Discussion – Steady Vs. Transition States

 How do you distinguish between a steady state and a transition state? Why is it important to achieve a steady state before changing phases during research?

Strategies and Tactics of Behavioral Research

Third Edition




Strategies and Tactics of Behavioral Research

Third Edition

James M. Johnston Auburn University

Henry S. Pennypacker University of Florida




Published in 2009 by Routledge 270 Madison Avenue New York, NY 10016 www.psypress.com

Published in Great Britain by Routledge 27 Church Road Hove, East Sussex BN3 2FA

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Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data Johnston, James M.

Strategies and tactics of behavioral research / James M. Johnston and Henry S. Pennypacker, Jr. – 3rd ed.

p. cm. Includes bibliographical references and index. 1. Psychology—Research—Methodology. I. Pennypacker, H. S. (Henry S.) II. Title. BF76.5.J63 2008 150.72—dc22 2008019278

ISBN 0-203-83790-8 Master e-book ISBN

ISBN: 978–0–8058–5882–2 (hbk)




To Ogden Lindsley and Murray Sidman

Giants of our field upon whose shoulders we proudly stand










Scientists as Behaving Organisms

Science as the Behavior of Scientists

Control by the Subject Matter

Scientific Method

The Products of Science

Research Methods and Service Delivery


The Evolution of Conceptions of Behavior

Toward a Scientifically Useful Definition of Behavior

A Working Definition of Behavior

Some Implications


The Nature of Experimental Questions

The Functions of Experimental Questions



Strategies of Selecting and Defining Response Classes

Tactics of Selecting and Defining Response Classes



Properties, Dimensional Quantities, and Units

Tactical Issues





Strategic Issues

Tactics of Observing and Recording


Strategic Issues

Tactical Options



Strategic Issues

Sources of Behavioral Variability


The Steady-State Strategy

Steady States



Experimental Design and Reasoning

Strategic Issues

Notation of Experimental Designs



Single Baseline Designs

Multiple Baseline Designs

Turning Designs into Experiments



Data Analysis Strategies

Graphical Analytical Tactics

Statistical Analytical Tactics


Interpretive Behavior

Sources of Control


Evaluating Interpretations











List of Boxes

BOX 1.1 Are Scientists Different? BOX 1.2 Rule-Governed versus Contingency-Shaped Behavior BOX 2.1 Inner “Causes” BOX 2.2 The Dead Man’s Test BOX 2.3 Is Thinking a Behavior? BOX 2.4 Traits and Colloquial Language BOX 2.5 Theory, Concepts, and Observability BOX 2.6 Parsimony BOX 2.7 Pure versus Quasi-Behavioral Research BOX 3.1 Research Styles BOX 3.2 Thematic versus Independent Research Styles BOX 3.3 Advocacy Research BOX 3.4 Experimental Questions versus Hypotheses BOX 3.5 The Null Hypothesis Game BOX 3.6 The Hypothetico-Deductive Method BOX 3.7 Ethical Considerations in Behavioral Research BOX 3.8 Serendipity BOX 4.1 Units of Analysis versus Units of Measurement BOX 4.2 Behavior, Response Classes, and Responses BOX 4.3 Another Kind of Response Class? BOX 4.4 Parent: “What Did You Do Today?” Child: “Nothing” BOX 4.5 Operational Definitions and Behavioral Measurement BOX 5.1 Frequency versus Rate BOX 5.2 A Tale of Two Frequencies BOX 5.3 How Many Dimensional Quantities Are There? BOX 5.4 Is Probability a Dimensional Quantity? BOX 6.1 How Do You Measure Slouching? BOX 6.2 What About Rating Scales? BOX 6.3 The Problem of Measurement Reactivity BOX 7.1 Reliability in the Social Sciences BOX 7.2 The Relationship Between Accuracy and Reliability BOX 7.3 Validity in the Social Sciences BOX 8.1 Free Will versus Determinism BOX 8.2 What is Inside the Organism? BOX 9.1 Measuring One Participant Many Times versus Many Participants Once BOX 9.2 One Data Point at a Time BOX 9.3 How Long Should Each Phase Last? BOX 10.1 Levels of Empirical Elegance BOX 10.2 Why Scientists Do Not Talk About Causes BOX 10.3 Why Psychology Likes Lots of Participants BOX 11.1 Risks of Between-Subject Comparisons BOX 11.2 Experimentum Crucis BOX 11.3 Do Experimental Designs Have to be Perfect? BOX 12.1 How Science Deals with Subjectivity BOX 12.2 Do We Need Data Analysis Police?




