behaviorism

A problem with “behavior is communication”

In certain contexts, just about everything a disabled person does will result in someone following them around with a clipboard, taking notes on their behavior, and designing a behavior plan for them.

This is often called ‘listening to what the behavior is communicating’ or ‘keeping in mind that behavior is communication.’

I know that nothing I’ve ever done was intended to communicate ‘please put me on a behavior plan’. If anyone asked me, they would know with certainty that I don’t want them to do anything of the sort.

I’m not alone in this. Very few people would willingly consent to intense data collection of the kind involved in behavior analysis. Far fewer people would willingly consent to the ways in which that data is used to control their behavior. 

A lot of people never get asked. People do these things to them that very few people would willingly consent to — without asking, and without considering consent to be a relevant consideration.

Somehow, an approach that involves ignoring what someone might be thinking gets called ‘listening to what is being communicated’.

That is neither ethical nor logical. Behaviors don’t communicate; people do. If you want to understand what someone is thinking, you have to listen to them in a way that goes beyond what any behavior plan can do.

Collecting data is not the same as listening, modifying behavior is not the same as understanding what someone is thinking, and disabled people are fully human. 

Activism must not be derailed by behaviorism

Behaviorist ideology says that there are four basic reasons people do things: to get things/activities, to get pleasant sensations, to avoid something they dislike, or to get attention. 

All of these are real reasons people do things, and it’s useful to keep them in mind. It’s also important to remember that they are not the only reasons people do things. People also have thoughts, feelings, and values.

This behaviorist framing assumes that human beings are fundamentally amoral and selfish.  Behaviorism has no room for courage, integrity, or concern for justice. In real life, values matter.

For instance: People who would not steal to support themselves will put their lives on the line to protest cuts to Medicaid. People who find it humiliating to be publicly praised as ~inspiring~ will call congress to fight bad policies, including bad policies that affect groups other than their own. There’s more going on than attention. Values matter.

In activism and advocacy, it’s often useful to show others that it’s in their interests to support our policies. (Eg: “Your constituents care about Medicaid, and you’ll lose your seat if you vote for a bill that would cut it”, or “No matter how responsible you are, you could get sick tomorrow and need access to Medicaid.” 

It’s *also* useful to show them that the policies matter within *values* they already care about. For instance, if someone cares about religious freedom, it could be useful to point out that institutionalized people lose access to their houses of worship and other things they need in order to practice their religion on their terms. If someone cares about encouraging people to work, it could be useful to point out ways in which Home and Community Based disability services make it possible for people to work.

It’s also important to make a case for our values more broadly. People don’t understand what ableism is and why it’s bad. Many people are receptive to learning, if it’s explained in a way that they can understand. It’s not just about self-interest. It’s also about values. People can understand right and wrong, and act accordingly, whether they are marginalized or privileged.

Privilege doesn’t need to prevent someone from being a good person and doing the right thing. There’s more to life than behaviorism and self interest. People are capable of caring about their values more than they care about enjoying the advantages of privilege. 

tl;dr Behaviorism reduces everything people do to self-interest, with no room for values. Activism based solely on privilege analysis falls into the same mistake. We need to keep in mind that all people are capable of learning to tell right from wrong and act accordingly. We need to make the case for our values, in a way that people can understand. Lives depend on it.

A basic problem with ABA

Content note: This post is about ABA and abuse culture within ABA. Proceed with caution.

Applied Behavior Analysis and other forms of behaviorism combine these things in a disastrous way:

  • Behavior analysts with highly idealized notions of What People Should Do and How People Learn
  • Highly developed behavior modification techniques that can be effectively used to make people do complex things at the direction of the therapist
  • Disabled people who are socially devalued to the point that behavior analysts are given free rein to modify their behavior
  • A hierarchy of behaviorists, in which lower level behaviorists have to rigidly follow the plans of those above them in the hierarchy (and take data proving that they have done so) regardless of what the person they’re doing it to communicates

This is present at the heart of ABA culture. Behavior analysts have a notion of how they’d like the world to be, and they use powerless people with disabilities as props to make the world look that way.

Some BCBAs mean well; some don’t. Most BCBAs probably believe that they are helping vulnerable people to learn in the only way possible. Some BCBAs even teach some of their students useful skills using the principles of behavior analysis. None of that solves the core problem in behaviorist culture. The combination of ideology and power is dangerous, no matter how well-meaning those who wield it are.

All behavior therapists have far, far more power to control their students than anyone should ever have. Complex effective behavior modification techniques create a dangerous level of power in themselves. In a better world, this could be moderated by a professional culture that acknowledged the danger in this power and had rigorous standards about using it in consensual ways. Behaviorist professional culture could be like that, but it isn’t.

