Behavior Analysis ≠ The Psychology you know

This week I think it’s important to make a few important distinctions between Behavior Analysis and two other commonly linked professions: Most (ok all) other Psychologies and Management Consulting.

Today, Psychology.

Yes. Behaviorism was born out of the psychologies. Yes. B. F. Skinner (Oh Holy One!) IS studied as one of the giants of psychology (amen and hallelujah). HOWEVER, there are some pretty major differences between behaviorism and the psychology you know.

Why do I feel the need to make this point? Well, because you will hear me talk about Behavior Analysis as THE way to understand motivation, something every other psychology may profess to do, but in reality, the SCIENCE of behavior is the only psychology I’ve found in my years of study and practice that really and truly gets at motivation.

The major differences in my words and in order of my perceived importance:

  1. Behavior Analysis deals in observable, measurable behavior- Other psychologies rely on unobservable and unmeasurable (and therefore theoretical) constructs to explain the causes of behavior. (Think: anything Freudian and other concepts like “free will” and repressed memories)
  2. Behavior Analysis focuses on behavior and its current environment- other psychologies put an emphasis instead on past events to explain the causes of behavior.
  3. Labels and diagnosis are basically moot- Because we are focused on current, observable and measurable behavior it means very little to “diagnose” or focus on psychological (or really any other) labels. These can lead to unnecessary bias and do not change how we will approach the application of the science. Honestly, I could care less if you are “high-strung”, depressed, dealing with an eating disorder, on the autism spectrum, or quite frankly, a dog (yes, we do that too). Behavior is behavior. Some of it “works” and some of it doesn’t. Our job is to understand the behavior and be agents of change, if need be.


For example, take a peek at the comic below.

[Insert sense of humor here]


As it relates to motivation, here is how a Behavior Analyst sees it:


Notice the third section/box. This is where we look to understand motivation. It’s the current and environmentally derived Consequences box (more on specific terminology to come). Or the “what-they-got-out-of-it” box.

Could Wife change Husband’s behavior? Science says, yes. Since we now know that Mr. HungryMcstuff-yo-face engages in poor dishwasher loading when he wants to GET OUT AND EAT, we’ve gained exactly the information we need to start to make a change.

So what separates this Behavior Analytic example from other psychological approaches?    We described the behavior in measurable terms within the context of the current environment. In a more scientific application to this example we would have been more likely to say something like, “Behavior=Husband loaded dishwasher in a manner that lead to an inability to close the door on two occasions”. Then, via observation, we discovered evidence that, in this context, his behavior is escape maintained as well as maintained by access to preferred items/situations. We can now make changes to the environmental variables in the first and third boxes above to get the dishwasher loaded in a more functional way that will probably also lead to more marital satisfaction :) We can then continue to measure the behavior change over time to ensure that we are getting the intended results. The measurability, replicability and unbiased focus on observable behavior give this approach a much more scientific swagger.

Now, to connect the dots for my next post on Management Consulting, imagine if you were a leader in an organization that had the ability to understand what your people need to feel motivated. How to handle that one guy who says all the right things when he’s standing in front of you but then goes off and never “follows through” on anything you talked about. Or that other dude, over there, across the desk from you now, who won’t focus on his work because he’s too busy reading that new behavior blog. Just kidding. We like him!


Imagine if that leader was YOUR boss? Could be cool. Could be really friggin cool. Could change things in a major way….