History of Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA)




Shannon: One of the things that I specifically said when you were coming in today..one of the things that's been on my mind is knowing more about the history of ABA and how it came because I...when people know about ABA, they tend to think, "Oh well, ABA autism," which is kind of funny, right?

Dr. Tarbox: Yeah.

Shannon: Because it certainly wasn't invented for autism.

Dr. Tarbox: No.

Shannon: It's a little bit of happy thing that ends up being happy, happy.

Dr. Tarbox: It works out.

Shannon: Yeah, it worked out but it certainly wasn't intended for autism and I know that you are somebody who can tell us about the history of ABA. Would you be willing to do that?

Dr. Tarbox: Sure, sure. I consider myself a little bit of an ABA geek and...

Shannon: We love that.

Dr. Tarbox: Actually I'm really fascinated by the history of where it all came from and my mentor had a lot of engagement with a lot of the people who were the original people that started all the stuff.

Shannon: Awesome.

Dr. Tarbox: So I feel connected to it and I'm very interested. But yeah, so in the late 19th century, there was a movement in Psychology towards a more scientific approach to the mind. And so they were trying to come up with ways of studying the mind and studying behavior that were more scientific than in previous times.

There wasn't a whole lot of success with that really but there was researcher name Edward Thorndike and what he discovered in his research with cats actually was that the consequence of the cat's behavior mattered. So the consequence of the cat's behavior made the cats do things more in the future or made them do it less in the future. So he basically was the first one to sort of nail down what today we'd probably called "reinforcement of punishment." He called it the "law of effect."

And so then there was Watson after him. Watson mostly studied actually Pavlovian conditioning, so just stimulus response psychology. Something kind of different, but Watson really pushed us forwards in terms of saying, "We're not going to make up a bunch of explanations for why people do what they do. We're going to treat human behavior the same way as we treat anything else in science."

So when you go observe planets and stars, you don't get to just make stuff up. What you need to do is make observations, take data, and do math, and see how those different variables that you observe in nature relate to one another. There's a great example is the ancient Greeks had an explanation for the acceleration due to gravity. So when you drop an object, it speeds up as it gets closer to the earth? Now we call that gravity. Back then, they actually said it was due to the exuberance of the object because it was excited about getting closer to home. So when you drop an object, a rock off of a cliff, it's kind of far away from home. It's 100 feet above its home, the earth. And as it gets close, it gets excited. So they created a fake, made-up construct inside the rock, the rock's excitement. And that explained the rock's movements and that explained what we know called gravity.

And so Watson recognized that same pattern of just kind of making stuff up throughout Psychology and said, "Well, wait a minute. If we really want a natural science of psychology, we can't do that anymore." And so he said, "We're only going to study stuff we can actually measure." And that was his main contribution.

And so Skinner came along and actually, Skinner's original interest was in studying the digestive behavior of rats.

Shannon: Fascinating how we got from there to ABA. Okay.

Dr. Tarbox: Yeah. And so his original research as a graduate student involved observing rats in a very systematic way, eating food pellets and what he started to discover was behaviors that the rat just happened to do right before it came up to eat the food, it would do again in the future.

So he started to notice, "Wait a minute. What the rat's doing before it eats the food seems to be affected by the fact that it gets food. Okay, maybe that consequence kind of matters." And so then he came up with what he thought would be the simplest possible way to study the consequences of behavior. And so he came up with the lever press. What could be simpler than that? Have a piece of wire that the rat presses, after the rat does it, it gets a food pellet.

And he thought, "Let's just see if we can discover lawful relations." In every other areas of science, the goal is discovering order in nature. So again, you don't just make stuff up. It's not about the mystery of the world, it's about discovering order in the world. And so he said, "Let's find orderly relationships between a rat pressing a lever and anything else that happens." So the first thing he studied was the consequence was getting food or not getting food.

And a series of really fascinating, sort of serendipitous events occurred that helped him discover some other things. One of them was the apparatus that delivered food pellets for the rat, over the weekend, it broke. It was automated. Over the weekend, it jammed. And so he came in on Monday and looked at the data and sure enough, the rat was pressing the lever a lot when it produced food and then when the pellet delivery system jammed and stop giving the rat food, eventually the rat stop pressing the lever. So he discovered distinction because his machinery broke basically.

Shannon: Now, did the rat press it a lot more times before so there was...?

Dr. Tarbox: Right, so there was distinction first and then a gradual decrease.

Shannon: Okay, interesting. Okay.

Dr. Tarbox: And so he thought, "Wait a minute. I'm kind of on to something. The machine broke but maybe this is a fundamental law, that maybe this is something that's really common that when you no longer get the consequence you want, this pattern of behavior happens, an initial increase, then a gradual decrease." So he said, "Okay, let's study that in a bunch of other ways." And he did that and multiple other researchers do that. And sure enough, there's just massive generality out across basically any species that have been studied, you get exactly the same pattern of responding, including humans. Very interesting stuff.

Woman: How did he jump though from rats to humans? Is that big jump or a little jump?

Dr. Tarbox: Well, his first work called "The Behavior of Organisms" not the behavior of rats, but the behavior of organisms was his first major treatise and it was published in "the '30s" and it was all about let's take these basic principles and try to use them to explain all behavior of all organisms, including humans.

Shannon: Did people think he was crazy or was it sort of well-accepted?

