Further Thoughts on Technological Solutions to Behavioral Problems

In a previous commentary (Technology and Behavior Around the Office Coffee Machine), I described a mechanical solution to the problem of getting people to refill the coffee machine’s water reservoir.  In that commentary, I mentioned one of my colleague’s concerns about my view expressed in that commentary concerning how a technological solution to maintaining the office coffee machine was preferable to a behavioral one.  In this follow-up to that commentary, I consider how some technological solutions may not be as useful in solving behavioral problems.

Here’s my favorite example of such failure. For most of the years that I lived in my small university city, there was an intersection along a busy road with a 4-way stop sign. I always marveled at how the collective “we” seemed to work out the flow of traffic at this intersection. Traffic always rotated such that each person first in each of the lines of traffic at each road joining the intersection waited their turn and then proceeded through the intersection.  The result was a constant, smooth flow of traffic, with the second car in line rarely if ever immediately following the first car in line through the intersection without waiting for the other cars at the other intersecting roads to take their respective turns. People turned left with ease and traffic in any line was never terribly long.

Then along came the traffic engineers, who installed a stop light. Kiss of death for cooperative behavior at the intersection. The traffic light totally messed up the natural flow. The problem is that if there are lines of traffic on one of the roads, when someone wants to turn left, they must wait until the traffic coming the other way clears. The result usually is that only one car can turn left per light cycle (each intersecting road is only one lane, with a steep berm on either side), thereby backing up the line behind it for a long way. This is particularly the case when successive cars are turning left. Unlike the “good old days” when it was a four-way stop, traffic at the intersection is a mess.  Traffic engineers often solve traffic behavior problems in efficient and cost-effective ways, but in this case they did not.

We all live in houses and work in offices and navigate around communities where insufficient attention and planning has been given to how people use the environments that were designed by people who (often) don’t have to live or work in them. Behavioral psychologists, ergonomists, and others concerned with environmental design and human behavior often are not consulted until after enormous amounts of time and money have been invested in a particular design. Even when they are, unexpected glitches in the design are revealed only when people actually use the environments.

Unsafe workplace behavior is rampant in businesses and industries large and small. Terrific technological innovations like safety belts, back supports, and shatterproof helmets are valuable in preventing debilitating and even life-threatening injuries. But they are not enough. Only by also engineering the behavior of putting on, wearing, and maintaining these technological devices can goals associated with injury reduction or elimination be accomplished.

Technological solutions and sound environmental designs often bring along appropriate behavior change, but not always. When they do not, it is time to reconsider the behavior-technology interface and set into place behavioral contingencies that complement the advances made in the many technologies that have made life what it is today.



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.