BOX 12.3 The Cumulative Recorder BOX 12.4 Does a Graphic Approach to Data Analysis Need Defending? BOX 13.1 When You Cannot Get There From Here BOX 13.2 Internal and External Validity BOX 13.3 Inferential Statistics as Interpretation BOX 13.4 Do Attitudes Toward Interpretation Vary Across Disciplines? BOX 13.5 Are We Preoccupied with Generality Across Individuals?





Our decision to write a third edition of Strategies and Tactics of Behavioral Research arose from our experiences, as well as those of many colleagues, in helping students to understand this material. We discovered many ways of improving our discussion of this approach to studying individual behavior, but we also saw that the audience for our text was changing. We had written the second edition primarily for doctoral students in psychology, education, and other academic fields specializing in the experimental study of behavior. However, we also observed considerable growth in Master’s programs, especially those preparing practitioners working toward newly established credentials in the field of Applied Behavior Analysis.

We have written this third edition, no longer accompanied by a readings volume, to meet these changing needs. Although the core content and chapter divisions of the second edition remain relatively untouched, we have discarded many of the secondary issues and digressions that encumbered discussions in the previous edition. Instead, we have focused on describing and explaining the primary material in a straightforward and relatively simple narrative. We have composed both sentences and text_indentgraphs with unwavering attention to the needs of student readers.

Because many students learning this material may be planning careers as practitioners rather than as researchers, this third edition considers the relevance of methodological procedures and decisions for the delivery of professional services. This is not a stretch, of course. Many methodological requirements of professional practice originated in behavioral research methods, and the fact that the Behavior Analyst Certification Boardfi mandates coursework in this area clarifies the need to address the role of research methods in service scenarios.

Aside from substantive and literary revisions, we have also added a number of features that will make the volume more effective as a textbook. New terms are now identified in bold face type and are formally defined in indented tinted boxes, as well as in the glossary at the end of the book. There are now many tables that summarize the main points of a discussion, and they are joined by considerably more figures, including figures adapted from journal articles. Chapter end matter now includes not only study guides, but a chapter summary, suggested readings, discussion topics, and exercises. This material is also available on an instructor’s website, www.psypress.com/behavioral-research, which further includes lecture outlines and test items.

In sum, although the chapter topics are unchanged from the second edition, this third edition otherwise provides a very different experience for student and instructor. Substantial improvements in clarity of exposition and the addition of new learning aids offer a more appealing learning opportunity, and instructors will find it easier to take advantage of students’ interests. Incorporating the methodological interests of practitioners into each chapter extends this appeal to a growing professional discipline, a field partly defined by its respect for the highest standards of scientific practice.

We would like to thank our many students and colleagues who have offered valuable feedback along the way. We would especially like to thank Ryan Zayac at Central Washington University, who prepared many of the supplementary materials, and Wayne Fuqua at Western Michigan University, who served as a reviewer.

Finally, as with the second edition, the first author has assumed primary responsibility for this edition, although with the active intellectual support and guidance of the second author. Our contributions to the foundations on which the third edition is based remain thoroughly intertwined.

—James M. Johnston

—Henry S. Pennypacker







Those who fall in love with practice without science are like a sailor who enters a ship without a helm or a compass, and who never can be certain whither he is going.

—Leonardo da Vinci




Part One The Natural Science of Behavior




Chapter One Science and Scientific Behavior



Are Scientists Different?

The Three-Term Contingency


Scientific Behavior

Examples of Methodological Choices





Research versus Practice

Role of Research Methods in Practice

The chief problem of science is the scientist

—D. L. Watson





The scientific achievements of the 20th and now the 21st century have changed our lives in profound ways, and many people have come to revere science as an almost magical endeavor. We have grown confident that, given enough time and money, science can solve most of life’s problems, and we may be right. Those who devote their lives to doing research are held in high regard, and scientific careers are now rewarding not just professionally but financially.

