Some Thoughts about Technology and This SIG

Artwork by Tazio Bettin

Artwork by Tazio Bettin

The mission of the Behavior Analysis and Technology Special Interest Group (BAT SIG) is as follows:

[…] to advance the science of behavior through the development, dissemination, and application of technology in basic and applied settings. Technology can refer to developments in behavioral science, as well as developments in computer science, information technology, and related fields. Technology is defined as “the use and knowledge of tools, techniques, systems or methods in order to solve a problem or serve some purpose” (Twyman, 2011)

If this definition of technology (which is adopted by many other sources as well) is applied to the endeavors of the BAT SIG, we run the risk of becoming the “everything SIG” because almost every tool in a behavior analyst’s hand is a technology: reinforcement, PECS, shaping, matching to sample – practically everything in our field. Having a wide scope isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it could result in lack of focus and considerable overlap with almost all other SIGs, with the possible exception of the SIG on Theoretical, Philosophical, and Conceptual Issues. Communication among different SIGs is to be encouraged, but what will set the BAT SIG apart from others if the overlap is so large?

The issue of overlap or too broad a focus is not limited to the prototypical examples of behavioral technology, but spills into the area of basic science as well. Our field uses terms that sometimes refer to a scientific principle (or at least the description of a phenomenon) and sometimes to a technology. Take extinction as an example. In its experimental or conceptual usage, extinction describes the breaking of the contingency by discontinuing the presentation or removal of the stimulus that used to follow a response. But extinction also refers to a behavioral technology, namely the withholding of (purported) reinforcement for target responses. As such, extinction was adopted as an intervention to treat problem behaviors, especially as an alternative to other, more aversive alternatives.

The case of extinction nicely illustrates how science and technology are related, and it is no secret that the experimental and applied analysis of behavior often volley their concepts, technologies, and methods back and forth. This volleying undoubtedly makes the discipline as a whole more robust, but it also illustrates the potential issues of having too wide a scope when talking about technology in the context of a special interest group. By definition, a special interest group must have something that sets it apart from the largest organization to which it belongs.

Let’s leave that issue aside for a moment and address technology in its broader sense. Perhaps having a broad scope will end up prevailing within the SIG and even leading to all sorts of productive contributions. So, regardless of which definition of technology we adopt (the broader or the more narrow one), if we are interested in technology we should start by asking what makes a technology become widely adopted and have a long life? Some answers may come from looking at a technology that became commercially successful in the mid-19th century and has continued to evolve to the present day – the typewriter and its “descendants”.

typewriter > word processor > speech-to-text program

Typewriters were a huge improvement over the previous technology (handwriting) because they allowed people to write much more quickly, with proper training. Word processors slightly improved the speed at which people could type and added the further benefits of electronic storage for easy replication and ability to modify text on the spot without having to retype the page, to name a few. Speech-to-text programs kept the speed, storage, and modification capabilities; added a new layer of convenience (now people could write simply by speaking); and perhaps more importantly, opened the door for people with motor disabilities to write efficiently. People with speech disabilities could not benefit from speech-to-text programs but instead have a different technology (the admittedly costly and slow eye tracking programs that allow one to write words by gazing at letters in sequence).

The process in this case started with making a technology (typewriters) faster and more reliable (word processors), and later expanding it to other populations (speech-to-text programs). Behavioral technologies, too, have been refined over the decades to be more efficient and less onerous. In the field of behavioral education, long-standing principles that could not be implemented a few decades ago are now standard features of educational programs. One example is immediate, personalized feedback and data recording for a whole classroom of students who are all responding at high rates and at the same time. A teacher may be able to provide immediate, personalized feedback for a single student or a couple of students at a time and collect some data, but this task would absorb all of the teacher’s attention, and is not scalable. Behavioral technologies have also expanded existing tools for use with other populations, as in the case of protocols to teach academic skills to learners with developmental disabilities.

The theme of greater efficiency, greater convenience, and increased access seems common to technologies in other fields as well. But other fields have the advantage of a clearer distinction between their scientific and technological efforts, which in behavior analysis are closely intertwined for better or for worse. If we retained the narrower definition of technology (including informational systems, computer science, etc., but not all the behavioral tools designed to solve a problem) then we could focus on the interaction between these new technologies and behavior analysis. We could focus on how technology (narrowly understood) opens doors to implementing long-known behavioral principles, and even how behavioral principles can inform further technological developments. For those interested in human operant behavior, the questions to be answered even about a narrow definition of technology are many. For example, user interfaces that reduce latency and increase response speed and accuracy can be designed or improved by using behavior principles; the problem of “too much choice” could be settled experimentally; and choice discount curves (similar to delay discount ones) could be determined, to name a few possibilities that are probably being studied by others outside behavior analysis — or perhaps by our own behavior analysts who would benefit from an outlet such as this SIG.

Marta León, Ph.D., is the Director of Instructional Design at Learning A-Z, where she plans and develops instructional programs to teach academic skills to children and participates in the formative evaluation of programs. She received her B.A. degree in Psychology from the Universidad de Costa Rica, and her Ph.D. from the Behavior Analysis program at West Virginia University.



  1. Hi Zach! Unfortunately I’m not doing any study on choice discount nor know anyone who is (although I’m sure there must be people doing it!) — I offered it just as a suggestion.


  2. Joe Layng · · Reply

    In a recent chapter Janet Twyman and I pointed out that there are two types of technologies of interest to us. The first is the technology of tools, the second is the technology process ( The two types of technology may interact and create opportunities not afforded by either one alone. A group from the University of Washington has developed a way of monitoring and providing feedback to students on a real-time basis and serves to evaluate the teaching practices nearly moment to moment used by any teacher. Further, it allows for the crowdsourcing of educational solutions and feedback. By combining the technology of these tools with the technology of behavior analysis processes new approaches to whole classroom instruction maybe possible.

    Further, it is in the intersection of these technologies where we may even find that new behavior principles may be discovered.


    1. Zach Morford · · Reply

      Joe I just came across that reading this morning. Thanks for sharing.


  3. Zach Morford · · Reply

    Marta, are you by any chance studying choice discount curves? I’m conducting my dissertation on that issue and would love to talk more to you about it if you are doing any of that kind of work, or if you know anyone who is. Thanks.


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