Don’t just take it from us, distinguished child psychologist Alan Kazdin addresses the issue (wittily and succinctly) here.
Several misrepresentations are embedded here. Each will be dealt with in turn.
Misrepresentation #1. Generality of experimental work to everyday life. Behavior
analysis’ achievements in the laboratory cannot be applied in daily life, therefore what
behavior analysts say about human behavior in the larger world is “unsupported
Clarification. Applied behavior analysis is the field most responsible for extending basic
behavioral research into applied settings. The number and range of lab-to real-world
transitions is striking for such a young field. For example, experimentally-based principles,
data, and procedures have been used in:
Education. Teaching methods, classroom behavior management systems,
and assessment tactics have been drawn from the experimental analysis of behavior and
applied in general education, special education, music, sports, teacher training, peer
tutoring, truancy, vandalism, and numerous other areas.
Business. Organizational Behavior Management is exemplified in work by
Aubry Daniels. These techniques are virtually defined by improved productivity gained by
positive management practices.
Medicine. Behavioral medicine addresses a wide range of problems
including stress-related risk factors, high blood pressure, pain control, and building healthy
Anyone who doubts the range of areas where experimentally derived procedures and
principles have been applied need only peruse the index of any behavioral journal (e.g.,
Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, Behavioral Medicine, Journal of Behavioral Education, etc.).
Misrepresentation #2: Generalizing animal research to humans. Behavior analysis is
sometimes characterized as stating that research on animal behavior automatically
generalizes to humans.
Clarification: Behavior analysts do not assume that data automatically generalize across
species. Verbal behavior’s role in rule-governed behavior is an example, as is the question
of whether stimulus equivalence occurs at all in animals. Behavior analysts hold that clear
differences and similarities exist between humans and other species. This is much the same
position as medicine where research on animals precedes work on humans and the
generality of animal research is carefully evaluated.
Misrepresentation #3: Equiconditionability of behaviors. Behavior analysts are
sometimes said to hold a naive tabula rasa epistemology that suggests all behavior is
Clarification: Behavior analysts are very cognizant of differences between
conditionability of behaviors across and within species . The Breland’s famous article “The
Misbehavior of Organisms” (a play on Skinner’s 1938 The Behavior of Organisms)
indicated how species-specific responding can intrude into behaviors they were training in
animals. Behavior analysts clearly appreciate the fact that some behavior results from
phylogenic contingencies (resulting from natural selection acting on the species) and these
can affect ontogenic contingencies (those acting on the behavior of an individual during its
lifetime).Skinner pointed to such distinctions in Contingencies of Reinforcement and they
have been addressed above. Such ontogenic-phylogenic interaction is a fascinating area for
behavior analysts–not a case against them.