It cannot be said too often that our youths are our future. Ominously, the past two generations have witnessed the introduction of mindless television; hyper-stimulating video-games; and inane, electronic messaging. As our behavior increasingly comes under the control of these electronic devices, the trend raises the question how best to offset their pernicious effects. Education naturally comes to mind.

Yet, the past two generations also have witnessed a widespread, deepening deficit in promoting educational achievement among American youths. An inescapable consequence has been a failure in teaching our youths how to think ( Some may link this potentially fatal failure with the emphasis upon teaching them what to think

A nation the populace of which is unable to think but only react is a nation ripe for political, economic, and social tyranny. Ironically, given the progress in behavioral science from the modern biobehavioral orientation, teaching our youths how to think is not all that difficult. Moreover, one can view it as an essential element in a comprehensive education in the business of living.

A Very Short Story
The other day, I was having a telephonic conversation with a friend. Informal conversations tend to roll from subject to subject, and this one was no different. As the various topics rolled into and out of focus, we touched upon goals in living. My colleague, an expert in behavioral science, long ago had abandoned the field to become an independent investor. After having published a number of documented successes in education, he found the consequences of his endeavors to be either 1) extinction through inattention or 2) punishment through hostile criticism. The controlling variable amongst bureaucrats in the educational establishment belied the stated mission of educating youths and proved itself to be the unstated mission of promoting the educational bureaucracy. His work had shown a better way of doing things. The bureaucrats hated it. Battered, bruised, and bloodied, he finally targeted a new goal and changed his behavior. His new goal was to have made ten million dollars. How well had he been progressing toward fulfilling that goal? He never said.

“What about your goals?” he asked.

“Mine?” I paused then made what I considered a rather bold statement. “My primary goal,” I said, “is to have done my own small part in furthering the education of the American public with regard to employing behavioral science from the biobehavioral orientation to affairs both societal and personal.” I knew that I was talking to the wrong person. Even so, I couldn’t stop myself.

“Well, that’s an idealistic . . . if not megalomanic . . . mouthful.”

 “I know. I’m choking on it. What do you think are my chances for success?”

Without hesitation he replied, “Almost none.”

“Really? Here, I was thinking my chances actually were none . . . none, at all. What a relief! It’s truly gratifying to talk with an optimist such as you.”

A Call to Cognition
My friend’s pessimism was well founded. In contrast to the other sciences, behavioral science has made few inroads into the everyday business of living. As he had demonstrated to his regret, even when proven more successful than non-scientific approaches, behavioral science has been and largely remains ignored; if not resisted actively, including in the medical marketplace.(1)

Ironically, its basic principles are easier to understand and to apply than those of any other science. In addition, its benefits can be obvious and immediate. In fact, the basic concepts are as simple as 1) a single law, 2) the ABC’s, and 3) the difference between topography and function. That’s it! Understanding three, simple concepts allows you to change society and yourself.

The single law is the basic law of instrumental or operant behavior . . . what you do; not what you think or feel. That law is the Law of Effect.(2) . . . B = f(x) under c. In a given context, behavior is a function of its consequences. If you want more of a behavior, reward it. If you want less, don’t reward it. Yes, you can punish it, but punishment carries with it a host of undesirable side-effects.

The ABC’s refer to Antecedent, Behavior, and Consequence. Antecedent is the event that occasions a behavior to occur. Behavior is the activity upon the environment. Consequence is the event following the behavior that determines its future strength.

Behavioral scientists describe behavior according to topography and function. Topography is how a behavior looks to the eye of an observer. Function is the consequence that controls the strength of the behavior and, thereby, related to the Law of Effect.

Behaviors that look identical may differ in function. Two men walk into a bank then walk out. Topographically, their behaviors are identical. The first, however, is applying for a job. The second is withdrawing money at the point of a gun. Functionally, their walking-behaviors differ markedly.

Conversely, behaviors that look different may be functionally identical. A vagabond is sitting by the side of a deserted highway. His goal is to have arrived in Los Angeles. An executive is flying in a private jet-aircraft. His goal also is to have arrived in Los Angeles. Topographically, their behaviors are dissimilar. Functionally, they are identical.

Pre-pubescent sixth graders can understand these three, simple concepts. Teaching them provides youths with an education in living . . . an education in describing what they do and why they do it, if you will.

Once the leading nation in completion of college, America today ranks twelfth.(3) The reasons are multi-dimensional; nevertheless, one issue should be clear to every educator. A deficit in understanding the basic principles governing their own, personal behaviors handicaps children throughout the remainder of their lives. Shouldn’t it be the responsibility of each school-district to ensure that each pupil receives the opportunity to learn those concepts? Contrary to a recent proposal by the Commander-in-Chief of Big Government, our children don’t need another commission with offices in the District of Corruption to study the problem of failing education in America. They do need proper instruction in the traditional, educational basics necessary for success in everyday living. . . reading, writing, arithmetic, etc. . . .  and in the non-traditional basics of the principles governing that everyday living.

Is it not our duty as adults . . . yours and mine . . . to ensure that it happens? If so, let’s do it, beginning now. Let’s prove that my friend was . . . hmm, shall we say ahead of his time?

1. Moss, GR: “A Commentary on the Status of the Behavioral Approach in the Healthcare Marketplace.” Journal of Behavior Therapy & Experimental Psychiatry 24: 311 (1993).
2.Thorndike, EL: Animal Intelligence: Experimental Studies.  New York: Macmillan (1911).
3. Banchero, S: “Graduation Rates Stagnate As Latinos Continue To Trail.” The Wall Street Journal, 20 October 2010, page A4.

Tags: , ,

Comments are closed.