And yet, most people do not understand how science really works. The average citizen does not have contact with the daily activities of scientists, so it is not surprising that it is hard to appreciate how scientific pursuits are different from everyday interests. A newspaper article about a scientific discovery inevitably stops short of explaining exactly how it was accomplished or describing the years of research that made the breakthrough possible.

Even researchers are likely to “miss the forest for the trees” as they focus on their own areas of interest. Most scientists are trained in the research literature and methods of their own specialties. They usually do not appreciate the underlying features of experimental methods common to all disciplines that make science a special way of learning about the world. There are some writers who specialize in studying science as an industry or enterprise, and a few others focus on science from a philosophical point of view. However, the critical essence of science—the features that are fundamental to its effectiveness—often eludes these writers too.




Scientists as Behaving Organisms

Are Scientists Different?

Understanding the essential features of a scientific search for nature’s secrets requires looking at the behavior of scientists is a particular way. This perspective is based on appreciating the fundamental processes underlying how human behavior actually works, which is itself the product of a field of scientific study. This point of view is very different from how we are taught by the culture to view human behavior. For instance, although we learn to talk about what is going on “in the scientist’s head,” this only distracts us from noticing more important relationships between scientists’ behavior and their daily work environments.

The key to understanding how science works lies in acknowledging that scientists are behaving organisms. As such, there is no evidence that scientists are generally different from other people. In other words, they are not any smarter or more logical than others who earn advanced degrees (Mahoney, 1976).

It is also important to recognize that the behavior of scientists, just like the behavior of all human and nonhuman animals, is as much a part of nature as any other scientific subject matter and can be approached with the same experimental tools. In fact, the scientific study of behavior over the past 100 years or so has revealed many now well-established laws about the variables that determine an organism’s behavior. This research has shown that, in addition to whatever genetic endowment each individual is born with, the major influence on behavior is each person’s moment by moment experiences as he or she goes through life.

Box 1.1

Are Scientists Different?

In a somewhat humorously disrespectful book, titled Scientist as Subject: The Psychological Imperative (1976), Michael Mahoney delights in puncturing many illusions about scientists. For instance, he argues that scientists are not more intelligent than others, often illogical in their work, often selective and biased in their treatment of data, passionate in their prejudices, frequently dogmatic in their opinions, sometimes selfish and ambitious in pursuing personal recognition and defending territory, often secretive about their findings, and fond of spinning “truths” in hypotheses and theories before the data warrant. His general point is that scientists are not special, but just like the rest of us.

This list of shortcomings should suggest that, however well science usually works, it can go awry. Although it is relatively uncommon, scientists are sometimes dishonest with themselves (when they interpret data in a way they know is incorrect) or with their peers (when they publish findings they know are false). Fortunately, science has some effective self-corrective mechanisms. In brief, scientific research includes a public component that keeps innocent bias and blatant dishonesty at a minimum. Scientists must publish complete reports of their methods, data, and analytical procedures before other scientists will pay any attention to their findings. Some of their colleagues who are interested in the same topic will repeat the experiments, which will either confirm the original conclusions or cast doubt on them and lead to still further experimental efforts to see what the truth really is.

Scientific ethics is an important part of graduate training. If a researcher is found to have broken the cardinal rule of honesty, there are a variety of sanctions that may be applied. These sanctions include being prevented from being considered for federal grants, being fired, and even being prosecuted under civil or criminal statutes.

The Three-Term Contingency




The interactions between each action or response and its environmental context involve biologically mediated processes called conditioning or learning. The laws of conditioning describe exactly how the relationship between an individual’s responses and the environmental events surrounding them affects his or her behavior in the future. It may be easiest to understand how learning works in terms of what is called the three-term contingency. In this context, a contingency refers to relationships between instances of behavior (responses) and their environmental antecedents and consequences. Figure 1.1 identifies the three terms that define the basic contingencies underlying all behavior. Environmental events that immediately precede responses are called antecedent events or stimuli, and those that follow responses are called consequent events. (These terms are often shortened to “antecedents”

Fig. 1.1. Schematic representation of the three-term contingency.

and “consequences.”) The contingencies involving these antecedent events, responses, and consequent events describe different relationships between a particular behavior or action and those features of the environment that precede or follow it. These relationships are termed respondents, operants, and discriminated operants.