Dr. Tarbox: It was pretty revolutionary, although he wasn't the only one doing animal research. Folks had been doing animal research in other areas like medicines and things like that. So people did sort of...or at least the scientific community did get the general idea of controlled experiments with animals to produce...laboratory experiments to produce laws and principles, which we then extract to explain other things.

It's exactly the same thing in the Chemistry laboratory. You don't do that just to learn about what happens in a laboratory, you do chemistry experiments in the laboratory so that you learn about how chemicals interact so you can do other things like make medicine or make rockets or make etc.

So his book, "The Behavior of Organisms" in "the '30s" talked about how we can use these basic behavioral principles and pretty much all of our principles that we have now, were there more or less in his book in "the '30s." They've been modified a little bit but they were basically there. And his idea was let's use these to make the world a better place.

And so I guess I would say that's probably the birthplace of sort of the conceptual or sort of values heart of ABA came from Skinner...

Shannon: I love that.

Dr. Tarbox: ...in "the '30s." Let's use this scientific principles to make the world a better place. And so his...basically everything he wrote since then was about how to do that. And so he published a book called "Science and Human Behavior" in 1953 and the whole point of that book was how can we use behavioral principles to make the world a better place.

Shannon: I feel like we need to have a sign here that says [inaudible 00:07:27]...

Dr. Tarbox: I know, right?

Shannon: Let's use this principles to make the world a better place.

Dr. Tarbox: Yeah, and so...

Shannon: What a great thing.

Dr. Tarbox: Isn't that neat?

Shannon: That's awesome.

Dr. Tarbox: Yeah, yeah. And so that was the mission that he laid out and folks started to actually take that seriously and people started playing around with these behavioral principles saying, "Let's see. Let's take someone's behavior that's very difficult to change. Well, we know what governs behavior, so let's do it. Let's use one of these principles."

And so they started with folks, like I said, who had behavior very difficult to change. Oftentimes it was psychiatric patients in psychiatric hospitals, folks that develop [inaudible 00:08:00] disabilities. Generally people whom the rest of society basically had written off and said , "Well, you can't do anything about them. They're crazy essentially." And him and his colleagues, people like Ogden Lindsley and some other folks showed that, yeah, actually the consequences of these people's behavior matters too. So you can make behaviors happen more if you give the person attention, if they want attention obviously. You can make them happen less if you don't give them attention.

So one of the earliest studies in ABA was simply training nurses in a psychiatric ward to no longer pay attention to the psychotic speech of patients, unless of course the patient was in real distress and obviously they provide nursing help when they need to. But what they found was a huge decrease in excessive or bizarre psychotic speech, decreases in other behaviors like hording materials and items. And so it was really early demonstration that, "Oh, okay. This works with humans."

Shannon: Wow.

Dr. Tarbox: Yeah, it was very exciting.

Shannon: So even in the beginning when they first were working on it, they were working with people who are facing challenges behaviorally, not just Joe Typical?

Dr. Tarbox: Yeah, yeah, that's right.

Shannon: Okay, interesting.

Dr. Tarbox: Yeah, that was the early birthplace. But when you think about it, that most of psychology. Psychology's very much a disorder-oriented science or a disorder-oriented field. Psychology usually isn't about taking someone who's doing fine and helping them. It's usually about taking someone who isn't doing fine and helping them do better. So...

Shannon: Okay. I guess I never really thought about that before.

Dr. Tarbox: Yeah, it's weird that actually people complain about that a lot because we're always looking for, "Oh, how's someone wrong? What's wrong with someone?" You know what I mean? And so yeah, but...

Shannon: Easy enough to find in this day and age. You don't have to look far for most people.

Dr. Tarbox: Easy enough, yeah. Well, and actually more contemporary ABA approaches to psychopathology, for example, acceptance and commitment therapy, there's a whole other topic we can hit someday maybe but talk about how disorder and human suffering are normal. That's a normal part of the everyday experience of human beings. So we're not always just trying to look for what's wrong, but...So, okay.

So then they did this early work with psychiatric patients and folks with developmental disabilities. And in "the '60s," in "the early '60s," Ferster and Sidney Bijou and some others started applying ABA principles to kids with autism or they called it childhood schizophrenia back then also.

And again, they found the same basic things apply. "Wow, the consequence matters. If we prompt a behavior, we can get it to happen more. If we reinforce it, it will continue to happen more. If we don't give the kid something he wants when he's banging his head against the wall, he'll bang his head against the wall less in the future."

And so it's sort of common sense now but it wasn't common sense back then because people attributed to self-injurious behavior to psychosis. They attributed aggressive behavior to some problem inside the person's mind or some problem in their brain when it turned out that, "Well, yeah, okay. There probably is something going on in the brain. But in addition to that, there's something going on in the environment." And that's where we can actually make a difference. That's where we can actually change things and we can get kids to have less severe behavior. And in many cases, function happily and successfully in whatever setting they're in.

Shannon: I hope parents just heard that too because that thought process thinking, "Well, it's just this behavior, it's unexplainable and the child is going to hit themselves against the wall. They're going to hurt themselves." There are still officials and experts who will say to the parent, "Yeah, you're just going to have to deal with that."

And to hear that there is a behavioral component to it that can absolutely be addressed, I hope everybody heard that.

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