Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Living as a Radical Behaviorist

Living as a Radical Behaviorist (RB) is very rewarding, but can also be very difficult. I'm not going to get into the history and what radical behaviorism is in painstaking details here. But I will discuss some difficulties, some benefits, and some personal views.

To start, very few people you'll interact with (unless you're a professional, and even some of their "radical behaviorist views'" can be questionable) are not RBs. Many people are unfamiliar with Skinner, let alone his RB. And trying to convince them of an alternate world-view that isn't filled with mental constructs and free will is hard for them -- some will even get mad if you try. It is additionally difficult in the school system, as teacher preparation barely gets into Skinner and behavior analysis, let alone Skinner's RB. Now, remember, a lot of these people are professionals, but to have them flip a pedagogical switch is hard and you may come off as arrogant. I once had a supervisor at a school tell me to "stop drinking the ABA Kool-Aide." I bit my tongue, but I would have liked to tell her that RB is a philosophy of a science that explores how the world works -- and it's always at work. For me, I felt like she was telling me not to breath. Now, of course, I didn't want to be rude, and I am becoming more impermeable to these sorts of statements by people whose minds I won't change in a single, passing discussion, but it is hard.

It is equally frustrating working with educators, special or general, because you sometimes will want to shake them and saying, "You're providing education services to children who will become people, why don't you know about these things." These things referring to principles of reinforcement and punishment and functions of behavior. They seem to think behavior is only what's bad, and as we know, that supposition is wrong. They talk about "expectations," "thoughts," and "experiences" in a way that they think is enlightening to what's going on in their classrooms, but it doesn't tell me much. What tells me a lot, because of my world-view, is observing their rooms and teaching strategies. And now, I get it, you don't need to know everything about RB or ABA to be an effective teacher, but wouldn't they want to know "why" their instruction is effective? Even for those teachers using evidence-based procedures and making data based decisions, a theoretical and conceptual framework behind the why and how strategies work should be understood (and quite well!).

There are, of course, joys to being a RB. I appreciate being able to distill the world into manageable units of behavior. I like understanding that if someone is being impolite to me to get a rise out of me, I should ignore them on every occasion, or if their being rude because it makes them feel better, there's little I can do about that. I like looking at my own learning history, and that if others if I am privy, to see why I and they behave in certain ways -- it's a fun, intellectually stimulating activity. Of course, being an RB makes me a better ABA clinician, but it also allows me to be less emotional about some of the smaller circumstances that arise in life -- my strong emotions are reserved for serious issues. Incidentally, I was reviewed today by two people. One gave me a stellar, almost perfect review, the other gave me a lesser scored one. For the latter, I knew that her comments came as a result of feeling threatened by my presence and in anger at that. So, those criticisms, if not constructive, bounce off.

I also enjoy being deterministic. It means that I can manipulate the world in a certain way to maximize on the benefits, and try and fade out the drawbacks. For example, I can weed out that rude person by punishing their behavior so they'll stay away and be rude to someone else, while I can reinforce the people who meet my automatic and social needs to stay around me.

Really, in a simple phrasing, being a radical behaviorist is liberating. It allows me to remain objective about instances that others see as subjective. It allows me to see that people are doing what works best for them, whether it is optimal or sub-optimal. It allows me to strive for significant, socially meaningful outcomes across many aspects of my life, both personal and professional. In all, living as a radical behaviorist enriches my life in many ways.

Many thanks to B.F. Skinner and all of the giants who have helped to develop radical behaviorism and the related science. Without them, I'd be sitting here trying to figure it all out with useless mechanisms of philosophy and illogical reasoning.

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