Operant Innovations 021 | "People Don't Discriminate, Environments Do" | Aaron Bevacqua

"People Don't Discriminate, Environments Do" is a phrase many of us in the field of behavior analysis have heard, but what does this really mean? How does this apply to what we do in work and our personal lives?

Join presenter Aaron Bevacqua as he dives into this topic and asks the questions that many of us have had!


If you have questions, comments, feedback, or suggestions please feel free to reach out to operantinnovations@abatechnologies.com 


Aaron Bevacqua (00:05):

People don't discriminate. Environments do. Hi, folks. My name is Aaron Bevacqua. I'm a behavior analyst and part of the curriculum team with ABA Technologies. I first heard this phrase in grad school and at the time I thought I was doing okay. I thought I was starting to grasp the concepts pretty well. Things are starting to make sense. And then this dropped and it really knocked me off balance quite a bit. I thought, "Wait, what? What do you mean people don't discriminate? Of course they do. The environment discriminates? That doesn't even make any sense. The environment doesn't act. How can it discriminate?" And to any listener who hasn't had technical training in behavior analysis, the statement probably sounds even worse. Really insensitive, even. So to clarify for those who are new to behavior analysis and ABA, I'm not proposing that discrimination isn't real. It very much exists and is an ongoing problem. Within this discussion though, I'm going to be discussing how the term discriminate is used within the field of ABA and really how we use the term when we're addressing problems with discrimination.

So if you're interested and you can tolerate a bit of this technical jargon, this conversation might be worth hearing through. This actually brings me to the first point about why I'm even bringing any of this up. Our language within our field is, well, it has a lot of overlap with common everyday speech. And for this reason it requires a lot of precision. It's really one of the hurdles to entering the field. When we start to learn how to shed or, or at least temporarily suspend our everyday definitions, or we start to learn to use the terms more technically, and it really takes some time to kind of wrap your head around saying positive and not meaning pleasant. I can recall myself trying to understand positive punishers. And to me, a positive punisher sounded more like a disapproving glance from Mr. Rogers. Something that would get me to stop doing what I shouldn't be doing, but still leaving me feeling loved and valued. Of course, we eventually learn that that's not exactly what we mean when we say positive punisher. With so much overlap, you really gotta be careful with how, when and where we use our jargon and terms, but it's not uncommon to hear practitioners kind of slip up from time to time.

We kind of slide into saying things like, "Well, did you reinforce him or the client?" Now we don't reinforce people. We reinforce behavior, but it kind of slides sometimes. We get a little lax. It's probably not that big a deal at the time. The audience likely knows what you're talking about. So we kind of slide in and out of the technical language. We even use kind of teleological statements like, "Oh, he tantrums in order to get out of tasks."

Of course we understand that's teleological but it tends to be a little bit more efficient than saying "he tantrums'' because in the past, when he's engaged in tantrums, he's escaped similar tasks. Now to further complicate things, we have terms in our field that we don't necessarily agree on or even terms that we know we are misusing, but we'll use them anyway. Noncontingent reinforcement for anyone? Right. Delivering something non contingently. Call it reinforcement, but we know we're not reinforcing anything. Right. We generally use it to reduce behavior, not increase it. What about the term frequency? When you use it, do you mean rate? Or do you mean count? And how do you feel about the term contingency now? Or are you already committing the heresy boldly suggested by the brilliant doctors, Alan Poling and Anita Li? And have you stopped using the term altogether? I absolutely love everything they write and that one was particularly mind blowing. Definitely suggest reading that.

All right. So that brings us back to discriminate. What about this? People discriminate. The action of discriminating. Now, depending on what books you were raised on, you may have always known discriminate to be an action on the part of the learner. In Pierce and Cheney's latest edition of "Behavior analysis and learning", they say quote, "Because the bird pecks in the presence of a red stimulus, but does not respond when the key is green, we may say that the pigeon discriminates between these two colors." Even George Reynolds's 1975 "A primer on operant conditioning" says quote, "An organism is set to discriminate between two stimuli when it behaves differently in the presence of each." So it seems well-established and widely accepted to say a person or a participant in a study discriminates, but a word of caution comes from Skinner. Now he has a whole chapter in "Science and human behavior" dedicated to operant discrimination. That's chapter seven, but he kind of continues the discussion in the next chapter or at least refers back to it. When he says, quote "The discrimination described in chapter seven is also not a form of action on the part of the organism. We say that they become highly discriminating, but their behavior shows only processes of conditioning and extinction."