Conditioning. The process of changing a behavior that involves interactions between responses and environmental events whose effects depend on the processes of reinforcement and punishment.

Learning. The relatively enduring changes in behavior that result from conditioning processes.

Contingency. A relationship between a class of responses and a class (or classes) of stimuli. Implies nothing about the nature of the relationship or its effects.

Three-term contingency. A set of functional relationships among distinct classes of antecedent stimuli, responses, and consequent stimuli that together constitute the model of how behavior is influenced by the environment.

Antecedent event. An environmental event that occurs immediately before a response. Used generically when it is not certain what function the event serves.

Consequent event. An environmental event that occurs immediately after a response. Used generically when it is not certain what function the event serves.

Respondent. A class of responses elicited by a particular unconditioned or conditioned antecedent stimulus.

Operant. A class of responses defined by a functional relation with a class of consequent events that immediately follow those responses.

Discriminated operant. A class of responses that are functionally related to classes of both antecedent and consequent stimuli.

The three-term contingency is a useful way of summarizing how behavior works because the biology of organisms, together with their unique life experiences, makes their behavior especially sensitive to certain kinds of environmental events. For example, humans are from birth especially sensitive to sweet-tasting substances, and their experiences with particular foods (e.g., cookies) can make such stimuli especially important. When a child’s behavior such as standing on a chair to reach the kitchen counter where the cookies




are kept leads to the consequence of eating the cookie, that behavior is more likely to occur again in the future. This instance of the three-term contingency is called positive reinforcement. If the same behavior resulted in a different kind of consequence such as falling off the chair or being scolded by a parent, the behavior might be less likely to occur again. This instance of the three-term contingency is called positive punishment. Of course, there are other kinds of contingencies as well.

Positive reinforcement. A class of procedures involving the occurrence of a stimulus immediately following responding that results in an increase in some aspect of the response class over baseline levels.

Positive punishment. A class of procedures involving the occurrence of a stimulus immediately following responding that results in a decrease in some aspect of the response class over baseline levels.

The relationship between instances of behavior and the antecedent side of the three-term contingency also influences behavior, although somewhat differently. If a certain behavior occurs when a particular environmental event is present and the behavior then produces a reinforcing consequence, that antecedent event comes to serve a sort of signaling function. The behavior (a discriminated operant) is then more likely to occur when similar antecedent events (called discriminative stimuli) are present than when they are not present. For instance, if you drive up to a store and see an “Open” sign on the door, you will usually get out of the car and go in because in the past such behavior has resulted in reinforcing consequences. Not surprisingly, you would be less likely to get out of the car and try to go in if such behavior has been followed by a punishing consequence (the door is locked) in the presence of a different antecedent (a “Closed” sign).

Discriminative stimuli. Stimuli that have acquired the function of setting the occasion for a behavior to occur. A behavior is more likely to occur in the presence of a discriminative stimulus than in its absence. Abbreviated SD.

Other antecedent stimuli have functions that depend less on the consequences of responding and more on an organism’s biology. For example, when a stimulus such as a puff of air contacts our eye, we blink, and it is difficult to avoid doing so. Even innocuous events paired with a puff of air elicit the same kind of blinking response. This behavior is an example of a respondent. (See Catania, 2007, for a more detailed treatment of the three-term contingency and the resulting classes of behavior.)

The repertoire of each of us at any point in our lives is largely the result of our history of contingencies like these. What we do or do not do, our skills, our emotions, and the unique features of our individuality are largely a function of the laws of conditioning. As with other laws of nature, these relationships are at work even if we are unaware of what is going on, and no one is exempt from them, even for a moment.

Over the years, scientific study of the relationship between behavior and the environment represented by the three-term contingency has been very fruitful. Researchers have not only learned a great deal about the basic components of conditioning, but they have also learned how to apply these fundamental principles to human behavior, especially under everyday circumstances. As a result, a still developing but powerful technology for changing behavior has emerged. This technology, called applied behavior analysis, is now used in diverse areas, including mental retardation, autism, brain injury, education, business, medicine, and sports (Austin & Carr, 2000).

Applied behavior analysis. A phrase that may refer to (a) the field of research that focuses on applying the findings of a basic science (the Experimental Analysis of Behavior) concerning fundamental processes of conditioning to address the need for changing behavior under everyday circumstances (b) the behavior change technology developed by applied researchers, or (c) the field encompassed by both applied research and delivery of the resulting technology.







