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Introduction to the BAT special issue on bridge studies.

A unique aspect of behavior analysis as a discipline is the direct link between elements that are basic (operant mechanisms that underlie a response) and those that are applied (applications of those mechanisms to socially relevant behavior) (Wacker, 2000). This direct link provides opportunities for an almost seamless translation of knowledge gained in basic operant laboratories to significant social problems encountered in the community. For example, Kazdin (1978) noted a direct link in the 1960s between research conducted in laboratory settings and research conducted in behavior therapy. As studies were disseminated from operant laboratories, approaches to behavior therapy changed and, in a reciprocal fashion, studies in behavior therapy influenced studies conducted in operant labs. More recently, however, Vollmer and Hackenberg (2001) have noted that the "bridges" built in behavior analytic research are largely unidirectional. Specifically, what is learned in the nonhuman laboratory frequently informs behavior analytic practice. However, save a few exceptions, what occurs in practice infrequently directs nonhuman laboratory research. This state of affairs, as it seems to be, need not remain.

Hake (1982) described studies that promoted reciprocal interactions between basic and applied behavior analysis as constituting bridge studies. Bridge studies provide analyses that increase our understanding of both operant mechanisms and socially meaningful behavior and thus provide the necessary links for viewing behavior analysis on a continuum rather than as separate categories of basic and applied research.

The categorization of operant research as either basic or applied is often helpful because it permits consumers to determine which books, journals, and presentations may be of most interest to them. However, such categorization can also lead to the absence of the reciprocal relationship described by Kazdin (1978) and Vollmer and Hackenberg (2001). One outcome of this lack of reciprocity is that as practitioners, we may encounter problem behaviors that are resistant to change or treatment programs, and we have difficulty determining why the behavior is persisting or how to make fundamental changes to enhance the treatment's effectiveness. As applied researchers, we sometimes struggle with how to conduct additional studies to better understand the relation between the target behaviors of interest and the components within the treatment programs being conducted (Borrero, Vollmer, Samaha, Sloman, & Francisco, 2007).

A disconnect between basic and applied behavior analysis leads toward descriptions of observed outcomes and away from analyses of why the outcomes occurred. It also leads to definitions of what constitutes a desirable treatment based on the structural components that comprise the treatment and away from functional analyses of the conditions under which any given treatment might be most effective. As an example, the phenomenon of maintenance is of critical importance to all applied programs, but even a cursory review of the applied literature will show only a few applied studies of maintenance, and even fewer studies that have attempted to analyze the conditions under which maintenance is most likely to occur or how it can be produced. Studies such as those in this special issue that focus on behavioral persistence (Dube, Ahearn, Lionello-DeNolf, & McIlvane), resurgence (Lattal & St. Peter-Pipken), and reinforcement contingencies (Vollmer, Samaha, & Sloman) offer analyses that have a direct and functional relationship with maintenance.

We also have considerable evidence to suggest that a reinforcing stimulus may be considered a reinforcer only within specific boundaries (e.g., Meehl, 1950). An informed and evolving body of work that was spawned from traditional economic formulations of behavior offers a conceptual system that is consistent with the analysis of behavior and may inform application. Francisco and Madden offer an insightful summary of the applied implications of (behavioral) economic formulations of stimulus "value." Although the construct is perhaps foreign to many applied behavior analysts, the objective of such applications is to encourage the practitioner to assess the conditions under which a "reinforcer" will in fact function as a reinforcer.

As verbally competent humans, we often categorize and judge stimuli, events, and people. Why we judge an unknown person to be trustworthy, categorize stimuli or events in particular ways, or process otherwise arbitrary social information can be examined via stimulus equivalence and Relational Frame Theory (RFT). Dixon, Branon, Nastally, and Mui present an empirical demonstration of participants' categorization of North American and Middle Eastern males as either terrorists or not terrorists and the effects of conditional discrimination training on altering initial categorizations. This research represents an experimental preparation on the continuum somewhere between basic and applied behavior analysis. It is derived directly from stimulus equivalence and RFT and suggests similar research be conducted in the future on such topics as prejudice, racism, and stereotyping, which to date have not often been the subject of study by behavior analysts.

Although much attention is paid to steady-state responding in both basic and applied behavior analysis, understanding behavioral diversity, or variability, is also of interest. Variability plays an important role for operant behaviors because the absence of variability would mean a lack of acquisition via shaping, a lack of generalization, and restricted contact with reinforcing contingencies. Neuringer reviews how and why operant responses vary with examples from basic research, applied research designed to increase variability of otherwise stereotypic verbal responses of individuals with autism, and implications for applied work designed to reduce the extreme behavioral variability sometimes exhibited by individuals with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Understanding operant variability and how to promote or restrict response variability appears to have implications for applied research in the areas of creativity and social skills training for individuals who display either monotonous or unpredictable social interactions.

