Association for Behavior Analysis International

The Association for Behavior Analysis International® (ABAI) is a nonprofit membership organization with the mission to contribute to the well-being of society by developing, enhancing, and supporting the growth and vitality of the science of behavior analysis through research, education, and practice.


46th Annual Convention; Washington DC; 2020

Event Details

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Symposium #222
CE Offered: BACB
So What’s the Function? The Application of Behavior Analysis to Ethical Standards and Belief Systems
Sunday, May 24, 2020
9:00 AM–9:50 AM
Marriott Marquis, Level M1, University of D.C. / Catholic University
Area: PCH/VRB; Domain: Theory
Chair: Eva Lieberman (University of Louisiana at Lafayette)
Discussant: Karen Kate Kellum (University of Mississippi)
CE Instructor: Karen Kate Kellum, Ph.D.

Behavior Analytic research has yielded an undisputed record of both scientific progress and specific applications advancing the effective prediction and control of individual behavior. Analysis of the immediate contingencies of behavior has been applied successfully in virtually countless settings. Newer extensions of behavioral approaches, such as Relational Frame Theory, offer increasing opportunities to extend effective behavioral analyses to broader social contingencies, possibly leading to more precise conceptualizations of behavior change on a societal level. In the current symposium, two papers are presented offering thoughts about how a behavior analytic approach may contribute to our understanding of ethics and the development of societal belief systems. In the first paper, accounts of possible early statements of seminal religious figures are discussed within the prism of selected behavior analytic concepts, with discussion of possible applications and testable hypotheses related to the development of belief systems. In the second paper, the development and various functions of diverse ethical organizational systems is discussed from a behavior analytic framework. These papers are intended to contribute to a discussion of larger societal issues from a behavior analytic framework, with the ultimate goal of the generation of testable research questions and innovative intervention strategies supporting larger-scale behavior change.

Instruction Level: Basic
Keyword(s): ethics, psychological flexibility, RFT, rule-governed behavior
Target Audience:

Service providers, behavior analysts, clinicians, higher education instructors, school professionals, teachers, people interested in philosophical issues

Learning Objectives: 1. Identify implications of the various functions of belief systems and ethical standards within the context of a social environment 2. Identify the benefits of competing belief and ethical systems 3. Describe potential research that could add to the literature in our understanding of the various functions and utilities of diverse belief and ethical systems
The Development of Spiritual Belief Systems: Observations of the Possible Role of Rule-Governance, Manding, Pliance, and Psychological Flexibility
DAVID R. PERKINS (University of Louisiana at Lafayette), MaKensey Sanders (University of Louisiana at Lafayette), Daryl Rachal (University of Louisiana at Lafayette), Emily Kennison Sandoz (University of Louisiana at Lafayette)
Abstract: While it can be difficult to conclude with certainty events that occurred long ago, it may be useful to examine the words that have been attributed to influential spiritual and religious figures from history. Attempting to take into consideration the historical context within which beliefs and statements are expressed, it may be possible to speculate how developing belief systems supported various psychological functions. In this paper, examples are cited proposing that at least some systems of belief and worship may have initially been formulated as a rebellion against existing rule-governed systems, appealing towards greater psychological flexibility, more pragmatic approaches to rule-following, and more sensitivity to changing contingencies. It is proposed that the success of a belief system as an organized or institutionalized social force over an extended period could potentially lend itself to more rigid standards of rule enforcement, more reliance on pliance from followers, and more utilization of coercive social control. Possible implications of the various functions of doctrines of belief within the context of a social environment are discussed, along with potential testable empirical propositions.
Why Rats Can’t Be Right (or Wrong): A Behavioral Analysis of Ethical Theories
MAKENSEY SANDERS (University of Louisiana at Lafayette), David R. Perkins (University of Louisiana at Lafayette), Daryl Rachal (University of Louisiana at Lafayette), Emily Kennison Sandoz (University of Louisiana at Lafayette)
Abstract: Since Ancient Greece, there has been much debate on the nature of goodness, what it means at both the individual and societal level, and the implications thereof. These considerations have lead to the development of ethics – the branch of philosophy concerned with the moral principles that govern reasoning and behavior. However, even among some philosophers, ethics has been dismissed as cultural and individual differences arguably make it entirely subjective. This talk will discuss the functions of different ethical theories, the difference between direct contingency-shaped and rule-governed behavior of each, the implications of these theories at the individual and societal level, and the benefits of competing theories. It may be the case that certain behavior analytic concepts like generalized operants, verbal behavior, and rule-governed behavior, may contribute to more precise formulations of the various functions and utilities of diverse ethical systems.



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