A bit of precision is required when communicating effectively as part of a scientific field and behaviour analysts are no strangers to this endeavour. Applied behaviour analysis (ABA) is full of jargon and its short forms. Add to this that behaviour analysts love to talk shop and we have what seems like a ridiculous conversation among colleagues:
Most of our jargon finds its place amid the discussions and writings of researchers and practitioners of ABA. Practicing behaviour analysts are concentrated mainly among the social services and education sectors. This means we are in regular discussion and collaboration with professionals and consumers not familiar with ABA terminology. We start to substitute synonyms or use colloquialisms to explain our processes and theories. And therein lies the danger. By doing so, we become less scientific, we lose precision in our explanations by each choosing synonyms we think fit with what we are trying to say. Since these terms are easily swapped, the original terminology eventually loses the intended meaning (Quirk, 2012); or worse, is used incorrectly. One only needs to do a search for terms such as ‘negative reinforcement’, ‘punishment’, ‘reinforcer’ to see how these terms are misunderstood. Each time these terms are used incorrectly, the listener/reader walks away with incorrect information; knowledge behaviour analysts must then undo.
While the current state of knowledge on ABA would make the conversation example above seem rather exclusionary, I feel it is still important to inform the public of our practices using the correct terminology. As Quirk (2012) pointed out, we should not be afraid to use our own jargon.
Behaviour analysts can communicate their science and still be understood. Otherwise, if we withhold the jargon, how will the public be expected to understand it and use it correctly? This is a bit of a balancing act. The Behavior Analyst Certification Board’s Guidelines for Responsible Conduct require behaviour analysts to disseminate correct information about our science. It also states that behaviour analysts must provide its clients/consumers with the necessary information to make informed treatment decisions. In my discussions and writings, I often pair both the ABA term with a more commonplace term to aid in the understanding and comprehension. My leanings however are always towards the behaviour analytic term and eventually I fade out the commonplace term. As our professional relationship continues, I constantly label, “Oh that is functioning as ….”, or “That’s an example of…” making reference to ABA terminology. I also provide feedback when the terms are used correctly. And finally, I take these guidelines one step further to include correcting misinformation of ABA and the misapplication of language that is shared among our field, the media and the sectors we work in.
It may seem like a big deal for such nuances to be differentiated, but to ignore it means reinforcement of errors continues. These errors are detrimental to our science being understood and accepted. The anti-rewards and anti-punishment campers are an example. Many trash behaviourism and reject ABA based on their understanding of rewards/punishment as something you do (form), versus their effects on behaviour (function).
The battle over words and understanding of ABA is an uphill one. Much of my energy is spent in explaining behaviour analytic terms and processes. At times my efforts are punished. I stay quiet or I lay low. However, when someone not trained in the field of ABA “gets it”, it is such a reinforcer. This is why I try representing our science with as much precision as I can. Let’s reclaim that jargon and ensure it is used correctly.
Quirk, T. (2012). Writers should not fear jargon. Nature, 487(407). Available online: http://www.nature.com/news/writers-should-not-fear-jargon-1.11054
How incorrect terms get conditioned? http://behaviouristatplay.tumblr.com/post/10331867957/the-conditioning-of-negative-reinforcement-in
The anti-punishment crowd http://behaviouristatplay.tumblr.com/post/11474774002/what-is-anti-punishment
How I distinguish between ‘reinforcement’ and ‘reward’ http://behaviouristatplay.tumblr.com/post/4234289784/its-not-all-about-rewards