All of them are part of a professional culture that constantly gives them the message that the level of power they have over their students is necessary and important, and that it’s the only possible way their student can be ok in any way. (They may even be getting the message that they don’t have enough power over their students, and taught to lament the fact that they don’t have enough power to be truly effective.)

It’s possible to use behaviorist principles to teach someone how to dress themself. It’s just as possible to use the same principles to teach someone that she must wear only feminine clothing or that he must never wear a skirt. And that’s an easy line to cross without even realizing it. Behaviorists have highly developed techniques for controlling behavior. They don’t have highly developed techniques for *refraining* from controlling behavior, or being ethical about *which* behavior they’re controlling. They have vaguely defined professional ethics about not hurting people, but that’s nowhere near good enough.  

This problem plays out in any number of ways. 

It’s like – a hydra. Some of the heads are things like electric shock and starvation. And other heads are taking away everything a victim loves and making them earn it back with compliance. Or training children that stimming and other forms of autistic body language are wrong. Or forcing children to enact the therapist’s stereotypes of appropriate play.

Some of the heads are much subtler. Some of them don’t have words yet. Any head of the hydra, by itself, represents a serious violation. None of them is the entire problem.

Any BCBA can cut some of those heads off the hydra, and say “Not all BCBAs are like that!”. Or “nobody uses electric shock anymore; that was in the 70s!” or “My ABA is play-based” or “I give kids frequent breaks; no 2-hour sessions of DTT here,” or “I would never extinguish stimming.”

But cutting off some of the obvious heads, or even all of the heads that self advocates have found words for, doesn’t solve the basic problems.

The hydra is still there even if all of the named heads are cut off. Cut off all of the heads anyone has found words for, and you still have the basic problem of people with extreme levels of power to modify the behavior of people with disabilities in arbitrary ways. Behaviorism will never be ok until that problem is solved.

It might be possible to be a behaviorist without being part of the hydra. If anyone’s doing it, it’s Dave Hingsburger and some of his students. But people who want to use principles of behavior therapy in a respectful (or even just non-abusive) way face a tremendous barrier to entry in the field. In order to become a BCBA high up enough in the hierarchy to write programs following your values, you have to spend a lot of hours doing entry-level behavior therapy works. That means following someone else’s program. That means doing a lot of harm to innocent people with disabilities, unless you can somehow find a supervisor who goes against the entire culture of behaviorism to treat people with disabilities as fully human.

tl;dr Behaviorism has some potentially legitimate applications, but the professional culture of behaviorism is deeply committed to abuse of power. It’s nearly impossible to be a behavior therapist without doing profoundly degrading and damaging things to people who deserve better. (And if you think you’re doing so, I’d like to hear about how you’re managing that).

People with disabilities learn and think

People with disabilities are capable of learning things on purpose, because they’re interested in what they’re learning. That’s true of people with all kinds and degrees of disability. Everyone cares about things, everyone thinks, any everyone learns.

And yet, education for people with disabilities often starts from the assumption that disabled folks have no intrinsic motivation to learn. That, before you can start to teach anything, you have to identify a reinforcer for the target behavior. And that it should be the same across subjects, and that it needn’t have any relation to what you’re trying to teach.

So, instead of starting by teaching reading, you might start by identifying an effective reinforcer, and using it to reinforce reading behavior. For example, stickers. Or giving a jellybean each time someone reads a page. Or high fives. 

In a technical sense, finding a book that someone enjoys is also, according to behaviorist theory, finding an effective reinforcer for reading behavior. But it’s not at all the same as using an unrelated reinforcer to teach reading.

Finding a book that interests a person you’re teaching to read communicates why reading is worthwhile. Using an unrelated reinforcer to get them to cooperate with reading lessons may work, but it doesn’t communicate the value of reading. In fact, it actively demonstrates that you’re assuming that they will not value reading and that it’s not worth trying to convince them that reading is worthwhile. 

The same is true of communication lessons. Identifying a reinforcer and using it to reinforce speaking behavior can get someone to cooperate with rote speech lessons, but it can’t teach them what symbolic communication is. Figuring out what someone wants to say, and giving them a reliable way to say it, can. So can making sure that you listen to communication someone already has, and making it clear that you respect them. (If you refuse to learn their language, you’re teaching them that their communication doesn’t matter. Which is the opposite of helpful.) Behaviorist approaches something accomplish that, but only as a side effect. You can teach communication better if you teach it directly, rather than as a side effect of reinforcing speaking or pointing behavior. 

People with disabilities care about things, and want to learn. The assumption that we don’t is deeply degrading.