Average Joes and Josephines

Ever read an article in the local paper that gives fairly categorical advice about how to exercise, eat, sleep, relax, or whatever?   I read them all the time, in everything from the most erudite scientific magazines and journals to the tabloids that I guiltily sneak a look at while waiting in the checkout line at the grocery store (and pondering whether or not to give my sage advice about child behavior management to the lady in front of me with the out of control child [I never do, by the way]). General advice of this sort, based on the “average bear” (for you friends of Yogi Bear) is called “nomothetic,” as compared to advice tailored to the individual, which is called “idiographic.” Both have a place in the science of behavior and thus in the workplace. And both have their limitations. 

General statements about the human condition obviously are important. Knowing that most of us (but, even here, not all of us) can distinguish red and green is critical in designing traffic management systems. Knowing that exercise and an appropriate diet generally result in a healthier person has contributed to improving the quality of life for many of us. 

Nomothetic statements, however, sometimes are contradictory, as when one of us observes, “Absence makes the heart grow fonder,” while a colleague notes with equal certainty, “Out of sight out of mind.” Medical advice often is nomothetic, based on the effects of some drug or therapeutic regimen on the average Joe or Josephine. A behavior analyst colleague has pointed out that cancer drugs are screened according to statistical analyses that say little about the effects of the drugs on specific individuals within a population (Perils of Evidence-Based Medicine). In developing his own treatment for his brain cancer, he found that many drugs rejected for general use because when used in treatment they failed to reach an arbitrary level of statistical significance were useful in his particular case. (Given less than a 1% chance of living 5 years, he is going strong more than 20 years after the initial diagnosis). Management advice often is similarly nomothetic. It is designed for the average situation or circumstance, but maybe not for yours or mine. Good programs sometimes are not considered because they don’t work well in the average company. 

Performance management programs like those developed by Aubrey Daniels International are sensitive to nomothetic data, but they go beyond what seems good for the average Joe or Josephine and focus on individual circumstances and situations (which is not to say, only on individuals), tailoring management systems for those circumstances and situations. This sensitivity to local circumstances often distinguishes a behavioral approach, making it useful and adaptable to a range of situations. Square pegs are not fitted into round holes simply because there is a round hole matrix. Perfect squares and perfect circles are rare in real life and it more often is the case that both the shape and the matrix need to be fitted to one another. 

The next time you hear that national or local news reporter droning on about how we should all eat more cabbage to increase our visual acuity or whatever, be circumspect. Or that well-known management consultant Bill Snibblegrass says that the latest Firewalking in the Rain management approach is what everybody on your management teams needs to address whatever challenges of managing others they face, be circumspect. Ask for the data, evaluate the evidence. Understand the circumstances under which Firewalking in the Rain has been tested, who it was tested on, how it was tested, and what the outcomes really are. Considering these things will guide you in evaluating whether the new Snibblegrass method really might be useful in helping the Joes and Josephines in your organization.  

Posted by Andy Lattal, Ph.D.

Dr. Andy Lattal is the Centennial Professor of Psychology at West Virginia University (WVU). Lattal has authored over 150 research articles and chapters on conceptual, experimental, and applied topics in behavior analysis and edited seven books and journal special issues, including APA’s memorial tribute to B. F. Skinner.