Technology and the Science of Behavior

A story on NPR’s All Things Considered (October 30, 2012) caught my attention. The gist of the story, about supercomputers, was that the 30 billion dollar a year video game industry was driving the development of a new generation of computer chips designed to handle the high speed operations needed to push those games to new heights. The storyline went on to discuss how basic computer scientists interested in developing supercomputers were benefiting from such chip development, making a new generation of supercomputers possible.  

Technology is certainly apparatus, like the scientific instruments in the virtual museum at the Aubrey Daniels Institute or high-speed computers or medical tests of one kind and another. Technology is other things too, like a token economy used in a classroom for behavior management or a program designed to teach managers new problem-solving skills.

The road to technology from science historically has been considered a one-way street: a scientist develops something and someone else applies it. This has been a very useful model and it does capture something of the relationship between science and technology. Much of applied behavior analysis, for example, developed in this way: first the science of behavior was developed and thereafter various ways of applying that science to solve human problems developed.

The NPR story, as have many contemporary historians of science, suggests a more complex relationship between science and technology.  The road from science to technology is not one-way. Science influences technology, but technology influences science. Technology is essential to many basic sciences. The apparatus in the virtual museum suggests the important role of technology in advancing the behavioral sciences. Modern chemistry, physics, and biology would be quite different, if they existed at all, without the bevy of scientific instrument technology behind them.

More than this, technological applications feed back into the content of basic science. For the past 35 years, Aubrey Daniels International has been concerned with translating the science of behavior into a useful technology to improve the workplace for everyone in that environment.  But, the observations made in the workplace also suggest new directions for the basic science, directions that are encouraged and supported by entities like the Aubrey Daniels Institute. Just as with the computer chips in the NPR story, things happening at the endpoint where the technology meets the consumer, yield problems and issues that, if properly used, can further advance the basic science.

Nor is technology the slave of the basic science. Technology also raises questions that sometimes are best addressed at the level of technology, further blurring the distinction between science and technology.  Many questions arising from applications of the science of behavior are like this. For example, a question of how to best implement a program for 1,000 workers is not really a question for basic science, it is something often best answered in the applied setting. An answer, however, does require the sound methods of science in terms of observation and measurement (see the related blogs on "Looking without Seeing" and "Average Joes and Josephines").

In the end, then, the relation between science and technology is better described as dynamic and interactive. Technology, behavioral or otherwise, is not a passive recipient of scientific knowledge. It is an active participant both in terms of advancing the science through such things as instrumentation, providing new material on which the basic science might work, but also developing and solving its own problems and issues using the basic methods of scientific discovery. 

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.