Now he's getting to a point here that Jack Michael, I think, more kind of fully develops in his "Concepts and principles" book. He mentions discriminative responding, discrimination or discriminating, and says, quote, "Unfortunately, these various terms are often used to refer to an internal or mental activity that supposedly explains the differential responding as when it said that the organism responds differently because it discriminates between the two stimuli." It kind of wraps it up by saying, "The internal activity is inferred from the same observations that it is supposed to explain."

Now I'm not bringing this up to split hairs. I hope it doesn't sound like it, but when it comes to daily practice, the way we use that term discriminating, I think has very real implications. To me, it really seems like an indicator of how we're going about solving the problems we were called into address. Occasionally, you'll hear about problems with discriminations. It almost sounds like reasons for efforts along a particular area to end. Have you ever heard this in your clinic? "We've been working on identifying lowercase letters, but he's having a really tough time discriminating." What about, "The FA results weren't clear, because the client couldn't discriminate between the conditions." Notice how we start to use the term here. It seems to change a little bit when it comes to some of the more difficult skills we're trying to teach or when the results of some sort of assessment aren't exactly what we'd expect. We start to say they can't discriminate. They're having a tough time discriminating. It's almost as if we're saying it's not us. We've done everything right. It's the learner that can't do it.

That's a really subtle shift in the term. But in these cases, we kind of end up using “discriminate” the way Jack Michael warned us against. As it's some internal activity, which is taking the place of those environments, which we should be setting up. When we come to these roadblocks rather than ending our inquiry with "they can't discriminate." This should really be that indicator of where our work really starts. What are we going to do differently to teach these skills? Are there prerequisites that we skipped over and should have focused on and developed first? What do we know about their history of responding? Is there something missing that we need to attend to? People don't discriminate. Environments do. I might expand this to kind of clarify a little bit and say, "People don't establish their own discriminative response. Their environments do." Their environments have.

There are very difficult tasks that we get called into teaching. By and large behavioral analysis do a tremendous job of teaching those skills and developing repertoires. And they do it through that problem solving approach. Identifying those critical things from the learner's history. What can they do now? What is in their repertoire? How do we grow the next skills and new repertoire? What are they attending to now? How do we get that to align with the relevant features that we're trying to get them to attend to? Now I admit, in my own use with this curriculum team that I work with. I use it as an action on the part of the learner and we kind of use it knowing the team that I'm working with as well. I know my colleagues and I know when we say, if we're looking at a question that we're using, if it's somewhere in a lecture video or some kind of assessment, and we're looking at it and saying, "will the students be able to discriminate?" And, "This is a fine discrimination." And I know when we use the term there we're referencing, "Have we provided enough instruction, sufficient that we can expect discriminated responding at this point, or with this material?" We kind of use it as a shortcut to saying that little bit longer description. But once again, we've got to be careful when and how we use those terms. For modeling that language in front of a trainee might become more important that we touch on those details about, "Well, when I say discriminate here, this is what I mean" and becomes really important with those new RBTs, supervisees who are learning the language. We're not just learning the language, but learning about our problem solving approach.

And when we use this language, we're modeling some of that. So we've got to be careful to identify that we're not using that term, "They can't discriminate" as sort of a dead end or a roadblock or an end to our line of questioning. But these are the moments that kind of open us up to those problem solving skills and questions. What's their history? What reinforcers, are we using? How salient are the antecedent stimuli? What can we do differently? "Can't discriminate" is where our line of questioning begins. Not where it ends. And to be honest, quite often, some type of discriminated responding is occurring, but the learner and the instructor kind of aren't in agreement on what critical antecedent stimuli actually are. So we're not attending to the same critical features of their experience.

That's where our expertise is needed to identify what the controlling variables may be. Which brings me back to this notion of discrimination as a term, more widely used in everyday language. When we say it in that broader context we kind of mean, "Do we mean responding differently?" Well we kind of mean people are treated differently, treated poorly,unfairly. Lately, it seems like there's more discussion about if there's disagreement on if discrimination is even occurring. Once again, we're coming up to issues where there's problems with discrimination. There's a little bit of overlap here. And again, this is where our training becomes so critical. When you and I aren't tending to the same variables, the same features of a stimulus, be it a news story, an event, situation. We can think of our history with teaching discriminated responding and how people don't discriminate. The environment does, because we know and there's problems with discrimination, that's where the work starts. Not where it ends.


Shauna Costello (12:58):

Thank you for listening to this episode of Operant  Innovations. And as always, if you have questions, comments, feedback, or suggestions, please feel free to reach out to us at operantinnovations@abatechnologies.com.


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