcement for incompatible sitting-in-a-chair behavior, they decided to shock her with electricity (pp. 22-25), under the advice of Ivar Lovaas, who had already been shocking autistics for their so-called abnormal behaviors (pp. 21-22). Risley concluded by saying, "The most significant side effect (of shaking her body, spanking her, and shocking her) was the fact that eliminating climbing and autistic rocking with punishment facilitated the acquisition of new desirable behaviors (p. 33)."

The stage was set. The break away from early Skinner was clear and has continued unabated. Skinner was an editor of this first issue of JABA. This begets the question: did he object to Risley's electro-shock punishment or had he been persuaded by his followers to abandon his opposition to coercion?

As it stands today, under the ostensible guise of "scientifically-proven ABA data," behavioralists still advocate some very intrusive methods of behavioral control. Apparently, with some praiseworthy exceptions, in their general silence, unless they're oblivious, one by one, the majority of the profession has been supporting the vocal defenders of painful electric “shock therapy” contingent upon “noncompliance” and "disruption" in an "educational” setting near Boston, Massachusetts called the Judge Rotenberg Center (JRC) (Israel, 2009).

Others have taken a different path and have faithfully stuck to the scientifically supported, non-aversive “alternatives to punishment," even during the most challenging self-injurious and physically aggressive behaviors. This subset of licensed and certified behavioral analysts apparently represents a minority group within the profession. (See LaVigna and Donnellan, 1988.)


Had they listened to early Skinner; had Skinner and his contemporaries truly bothered to “quibble” over their assessment of what Skinner called "bad behavior;" and had they applied some ethical standards besides the popular-behavior-of-the-day standard to judge the physically harmless behaviors they have targeted for reduction, then behavioralism would not have been hit so hard with its poor ethics reputation. (For one alternative standard, the dual consent of parent or guardian and child or incapacitated adult, see, for example, Altieri, 2011.)

The current state of human behavioral science is highly effective in the modification of human behavior. Since the practice of all science depends upon human behavior, it is therefore the most powerful of all sciences. Only when it improves its ethics can we convince the general public to accept the scientific design of culture, Skinner’s pinnacle vision, which must take place, if it does take place, under the highest of ethical standards, which ABA practice has yet to achieve, lest it fall completely into the hands of an international tyrant or the clutches of the rapidly developing corporate oligarchy, which has already sunk its teeth into Skinner’s work.



This post is an update to an ongoing inquiry into the ethics of ABA. For a set of conclusions after seven years of research, see Altieri, (2014).

The facts in this article have been checked, but its author would welcome some guidance should anyone wish to shed some light pertaining to the completeness or accuracy of the evaluation.

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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.