Because basic research provides increased understanding of the processes that underlie behavior, it can be considered as addressing the "why" questions associated with a response (e.g., why behavior is occurring or changing). Research that involves the application of operant processes provides an increased understanding of the effects of specific assessment or treatment procedures and thus most often addresses "how" questions (e.g., how best to measure or alter a target behavior). To effectively manage behavior, both why and how questions need to be addressed, and this is especially the case for behaviors that have been resistant to treatment, such as prejudice and racism, and for phenomena such as maintenance that have been difficult to predict and control.

Unfortunately, the disconnect between basic and applied behavior analysis has been occurring since the 1960s (Poling, Alling, & Fuqua, 1994) and, despite concerted efforts by journals such as JABA (Mace & Wacker, 1994) and JEAB (Mace, 1994), this disconnect continues to grow. For this reason, we were pleased to be asked to serve as Guest Editors for this special issue on bridge studies. Our goal was to select researchers who had established histories in conducting bridge studies and to ask them to describe their research in terms of its implications for both basic and applied research. In each article, both the basic processes and the applied implications of complex phenomena are described, and questions are posed regarding replications and extensions. As shown in the examples provided in this introduction, the authors have not only met this goal but also stimulated consideration of other phenomena, such as maintenance, methods of assessing stimulus value, the conditions under which desirable and undesirable behavior recover after exposure to extinction, changing stimulus functions related to stereotyping, prejudice and racism, and promoting or restricting variability in behavior.

The authors have focused their discussions primarily on "why" questions, but their discussions all lead quite clearly to addressing "how" questions. For those of us in applied behavior analysis, addressing "how" questions should become substantially more attainable now that our understanding of "why" questions has increased. For example, in considering long-term maintenance, we might increase the persistence of behavior during brief periods of extinction via changes in the rate of reinforcement (Dube et al.), fading of reinforcement (Lattal & St. Peter Pipkin), or response-consequence contingency (Vollmer et al.). Numerous approaches to treatment can be based directly on these more basic models as presented in this special issue. In considering operant variability, we might increase the occurrence of appropriate social interactions via lag schedules in which reinforcement is contingent on varied responding, or we might decrease the occurrence of inappropriate social interactions via changes in reinforcement schedules that promote a restricted range of behavioral responses.

Positively impacting phenomena such as long-term maintenance, prejudice and racism, and behavioral variability will now be more doable because we have a better understanding of the mechanisms that may underlie these phenomena. Similarly, basic researchers have a set of questions that need to be addressed to further our understanding of these mechanisms and thus our ability to impact desirable changes in behavior. This reciprocity between basic and applied behavior analysis is a major outcome of bridge studies, and the authors of the articles in this special issue are contributing to the cross-pollination between basic and applied research.


Borrero, J. C., Vollmer, T. R., Samaha, A. L., Sloman, K. N., & Francisco, M. T. (2007). Evaluating features of behavioral treatments in the nonhuman animal laboratory. The Behavior Analyst Today, 8, 136-144.

Hake, D. F. (1982). The basic-applied continuum and the possible evolution of human operant social and verbal research. The Behavior Analyst, 5, 21-28.

Kazdin, A. E. (1978). History of behavior modification. Baltimore: University Park Press.

Mace, F. C. (1994). Basic research needed for stimulating the development of behavioral technologies. Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior, 61, 529-550.

Mace, F. C., & Wacker, D. P. (1994). Toward greater integration of basic and applied behavioral research: An introduction. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 27, 569-574.

Poling, A., Alling, K., & Fuqua, R. W. (1994). Self- and cross-citations in the Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis and the Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior: 1983-1992. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 27, 729-731.

Vollmer, T. R., & Hackenberg, T. D. (2001). Reinforcement contingencies and social reinforcement: Some reciprocal relations between basic and applied research. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 34, 241-253.

Wacker, D. P. (1996). Behavior analysis research in JABA: A need for studies that bridge basic and applied research. Experimental Analysis of Human Behavior Bulletin, 14, 11-14.

Wacker, D. P. (2000). Building a bridge between research in experimental and applied behavior analysis. In J. C. Leslie & D. Blackman (Eds.), Experimental and applied analysis of human behavior (pp. 205-212). Reno, NV: Context Press.

Corresponding Author:

David P. Wacker, Ph.D.

Center for Disabilities and Development

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Iowa City IA 52242-1011

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Author:Wacker, David P.; McComas, Jennifer; Borrero, John C.
Publication:The Behavior Analyst Today
Date:Mar 22, 2009
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