It Is Behavior Science, Not Magic

The CEO of the hospital where I used to work frequently said “I love watching you do your magic, Lili”. I often replied “It’s not magic, it’s science”, and he would look at me in disbelief and say “I think it’s you.” As flattering as the thought of being special was, I knew there nothing I was doing that a well-trained and willing behavior scientist would not be able to do.  magic-1688274_1920

And then, life happened.

I met cases in which I knew what should be done, I knew how to do it, but doing it involved a tremendous amount of energy and resources which I couldn’t accomplish by myself. I caught myself thinking that “I should be able to do it anyway”, or that “not being able to fix it would somehow make me less of a behavior analyst”. Well, Lili, it’s behavior analysis, not magic.

When we tackle a case, while people may think we will wave a wand and make everything better, the reality is that it involves a lot of work. We need to assess the target behaviors and how the environment affects them, and in the process we become part of those environmental variables affecting behavior. Then, we need to engage in the hard work of modifying those variables.  I think this definition of resistance alludes to what every behavior analyst faces daily at work: “resistance force is the force which an effort force must overcome in order to do work on an object”.


In planning a behavior modification, we often have to take how effort will affect the strength of a reinforcer. How often do we really consider that for ourselves? There is only so much effort in which one can engage without coming in contact with reinforcers. If the biggest reinforcer you receive through work is watching progress (Gotta love those sexy graphs!), a difficult case may reduce substantially the opportunity to come in contact with those reinforcers. We may notice in ourselves, behavior related to ratio strain, extinction, punishment, etc. So what would you do, if you were the one you were treating?

When one of the individuals with whom we work, is displaying the negative signs of ration strain, extinction, or punishment, we often seek to reduce effort or increase the size of the reinforcer, right? So when we are faced with such cases, we can look to reduce the effort and increase the size of the reinforcer, by collaborating with other professionals, including professionals from other disciplines. It is not magic! You can’t do it alone.


The Behavior Web offers a forum where behavior analysts can come together and talk about the challenges they face in their day-to-day work. We meet online weekly, and it is completely free. You can sign up for next week’s meeting here.

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