How Can Behavior Analysis Assist in the Study of Machine Learning?


Recently, we have been contemplating the relation between machine learning and behavior analysis.  Interestingly enough, this topic of the collaboration of machine learning and behavior analysis is not new.  William Huchison, in 1998, discussed "Computer Simulations of Verbal Behavior," and compared the learning of verbal behavior in computer simulations to that of a human learning verbal behavior, proving that "operant learning is sufficient to produce verbal behavior."  Fast forward to 2012, and in Huchison's work, "The Central Role for Behavior Analysis in Modern Robotics, and Vice Versa," it is observed that most computer "systems assume basic foundations of operant conditioning (Huchison, 2012)."

Howard Rachlin (2012) also discusses the similarities between the IBM computer, Watson, and a human being, in his work, "Making IBM's Computer, Watson, Human," outlining that the basic needs of humans and computers are the same:  we need an energy supply, protection from the elements, maintenance, and our bodies to be maintained at a reasonable temperature.  He theorizes that by creating a "Watson II" with more characteristics of human beings (i.e. being able to "override its own logical mechanism" after establishing "rules"), ultimately:

"those who would see Watson II as nonhuman because he was manufactured, not born, might go on to say that it would be worse for humanity were we all to be made as Watson II may be made. To me, this would be a step too far. We are all a conglomeration of built-in and environmentally modified mechanisms anyway. And no one can deny that there are flaws in our current construction." 

In both of these articles, Huchison and Rachlin, create a call to action, discussing the need for collaboration in computer science and behavior analysis, as computer science evolves to machine learning and artificial intelligence.

So how do we do this?  Ultimately, computer science majors interested in programming, should receive training in behavior analysis.  Currently, this is not happening, as most computer science programs have adopted more of a "pop psychology" background in their current research and practice (see Ink's article:  "MIT Researchers Use Reddit to Create World's First Psychopath AI).  What this further demonstrates, is not only a need for the dissemination and training of our science to the computer world, but also a need for a similar ethics code in the shaping of behavior when programming, as we do as behavior analysts working with human beings.

So what do you think? Comment below!



Hutchison W.R. (1998). Computer simulations of verbal behavior for research and persuasion. The Analysis of Verbal Behavior. 15:117–120. 

Hutchison, W. R. (2012). The Central Role for Behavior Analysis in Modern Robotics, and Vice Versa. The Behavior Analyst35(1), 29–35.

Rachlin H (2012).  Making IBM's computer, Watson, human. The Behavior Analyst. 35:1–16

What Is The Value Of Our Behavior?


I had a great conversation yesterday with a respected individual in our field discussing values and their role in behavior changes (not sure if the person wants to be named so I will protect their privacy, but know that it inspired this blog post!).  As we continue to think about cultural change as it relates to behavior analysis, I started thinking about how community values direct community or cultural behaviors.  Ultimately, it comes down to reinforcement principles (which I will not go in to here, but will direct the reader to the BF Skinner Foundation, where you can access resources describing positive and negative reinforcement).

When we speak of cultural change, the discussion of value can be broken into several sectors.  The first is individual values.  What value does our current behavior serve us?  For behavior analysts we look at this as a functional assessment or analysis, but for people who aren't behavior analysts we can ask ourselves the question of Why?  Why do I keep performing this behavior?  or Why am I not engaging in behavior I want to perform?  When we analyze that, we can then create action steps, defining the behaviors we need to develop and a plan to shape that learning process.

We can also do this from a larger perspective from that of the community.  This can be a neighborhood community, city, state, country, or even global community.  We ultimately need to "Start with Why," as Simon Sinek says, and ask ourselves, what are our values as a broad community.  If we put aside our differences and beliefs, we may find we actually all have one common value from which we can build upon--the value of survival, and the continuation of our species on this planet.  Maybe, we can at least start there.

Want to weigh in?  Leave a comment below!

Five Fabulous Quotes from Women Who Shaped Development

In honor of International Women's Day on March 8th, we want to share five of our favorite quotes from women who shape development or shaped the development of others in their lifetime.  We hope you enjoy!


Have a favorite quote?  Comment below!


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Why Coaching is Important


In the world of Behavior Analysis, we follow a professional code which guides our performance while working in the field.  Part of this performance describes working within the realm of our competency and training, maintaining our competence through professional development, and supervising others in the field as they gain their credential.

While obtaining my BCBA credential, I had to gain 1500 hours of supervision while working in the field, with 75 of those hours being directly supervised by a supervisory BCBA (this description is not approved or endorsed by the BACB.  Go to for more information on the BCBA credential).  During this time, I was directly coached by my BCBA mentor as I learned new skills to gain competence in the field.  Post-BCBA certification, this coaching is no longer required, except in instances where there is a behavior change procedure needed where a BCBA is not trained in the protocol.  This training can be acquired through professional development and consultation.

During the course of my certification, I have looked to models outside of our field to gain coaching experience rather than traditional lecture based models of professional development, and have become involved in a few behavior analytic coaching groups that foster training and professional development within our field.  I have found that personally, the models that foster peer interaction, and direct feedback and mentorship from a coach, have developed my skills better than the traditional professional development model of "training."  I think that more research needs to be done to evaluate the effectiveness of these models of professional development overall, but as a personal anecdote, this has been very helpful in developing my skills as a leader and behavior analyst.  As another benefit, these coaching groups have also provided me with peer support.  Sometimes in the field we operate alone, or as executives we find it difficult to connect with individuals that are our direct reports, so these groups have provided social reinforcement as well!

Interested in learning more about Coaching?  Shaping Development developed these groups in the form of our BCBA Supervision and Behavioral Leadership Coaching Groups.

Feel free to check it out!  We hope we can help you shape your development!


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