Science as the Behavior of Scientists

Scientific Behavior

The basic principles of conditioning or learning are relevant in a book on behavioral research methods because they are at the heart of how science works. The primary activities of scientists are figuring out what experiments to do, planning and conducting them, and interpreting and communicating their results. When scientists are doing these kinds of things, they are behaving. In fact, science is really no more than the behavior of scientists.

Although this may sound simple, the details can become complicated. We certainly do not know everything we might like to about the behavior of scientists. However, if we examine their activities in light of the three- term contingency, it can help to explain much of what goes on every day in the scientific workplace. This approach is also useful because it focuses on what researchers actually do and the environmental circumstances under which they do it. In other words, it helps us talk about scientific behavior in the same way we approach any behavior as a subject matter. We can try to identify the antecedent events that may prompt researchers to choose one course of action over another and the consequences that may reinforce some practices but not others.

This is a good perspective for a text on research methods because it helps to highlight the many choices that researchers face in conducting an experiment. Each choice about what to do and how to do it involves some antecedent circumstances and certain possible consequences. The alternative selected may lead to a reinforcing outcome or punishing outcome, which will then make similar decisions more likely or less likely in the future. Examining these scientific contingencies can help to show why some research practices are more effective than others under certain conditions. If we step back and examine the choices that researchers most often make in a certain discipline, we can identify the field’s established methodological practices. The reason why those practices are preferred stems from their effectiveness for the individual researchers who choose them.

Examples of Methodological Choices

One of the first things a behavioral researcher must do is decide what behavior should be measured and how to measure it. For instance, as chapter 4 will show, there are different ways of defining a particular behavior. Some definitions are likely to produce more variability in the resulting data than others, and some may generate less variability. For instance, the behavior of cleaning a kitchen may be defined in terms of specific actions, such as putting dishes in the dishwasher, scrubbing the counters, and so forth. Alternatively, this behavior may be defined in terms of a certain outcome, such as clean dishes and counter, regardless of the actions involved (perhaps the dishes were washed by hand). As we will see, the degree of variability in the data is an important consequence of a researcher’s methodological choices.

Another set of decisions will be required when choosing the particular features of a behavior that may need to be measured. For instance, measuring how often the behavior occurs will provide a different picture than measuring how long it lasts when it occurs. One of these pictures may be more useful than the other in revealing the effects of an intervention and answering the experimental question.

There are also a series of choices that must be made in designing procedures for observing and recording the target behavior. For example, the researcher must decide how often observation will take place and how long each session will last. Not surprisingly, the choices here can again have a big impact on what the investigator learns about the behavior. For example, measuring a participant’s behavior only once before and once after an experimental treatment is certainly easier than measuring it repeatedly throughout both control and experimental conditions. However, the two kinds of data sets provide very different antecedents for the researcher’s interpretive reactions.

Designing an experiment involves selecting experimental and control conditions and then arranging them in




ways that show differences in responding between the two conditions. This aspect of research methods also faces the investigator with many choices. A key decision concerns how to compare data from control and experimental conditions.

One approach, which has a long tradition in psychology, is to divide a relatively large number of participants into two groups. The groups are treated the same except that one experiences the experimental condition and the other does not. The differences in the aggregate performance of each group are then analyzed using the rules of inferential statistics.

An alternative approach, which also has a long history, uses fewer participants but separately exposes each individual to a series of sessions under the control condition and a series of sessions under the experimental condition. Comparisons are then usually made using graphical techniques examining the performance of each participant.

These two approaches, which have many variations, are fundamentally different. As later chapters will show, they face the researcher with choices that lead to importantly different consequences for the nature of the data and for the kinds of interpretations that can be made.

Finally, once a study is completed and the data are available for analysis, figuring out what the data reveal about the experimental question provides still more choices. For instance: (a) Are all of the data fully appropriate for analysis, or should some data points be omitted because they represent the effects of extraneous factors such as illness? (b) What data analysis techniques are most appropriate? (c) If displaying the data graphically is planned, what kind of graphs should be used? (d) What type of scale should be used for the vertical axis? (e) What factors in the experimental procedures should be considered in interpreting the data? (f) Were there procedural problems that might make the data misleading?




