The ABC’s of Human Behavior

About 5 years ago I attended a conference in San Antonio organized by the Association for Behavior Analysis International (ABAI). It was a great conference. I spent the daytime attending presentations about exciting basic and applied research, and I spent the night times, well, partying. People from the real world may not know this but academics actually like to drink and dance in the same way that normal human beings do. Granted the drunken conversations are a bit different 29146_707145782086_3687903_nand the dancing is really not something to behold, but it is partying nonetheless (see to the left for pictorial evidence of this).

At that conference, however, I didn’t realize that a battle was taking place between ‘hard-core’ behavior analysts and those who researched Relational Frame Theory (RFT). In short, it seemed as though some saw RFT research as having a home within ABAI, whilst others were somewhat critical of the development. This battle climaxed in one large talk in which the speaker ripped into RFT. In the audience sat Steve Hayes, Michael Dougher and Doug Greer, who swiftly replied to the criticism. Apart from the wonderful drama of it all, seeing this happen in real time was an odd experience at a personal level. Specifically, I saw myself as a behavior analyst, AND as someone interested in the contribution RFT could make to the field. Yet following the conference it felt like I had to be in one of the two camps. After the talk (I was on my 4th drink I think) a fellow student asked me; I still don’t get how RFT fits in with Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA), can you tell me?

Fiddlesticks’ I thought. ‘There is no way I can elegantly fit those pieces together with coherence’. Being a man, I, of course, tried: ‘Imagine that A was the same as B and B was the same as C blah blah blah blah’. I’m pretty sure the student wasn’t bowled over by my response, given that she removed herself from the conversation soon after. I have since beat myself up many times about not being able to answer that question, as a good answer may be able to further interest in the subject. However, to be quite frank, if someone asked me right now to explain the relationship between functional contextualism, operant conditioning, respondent conditioning, RFT and ACT, I would still struggle. In the past 4 weeks, however, I have read a book that has helped to clarify my understanding, such that my answer to the question is much improved. 41ZzcH3lR0L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Additionally, at the end of my explanation, I am now in a position to say the words: ‘Go and read The ABC’s of Human Behavior by Jonas Ramnero and Niklas Torneke’.

The book begins with functional contextualism (Introduction) and moves quickly into the basics of ABA (Chapters 1, 2 and 3), respondent conditioning (Chapter 4), operant conditioning (Chapters 5 and 6) and RFT (Chapter 7). But what’s remarkable is the way that it does this. It is written in a wonderful tone and with great clarity. This clarity is aided by the use of 6 cases studies that are returned to throughout the book. The authors also utilize useful metaphors and dialogues in which they consistently conceptualize therapy in the language of functional contextualism, respondent conditioning, ABA (Antecedent, Behavior, Consequence) and RFT. Let that point not get lost on you; discussions of these principles often happen at a very abstract level, yet from Chapter 8 onwards the authors of this book talked about them, and their interaction, in a concrete way and in the context of therapy. Interestingly, without explicitly naming ACT, the books builds the potential utility of acceptance out of the aforementioned principles in a way that fits everything together effortlessly. The pace of the book is also good. For example, after the theoretically challenging material presented in Chapter 7, I needed Chapter 8 to weave together operant / respondent conditioning and RFT in an applied sense. Chapter 11 also synthesizes the main principles of the book very well and the last 2 Chapters have practical value.

In terms of negatives, I think that the book might be difficult for the beginner to get their head around i.e. some prior knowledge of ABA would definitely be useful (if you are totally new this to this subject then I love Paul Chance’s ‘First Course in Applied Behaviour Analysis’). Indeed, even those better versed in ABA and RFT will, at times, find themselves reading a page, understanding it, reading a few more pages, and having to return to the original page to try to synthesize their knowledge. And maybe that is why the book is so handy; after reading it once you may not be able to coherently detail in conversation how the different pieces of this complex puzzle fit together, but you will have a resource to return to and a resource that you can point other people towards.

In terms of target audience, this book is really for any clinician of any orientation, as knowledge of these principles will benefit your practice in the therapy room. This is especially so given that most clinical programs these days leave out all mention of ABA. I also think the book would be helpful for behavior analysts with an interest in developing their knowledge of RFT. In fact, I’d go as far as to say that no other book that I have read has linked these sometimes difficult concepts so clearly. Finally – and I’m really trying to avoid making any Lord of the Rings related jokes in which Men and Elves fight side by side after years of animosity – this book could go some way to aiding conversations between the hard-core behavior analysts and the RFT researchers. I’m not saying that reading the book will instantly make you an RFT fan; I’m saying that it is a base from which progress could be made. And who knows, maybe a great alliance could be formed once more ; )

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