Why We Should Stop Using Applied Behavioral Science on Young People

DHBlogFig41We recently read with interest an article in the Daytona Beach News-Journal about a secondhand store called Shark’s Closet that operates on the campus of Atlantic High School in Port Orange, Florida.  Shark’s Closet is the brainchild of senior Anna Wuest and does not accept money.  Instead, students spend “credits” earned for “improved grades, attendance or other achievements deemed worthy by the teacher.”

There is much to laud about Shark’s Closet.  The creativity and initiative shown by Anna Wuest.  The ability of students to obtain clothes they might not otherwise be able to afford.  The connections being made between a local business and the high school.  The retail business experience gained by those who involved in running Shark’s Closet.  These are the sort of outcomes and experiences one expects to see at a thriving school.

However, there is one aspect of the arrangement at Shark’s Closet that probably goes unnoticed.  Shark’s Closet is, in the language of applied behavioral science, part of a token economy.  A token economy awards intrinsically worthless currency for certain behavior that can be exchanged for goods, services, or privileges.  Although token economies themselves may not be familiar they are but one manifestation of the prevailing applied model of human behavior we are all familiar with – carrots and sticks.

A token economy is based on a theory of human behavior pioneered by researchers like B.F. Skinner.  And, simply put, this theory has a diminished and incomplete view of humanity.  This is not a criticism of Shark’s Closet.  In the language of behavioral science Shark’s Closet is where one exchanges their “learned reinforcers” (tokens), obtained for meeting “specific target behaviors” (good grades, attendance), for the “backup reinforcers” (clothes, shoes, purses, etc.).  Rather, we question the continued application of this pervasive yet incomplete behavioral model on our youngest members of society.

Operant conditioning is the academic term for using carrots and sticks to obtain desired behavior.  And token reinforcement programs have long been applied and studied in the classroom.  This theory suggests that we do not act because of personalities, states of mind, feelings, traits of character, purposes, or intentions.  We act only in response to the rewards and punishments.  In other words, according to this theory, our personalities, states of mind, feelings, traits of character, purposes, and intentions are illusions.  In a world seen through a lens ground only to see the impact of rewards and punishments on external behavior these things must necessarily fade into the background.

But there is also ample evidence that rewarding behavior actually undermines our inherent interest that behavior.  Want to create life long learners?  Stop rewarding them for learning.  Young people show incredible drive and curiosity about their world.  They teach themselves to walk and talk without any instruction – these are miraculous achievements!  Rewarding them for learning undermines their natural desire to learn.

And what about the students who don’t get credits?  Students who are marked with bad grades, bad behavior, bad reports, and bad, bad, bad, have their self image and natural curiosity crushed.  And the students and society pay the price.

So if carrots and sticks are relics of an incomplete theory of behavior, what is the solution?  The only solution is to embrace the whole of our natures.  This means trust.  This means the ability to live with the knowledge that we don’t know everything.  And what we don’t know is breathtaking.  Scientists wonder what quantum mechanics can tell us about free will.  If physicists are debating the fundamental nature of reality, then it stands to reason that applied behavioral science is a vulgar cudgel indeed.  So we should stop using it on young people.  Applied behavioral science fails to take into consideration much of what makes us human.  And if we implement policies grounded on rudimentary views of humanity, research shows us that we will get what we think we see.

Young people need freedom to be young people.  Once our basic needs are met we desire the time and freedom to pursue those higher things that make us human.  It is through freedom that we develop into whole beings.  Freedom gives us the chance to learn how to fail, learn how to take on responsibility, and learn how to doggedly pursue whatever it is that we think we want to pursue.  Applied behavioral science tells us that we are merely the sum of our external behaviors which can be manipulated by the subtle application of rewards and punishments.

And what about Shark’s Closet?  It’s a wonderful example of the creativity and ingenuity of young people.  It reveals their generosity of spirit.  The fact it’s part of a token economy is irrelevant to those things.  But it also shows how easy it is to accept the use of applied behavioral science on our young people.

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