Control by the Subject Matter

This chapter has introduced three themes that continue throughout this volume:

1. The essence of science lies in the behavior of individual researchers. 2. This behavior results from the same kinds of environmental contingencies that determine all other

behavior. 3. Viewing methodological choices in terms of their antecedents and consequences highlights important

distinctions among alternatives and helps investigators to make sound decisions.

This perspective toward scientific behavior leads to the conclusion that experimentation is about control. Conducting an experiment requires the researcher to control the factors whose effects are under study (the independent variable). At the same time, the investigator must control all of the other factors that are not of interest but that might affect how clearly these effects are seen (extraneous variables). In other words, the investigator must manage not only the experimental circumstances to make sure that they operate as intended but the status of any extraneous factors whose influence might be confused with the effects of the independent variable. All the while, the investigator must manage procedures for accurately measuring the targeted behavior (the dependent variable) to see if it changes as the independent variable condition is systematically presented or terminated.

Independent variable. Environmental event or events whose presence or absence is manipulated by the investigator in order to determine their effects on the dependent variable.

Extraneous variables. Environmental events that are not of interest to the researcher but that may influence the participant’s behavior in ways that obscure the effects of the independent variable.

Dependent variable. In behavioral research, usually a response class. The objective is to see if changes in the dependent variable depend on manipulations of the independent variable.

Although it may seem that the researcher is doing all the controlling, the ideal outcome of these activities is that the researcher’s behavior comes largely under the control of the subject matter. In other words, the data representing changes in the target behavior typically become a major influence on the researcher’s decisions. Obtaining a clear picture of the effects of the independent on the dependent variable is a highly reinforcing consequence for a researcher, and good researchers work hard to pursue this outcome. For instance, an investigator might try to eliminate an extraneous factor such as distractions that might affect a participant’s behavior in the hope that this action improves how clearly the data show the effects of the independent variable. A researcher might also work to improve how carefully staff members implement procedures in order to insure that an intervention operates exactly as intended.

As investigators attempt to produce a clear picture of the effects of experimental procedures on the target behavior, they use the accumulating data to evaluate their choices. The emerging data are often a good source of ideas about ways of improving the experiment. In sum, the subject matter (the behavior of participants) controls the behavior of a researcher by serving as feedback about how the experiment is designed and managed and by serving as a prompt for any needed improvements.




Scientific Method

Scientific method may be described as a set of loose rules and traditions that have evolved over many years of experimental practice that bring the researcher’s behavior under the control of the subject matter. This outcome is what makes these conventions effective in studying natural phenomena. These rules and traditions also keep behavioral scientists looking for better ways to see the effects of experimental interventions. Researchers often go to considerable trouble to improve the clarity of experimental findings because if the data are misleading in some way the consequences can be pretty serious. Investigators who recognize these kinds of problems may admit to themselves that the project failed to provide a sound answer to the experimental question. Investigators who fail to recognize serious methodological shortcomings will probably attempt to publish their results. If a journal accepts their submission, the findings may then mislead peers, who may be unable to identify the problems from a journal article.

Scientific method. The established practices of scientific communities that have evolved over time because of their effectiveness in studying natural phenomena.

A field’s scientific methods are important because the alternative to the researcher’s behavior coming under the control of the subject matter is having other sources of control dominate decision-making. These other influences can lead to problematic choices and limit the effectiveness of a study.

When human behavior is the subject matter, for example, it can be especially difficult for investigators to be completely free of the many preconceptions about behavior that everyone learns from growing up in the culture. For instance, our language suggests that: (a) behavior is generally motivated and controlled by events going on in the mind, (b) emotions control subsequent actions, and (c) we can make choices that are free of outside influences. These prescientific convictions often lead to poor experimental questions and methodological decisions.

The objective of this text is to summarize what many researchers have learned about methods of studying behavior. One way in which this book differs from other books on research methods is by not offering a set of methodological rules that might give a misleading impression of simplicity. Doing science is not a matter of following specific rules like recipes in a cookbook. Cookbooks may work quite well when the recipe is well tested, but scientific discovery is more like creating the recipe in the first place. Getting nature to reveal secrets about behavior involves many decisions, judgments, and even guesses. Successfully playing the science game requires acknowledging this complexity and understanding how science really works. This book therefore describes methodological practices in terms of the scientist’s behavior and the likely consequences of different courses of action that are available. Each research project requires a unique series of decisions, but their consequences must always lead to a clear picture of the effects of experimental conditions on the behavior of interest.




