Saving the world with behavior analysis

It seems I will be writing a series of posts giving some context to my current project, building on the things briefly mentioned in my previous post. Most of them are connected to the endeavor I initiated almost six years ago — investigating how we can create a better and more sustainable world for as many people as possible, using what we know about predicting and influencing human behavior.

Working as an organizational consultant brings an uneven workload over the year. Usually the calendar is most intensely booked during September-October, when various kinds of business events tend to take place. There are kick-off events, leadership days, planning days, and other kind of days where organizations are likely to seek outside help for various reasons. The consultants work often consists of something like briefly giving inspiration about specific subjects (collaboration and communication is a common one), or running workshops in improving work processes or work environment. When October has passed, the consultant often has a more relaxed schedule, until January and February brings, to a somewhat lesser degree, similar activities as the ones following summer.

I have chosen to use my bouts of free time to do quite a bit of reading on the rather broad subject of making the world better. Always through the lens of my training in contextual behavioral science, looking for research pointing to specific behaviors that make a difference, or trying to deduct behaviors from the things I read, to be more specific on HOW to make change happen. Many subjects are of course connected, economics, politics, sustainability, prevention, equality, complexity, prejudice, evolution, epigenetics, biology, etc. And one really needs a bit of all of them to understand the larger context and the multitude or work that is going on.

As a contextual behavior analyst I naturally looked into what had been written on large scale behavior change and social/environmental issues. Having training in a specific scientific tradition, it is difficult to avoid the bias of looking at what others from the same tradition have done in your areas of interest and maybe putting more emphasis on that particular research (they talk and write like you, that’s nice!). This will unavoidably have affected my judgment or impartiality, even if I strive to avoid such things by trying to look for disagreements, rebuttals or falsifications.

I talked (and emailed) to a lot of people about the reading I was doing, getting new tips on stuff to look at, contacting those doing relevant research in Sweden, and of course just general conversations with friends and colleagues about saving the world with behavior science. One of the outcomes of these conversations was an invitation to talk at the annual conference of the Swedish Association for Behavior Therapy (SABT), which in 2014 took place in Gothenburg. I am very grateful to Graciela Rovner (conference general and program chair) for giving me this opportunity, since it was a pivotal event in getting me started to actually do something that could have large scale effects.

Being scheduled to talk at the conference early on Saturday, after an unusually busy work week in March, meant traveling by train late on Friday and preparing myself pretty much all night. I had an hour and 15 minutes at my disposal, and it is always a challenge to do an entirely new lecture, not least estimating the fit of content to time span. To complicate things further, I had a very broad range of issues I wanted to cover, preferably with some way to interconnect them and have them in an order that made sense to the audience.

Somewhat surprisingly there was about 60 people in the room at 9.15 AM, with four other tracks running in parallel. Even more surprising was that I wrapped up my presentation at 10.30, exactly! While I had spent huge amounts of time preparing myself, I had not once made a “dry-run” to check the time needed. Lucky guesstimate, I suppose. The reception from the audience was very positive, thankfully. And it led to invitations to do a similar lecture at many universities in Sweden.

One of the things I emphasized during the presentation was the importance and long-term impact of prevention, and as a specific example, the Good Behavior Game. The GBG is an elementary school intervention that teachers use in the classroom during regular class activities. The first research paper on GBG was published in 1969, and one of the things that makes it stand out in the research literature are the RCTs that were done in the mid 80’s that have follow-up data from about 15 years later, showing a very broad range of long-term effects, on things like mental health, addiction and suicide.

After having done a couple of these “save the world with behavior analysis”-lectures, I was approached by Håkan Järvå, a psychologist who worked a lot with schools and was interested in doing more prevention work in that setting. He specifically asked about how to get GBG started in Sweden. This was the push needed to get me to begin work with prevention. After doing some research on the different versions of GBG that had evolved since the late 60’s, I reached out to Dennis Embry at the PAXIS Institute. This was just before heading to the ACBS World Conference in Berlin in July 2015, and I actually got the response from Dennis during the conference.

Dr. Embry had coined the term “evidence-based kernels” (tools for behavior change) and developed the PAX Good Behavior Game by adding kernels to the GBG, as well as improving other aspects of the game (a subject for another text). We ended up meeting in Dublin in late September, in conjunction to an event where the pilot trial of PAX GBG in Ireland was presented to politicians and media. I had already started networking and trying to get funding to translate and adapt the PAX GBG to Swedish settings, and this work intensified after getting back home to Sweden. The visit to Dublin also started a beautiful friendship with Dennis, whose creative work on helping children and adolescents thrive is an amazing inspiration to me. Coincidentally, an emergency landing (due to another passengers’ medical situation) on the flight home sparked another friendship that has quickly grown to be profoundly important to me. It is however outside the scope of this text, but it was such an important event to me that I could just not leave it out of the story about traveling to Dublin.

The work on PAX GBG evolved my understanding of the usefulness of kernels, a concept that I had already sort of adopted into my organizational work, and it would eventually lead to me doing workshops with Dr’s Biglan and Embry. I also managed to invite them to a Swedish conference in March 2017, and coordinated meetings with various government agencies. But all of that is food for separate texts.

I should add a brief story about something that contributed to my invitation to talk at the SABT conference. Much like the events leading up to me relocating to Oslo, this is an unlikely chain of events. Or maybe it’s a totally likely chain of events, in retrospect. But it sure seems like there were small things that happened to fall in the right place, over and over.

Back in 2012 I was invited by my friend and colleague Michael Wagner to co-host a leadership training session with a municipal waste management organization. We did this using Organizational Behavior Management, and one of the participants, who worked with communications, really liked the principles about behavior change. She recommended us to someone working with environmental issues at the County Administrative Board. This led to me getting an hour to talk at one of their open meetings on sustainability, with about 60 participants. One of the participants was planning an event with the Swedish Environmental Protection Agency, and I was invited to speak there for 30 minutes, to about a hundred people. My brief speech at the SEPA was very well received, and it brought along more invitations for lecturing and collaborating. Over a year later, the Swedish Consumer Agency invited me to speak to the entire agency, showing how one brief lecture can give long term spin-offs.

So why did I mention this? Well, it helped establish me as a psychologist working with sustainability and that in turn probably helped getting me credibility to talk about other social issues, which I believe prompted the invitation to the SABT conference in 2014.

I’ll end this text with a recommendation of a book missing from the photo appearing earlier in this text (I gave my last copy to someone at the Ministry of Health and Social Affairs). If you want to read one book, and one book only, on making the world better, I think this is a very good choice: The Nurture Effect. And if you want to read a free article on a similar subject right away, this is a good place to start: Integrating the Human Sciences to Evolve Effective Policies.