The Wright Brothers first powered flight by a human lasted 12 seconds in 1903. A year later—using processes of variation, testing in the real world, and selection—the Wright brothers had an airplane that flew for 90 minutes—an improvement of 450 times. Today, a Boeing 787 Dreamliner—my favorite aircraft with nearly 3 million air miles between American, United and the deceased Pan Am in my life—can fly straight up during takeoff and fly from New York to Sydney non-stop. The aircraft improved a million times over since the first powered flight, and a result of continuous variation, testing and selection.
Applied Behavior Analysis, as conceived by Don Baer, Mont Wolf, and Todd Risley, was a technical methodology to achieve greater good that philosophers of many stripes posited. The contingencies of reinforcement on behavior analysts, determine how well and thoughtful the behavioral technology gets selected to achieve the vision conceived my dissertation advisors.
Reading through the older Journals of Applied Behavior Analysis (JABA), it is clear that many of the second-generation grad students, like me, were thinking and testing ABA for improving all manner social and behavioral ills. If you flip through those JABA’s, you can find all sorts of studies that could have been turned into commercial, real-world products and services that could have made an enormous beneficial change in our precious blue water and green jewel in space and for its inhabitants. That said, most of the contingencies, were and still are, for publications and grants, rather than real-world change. Outside of that, today, the major employment is for behavioral specialists working with children with Autism or other disorders.
Only a few ABA “products” are true large-scale enterprises, one of those being the PAX Good Behavior Game® and Triple P Parenting both touching millions of people. Both PAX GBG and Triple P have deep roots in the original science, but are both sold, trained, and supported around the world to very diverse customers.
My talk is about how to build the First Carbon Based Valley of behavioral scientists (mimicking the Silicon Valley) to develop, test and disseminate practical, proven, cost-effective strategies rooted in behavioral science to be scaled up, sold, implemented well with sustainable effects on human wellbeing for whole populations—not just private practice clients or persons with diagnoses. I will use examples of the population-level strategies I’ve built my career on: working with Sesame Street, Implementing a National Safety Program in New Zealand, state-level multiple baseline on tobacco control, parenting interventions, mission readiness involving military families, reducing county-wide meth use, and, of course, the Good Behavior Game. All of this has been done in the context of a for-profit business engaging in continuous improvement based on the principles of applied behavior analysis.
My call to the audience is to create the First Carbon Valley—linking early career and established career behavioral scientists to better the world with commercialized, continuously-proven behavioral science. I am willing to help start and support this effort, which we have already begun to do informally.
Dennis D. Embry received his Ph.D. from the University of Kansas, focused on using ABA for population-level efforts with Sesame Street and the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety—ultimately implementing that work throughout New Zealand. Dr. Embry is president/senior scientist at PAXIS Institute in Tucson, and co-investigator at both Johns Hopkins Center for Prevention and the Manitoba Centre for Health Policy. Founded in 1998, PAXIS Institute is an international prevention science company, focused on preventing mental, emotional, behavioral and related physical disorders at population-level. He is a SAMHSA/CMHS National Advisory Council member, the board of the National Federation of Families for Children’s Mental Health, and the scientific advisory board of the Children’s Mental Health Network. In the 1990s, he implemented the first RCT at population-level to reduce youth violence (PeaceBuilders) using ABA principles. In 1999, he began replicating the longitudinal Hopkin’s studies of the Good Behavior Game. Today Dr. Embry’s prevention efforts affecting more than one million children in 38 states, multiple provinces of Canada, and EU countries with multiple studies showing population-level reduction of mental, emotional, and behavioral disorders using PAX GBG and evidence-base kernels. As grad student, Dr. Baer (his advisor) asked Dennis why he wanted to study ABA having a political and history background, the answer: “I want to use science to make our world a better place for children.”