The Products of Science

If science is largely the behavior of scientists, the results or consequences of scientific activities are the facts, empirical generalizations, and laws of nature that are discovered. In the case of behavior as a subject matter, these products are actually statements of contingencies that describe the relationship between behavior and other events. When researchers describe experimental findings in plain English, these statements summarize “if–then” relations. For example, a statement such as “if a person smokes cigarettes for many years, then his or her chances of developing heart disease, lung cancer, or emphysema will increase greatly” describes contingencies in nature. The value of science is that it allows scientists to identify and understand such contingencies with a high degree of accuracy. Their findings can then be used to guide the behavior of others who have not studied or experienced the contingencies.

Skinner (1974) described the role of scientific methods in the following way:

By learning the laws of science, a person is able to behave effectively under the contingencies of an extraordinarily complex world. Science carries him beyond experience and beyond the defective sampling of nature inevitable in a single lifetime. It also brings him under the control of conditions which could play no part in shaping and maintaining his behavior. He may stop smoking because of a rule derived from a statistical study of the consequences, although the consequences themselves are too deferred to have any reinforcing effect. (p. 124)




Research Methods and Service Delivery

Research versus Practice

As with fields such as medicine and engineering, the field of behavior analysis may be divided into two major endeavors: research and delivery of practical services. Some behavior analysts are employed in circumstances in which they are able to conduct research, and some portion of the research literature focuses on understanding relatively fundamental features of behavior. These studies are typically conducted under highly controlled conditions in laboratories, and they may use humans as well as nonhuman species as experimental participants. Much of the research literature, however, tends to apply basic research findings to develop ways of changing behavior for practical purposes. Applied studies are often conducted under fairly everyday circumstances and involve participants appropriate to the applied focus of the study (e.g., school children in a study of ways of teaching reading).

Box 1.2

Rule-Governed versus Contingency-Shaped Behavior

The goal of science is to describe regularities in nature so that we may behave more effectively than would otherwise be the case. Scientific methods help researchers to figure out these regularities, which they express as rules. If what researchers learn is accurate and sufficiently detailed, these rules can lead others who have never experienced the contingencies to behave effectively.

The disadvantage of managing behavior with rules is that they are often less than fully accurate and complete. Furthermore, people may not follow the rules very well because their actions may be influenced by their experiences (contingencies). For instance, although the rule may be clear that smoking increases one’s chance of certain diseases, the immediate consequences of smoking usually have the effect of making smoking more likely.

Behavior shaped by contingencies is usually very closely attuned to those contingencies, but shaping by contingencies requires each individual to experience them. This is not only less efficient than following a rule, but sometimes the consequences are quite costly in one way or another (as in developing heart disease from smoking).

The distinction between rule-governed and contingency-shaped behavior is relevant to research methods. As we have already pointed out, describing experimental methods as a set of rules to be blindly followed would not necessarily bring the researcher’s behavior under very good control of what is going on with the subject matter. This rule-based approach tends to lead to behavior that is too strongly influenced by theory, the research literature, or factors other than the data from the experiment. In contrast, the approach taken in this book emphasizes the contingencies between the actions of the investigator and the characteristics of the resulting data. Such contingencies tend to shape sound decisions about designing and conducting an experiment, as well as good interpretations of the data, by encouraging close attention to the subject matter. This, in turn, tends to lead to more accurate and complete descriptions of nature—better rules.

Most behavior analysts are employed not as either basic or applied researchers, however, but under circumstances that require them to provide behavior-change services to a wide variety of individuals. The focus of these services is to improve the lives of the individuals who are served, which is a very different kind of activity from conducting behavioral research (Johnston, 1996). Researchers try to identify empirical generalizations about the relationship between behavior and environment by arranging special conditions




designed to answer experimental questions. In contrast, practitioners focus on changing an individual’s behavior in targeted ways that solve problems in everyday living faced by the individual and others. Furthermore, practitioners do not typically work in situations where they can establish the degree of experimental control necessary for drawing accurate conclusions about the role of experimental variables.