The Sweet Spot in Communicating Behavior Analysis to the Lay Public

I am often surprised when I hear people who should know better categorically caution behavior analysts about using the precise language of our discipline when communicating with clients or other laypeople. In his remarks on accepting the 2016 Society for the Advancement of Behavior Analysis award for effective presentation of behavior analysis in the mass media, David Freedman suggested that it might be best to not use the words “behavior analysis” in communicating with the lay public. I appreciate this and other attempts to remind us to be humble and better communicators with laypeople, but I also have concerns about the extremes to which these observations sometimes are taken.

In the first place, I am very proud of my discipline, what we have learned, and how we have helped people. I don’t want people thinking I am anything other than a behavior analyst. Not calling ourselves what we are entails at least as many problems as calling ourselves what we are. Our discipline has gone to considerable effort to ensure reasonable criteria for calling oneself a behavior analyst, and thereby having bestowed on them the privilege of using our effective tools to help people. . It seems important to me to identify ourselves as such if for no other reason that the general public will not confuse “real” behavior analysts with behavior-analytic “wanna bes” who label whatever it is that they do as behavioral or behavior analytic, but who lack our training and expertise. If only the latter are calling themselves behavior analysts, then we are in a heap o’ trouble as a discipline.

More generally, saying that using the technical language of our discipline is categorically something to be avoided is just as bad as saying we should always use technical language with laypeople. I am certain that physicians gauge their use of technical language to the particular patient with whom they are conversing. Why on earth would they not do this? Shouldn’t we do the same thing? Don’t we do the same thing?

Those who proffer rules about how we should or should not talk with laypeople seem to overlook an important thing: behavior (including verbal behavior) is shaped by its consequences. If you are talking in ways that are not understood, such behavior will not be reinforced. The absence of reinforcement may take many forms, including a puzzled look by the listener, glazed-over eyes, or just walking away. Most importantly, treatment programs being described in a language not understood will not be implemented, or will not be implemented well, and our ineffective communicator will be out of a job. There are natural consequences to speaking in ways that are not understood, and natural consequences for speaking in ways that are understood. Almost always, these natural consequences result in styles of communication between a behavior analyst and client that allow communication to develop, programs to be implemented, and behavior to change.

There are other reasons to be circumspect about using or not using the technical language of behavior analysis with nonbehaviorists. One of the worst expressions I have run across is that of the need for “dumbing down” our language to communicate with other practitioners, clients, or caregivers. This sort of attitude has more problems than does using overly technical language, though both approaches may convey equal disrespect for the listener.

Beyond the issue of disrespect, many people with whom we work are not satisfied with being given just a package of techniques. In my personal experience, many laypeople express a desire to better understand what is being done and why. In fact, if I stick to clearly explained behavioral constructs, clients not only begin to understand the principles, they also use the language appropriately to describe the programs they are implementing for themselves or for others.  

It isn’t a question of never or always using the technical language of behavior analysis. It’s one of finding the sweet spot where the language is such that there is mutual respect between behavior analyst and client. Only then can our science be translated to have its optimal effect in producing positive behavior change. 

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.