With apologies to Coleridge, behavior analysts are capable of “all things great and small.” You might recall the story of Skinner covertly conditioning a hand waving response in a Freudian nonbeliever at a meeting in the psychology department at Harvard. In case you haven’t heard it, Skinner was attending a faculty meeting when a guest psychoanalyst was criticizing behaviorism. Skinner wrote a note to the colleague sitting next to him, saying something like, “watch while I condition a hand-waving response.” Each time the analyst gesticulated with his hand, Skinner smiled at him. Sure enough, after a while, the analyst was waving his hands wildly.
If behavior analysts have the skills to covertly condition a hand waving response, teach a child with autism to talk, teach me how to tie my shoes (I need a refresher on this one), and keep people awake at nuclear power plants, then certainly we have the skillset to contribute to making the world a kinder, more peaceful place.
Behavior analysts, and psychologists in general, have often tried to extend their reach and apply their knowledge not only to the lives of one human at a time but to humanity as a whole.
Montrose Wolf, one of the pioneers and creators of the term “applied behavior analysis,” moved to Kansas primarily because it was there that he was given the opportunity to create solutions for problems of segregation and poverty. Skinner, whose shoulders Wolf and other behavior analysts stood on, wrote “Beyond Freedom and Dignity” (and perhaps “Walden Two”) in order to address societal ills, and psychologists from nearly all disciplines have typically expanded their focus from the individual to society at large, often toward the waning years of their careers.
Not long ago, a conference entitled “Behavior Change for a Sustainable World” took place in Ohio; behavior analysts from around the world met to discuss how they could use their skills and knowledge to combat climate change and other threats to a sustainable world.
Most behavior analysts I know are overwhelmed with the challenges of helping even just a handful of children, as the rest of us are often bogged down daily with the tasks of caring for our families and ourselves. So it is only for the purpose of inspiration that I present to you these thoughts:
22 years ago, while under house arrest, Myanmar’s democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi won the Nobel Peace Prize, a prize she could not claim until just a year and a half ago. When she finally appeared before the peace prize committee, she gave one of her typically extraordinary speeches. (You can read it in its entirety here.)
When referring to the international plight of refugees, Suu Kyi said the following:
“Ultimately our aim should be to create a world free from the displaced, the homeless and the hopeless, a world in which each and every corner is a true sanctuary where the inhabitants will have the freedom and the capacity to live in peace. Every thought, every word, and every action that adds to the positive and the wholesome is a contribution to peace… Each and every one of us is capable of making such a contribution. Let us join our hands to try to create a peaceful world where we can sleep in security and wake in happiness.