Academic journal article The Behavior Analyst Today

Behavioral Safety: Meeting the Challenge of Making a Large-Scale Difference

Academic journal article The Behavior Analyst Today

Behavioral Safety: Meeting the Challenge of Making a Large-Scale Difference

Article excerpt

The challenge of applying behavior analysis on a large scale is addressed. Behavioral safety is reviewed as an exemplar, because numerous industries worldwide are now using this technology to prevent occupational injuries. The basic principles and procedures of behavioral safety are presented with language and teaching aids that increase the acceptability of this approach. However, the broad-based marketing and application of behavioral safety has led to substantial controversy and misunderstanding about behavioral technology, as well as various misinterpretations. These issues are explicated, along with a call for action to help set the record straight and give behavior analysis the credit it deserves, thereby increasing its potential to make large-scale differences in quality of life.


As Malott (in press) recently pointed out, "behavior analysis is blessed with many professionals devoting their lives to chasing the noble dream--the dream of saving the world with behavior analysis." These "dream chasers" appreciate the value of an objective behavioral approach to problem solving, and realize the cost-effectiveness of using the basic three-term contingency (or Antecedent-Behavior-Consequence Model) to improve behavior on a large scale. Indeed, the research literature is replete with impressive demonstrations that this approach works, from improving learning and interpersonal care in educational and residential settings to increasing productivity and work quality in industrial environments (e.g., Goldstein & Krasner, 1987; Greene et al., 1987; Kazdin, 1994). And there have been numerous community-based applications of behavior analysis. For example, the author has seen firsthand the success of behavior analysis in addressing the human dynamics of such wide-ranging issues as environmental preservation (e.g., Cone & Hayes, 1980; Dwyer, Leeming, Cohen, Porter, & Jackson, 1993; Geller, Winett, & Everett, 1982), transportation safety (Geller, 1998; Ludwig & Geller, 2000), alcohol abuse and alcohol-impaired driving (Geller & Lehman, 1988), and childhood immunization against disease in third-world countries (Lehman & Geller, 1987).

However, the potential for applied behavior analysis to solve societal problems has not been realized. The dream chasers' visions have not been reached. Beyond short-term demonstration projects, there have been very few large-scale implementations of behavior-change strategies for education, transportation safety, environmental protection, alcohol abuse, or public health.


There are a variety of possible reasons for the failure of applied behavior analysis to have far-reaching impact on critical society problems. The most obvious problem is the audience of these demonstration projects. The research is published in professional journals and books read almost exclusively by other psychologists, mostly behavior analysts. Here, the authors give convincing demonstrations of the efficacy of their behavior-change techniques to people who have little interest or influence in large-scale dissemination and application. In other words, the critical social marketing aspects of behavior-change technology have not been addressed (Geller, 1989).

Bailey (1991) comments on this dissemination problem as follows, "We have a great science (the experimental analysis of behavior) and a pretty good technology (applied behavior analysis) but no product development or marketing" (p. 39). He explains further that "we do not value marketing" and have "neglected to develop socially acceptable terminology for presenting our concepts to consumers ... we have, in our zest for science and technology, taken the human concerns out of behavior analysis" (p. 39).

In addition, long-term maintenance and institutionalization of behavior-change strategies have rarely been studied. Most applications of behavior analysis to address organizational, community, and societal problems have been short-term demonstration projects, conducted to show that a particular intervention procedure has a desired effect. …

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