Social Injustice, A Behavioral Response

Rating: 5 out of 5.


The United States is in a dismal condition and everything we see going on around us –racial injustice, political unrest, politics overriding science, misogyny, and an ignorant selfishness that prevents us from wearing a slip of fabric over our faces to save others’ lives–was predicted forever ago, because it was already happening. It has always happened.

Social activism “involves at heart a particular conviction with respect to social planning, namely, that if we are to survive as a species we should begin at once to restructure our social environment … so that it acts to produce people who have the behavioral equipment necessary for us all to survive“. (Day, 1976, p. 535.) Check out the date. That was written in 1976 and it wasn’t news then. As B.F. Skinner’s character, Frazier, said in Walden II, “The majority of people want to be free of the responsibility of planning.” (Skinner, 1948). And free we have been. But we have not been free of the consequences of failure to plan.

Our behavior, as humans, has been controlled by the randomness of the universe. Chaos theory, from a psychological perspective means that small events can have big effects. Because it’s so much easier to just flow with the chaos than to design environments that support behaviors that can keep us from our own early demise, implement behavior change procedures in our communities, and ensure adherence, chaos reigns. Even though we have social rules, they are rarely well-planned or evaluated.

Here’s what happens. Here is what freedom looks like.

Group A considers itself normal. Exemplary, even. They consider themselves superior to Group B because their behavior and some characteristics differ from Group A’s superior selves. Group A then designs a group of arbitrary traits that they assign to Group B. (You know the kinds. Women are too emotional and need men to make decisions for them, overweight people are lazy, Black people, Asian people, Muslim people… you’ve heard the slurs.)

Group A establishes a “truth” for itself based on its own opinion that it is the exemplar of normalcy. They determine that Group B is inferior. They decide that the arbitrary attributes they created and assigned to Group B are absolutely true and immutable. This badness, this lesser-than quality, this tendency to fail, is part and parcel of Group B, according to Group A. A begins to enforce their Idea, often forcefully, but also subtlely. Microaggressions. Limited opportunities for Group A and Group B to interact fairly and fully. Limited opportunities for Group B to access necessary services. Pronouncements from places of privilege that engrave Group A’s idea into the culture. Even some of Group B may put on the garment of Group A’s truthy idea.

Members of group A get lots of social reinforcement from the rest of group A about its big social idea. They decide that Group B’s behavior cannot be changed, prevented, or modified, so why even try? Group B is just like that. That’s how Black people are. That’s how Natives are. That’s how Women are. That’s how “they” are. Now they create contingencies that prevent them from succeeding. As black people move in, stores, services, school resources move out. As employees get older, instead of banking on their breadth of knowledge and skills, they are pushed into positions where they can’t perform fulfilling work, or they are laid off and cannot find new work. And now Group A’s truth seems true. Women can’t succeed. Black people are often poor. Natives drink too much. Old people can’t keep up in modern businesses.

But the thing is, they aren’t unsuccessful, poor, or drunk because they are innately bad or inferior. They are victims of social contingencies that they cannot control. So, in frustration, they march, protest, fight, or give up and give in to the stereotype. Sometimes we win some battles, but often the victories slide back into the old status quo that was cemented when Group A created the truth that everyone is supposed to believe. Why? Because that truth, their big idea, was not planned. It was just the result of environmental contingencies and they locked it in with social support from the rest of Group A.

It’s unlikely that many members of Group A know that this is how their Idea became their truth. Group A doesn’t know they created this “reality”. They just believe it as The Truth. So when a counter-culture (perhaps starting in Group B, but not necessarily) rises up and says Group A has it all wrong and things need to change, Group A gets mighty defensive. It can be bad. It is bad. Right now, it’s very bad in a variety of ways. Different Group A’s are acting on different Truths and chaos rules the day.

Group A can be on either side of an issue. Group B can be the victims whether they are on the right or the left of a situation. The kind of truth that guides chemistry and biology isn’t the kind of truth they’ve accepted. They’ve accepted a socially reinforced idea that is further reinforced by the fact that the environment they created resulted in undesirable behavior from Group B.

The truth is that Group B would behave differently in a different environment. So would Group A. We all would. That’s how behavior works.


Day, W.F. (1976). The case for behaviorism. In M.H. Marx & F.E. Goodson (Eds.), Theories in contemporary psychology (2nd Ed.), pp.534-545, New York, Macmillan

Goldiamond, I. (1975). Insider-outsider problems: A constructional approach. Rehabilitation Psychology, 22(2), 103-116. doi:10.1037/h0090833

Hineline, P. N. (1990). The Origins Of Environment-Based Psychological Theory1. Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior, 53(2), 305-320. doi:10.1901/jeab.1990.53-305

Moore, J. (2003). Behavior analysis, mentalism, and the path to social justice. The Behavior Analyst, 26(2), 181-193. doi:10.1007/bf03392075.

Yerkes, R. M. (1923). Testing the human mind. Bost.

Song Quote:

Songwriters: Galt Mac Dermot / Gerome Ragni / James RadoEasy to Be Hard lyrics © Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC

Categories: Current Events, Social Justice

Kellie Snider, MS

When I was a young child, my father, my grandmother, an uncle, and a teacher noticed and complimented my talent and interest in drawing. My family didn’t know how to help me make a career in art, but they made sure I knew that my art was a good thing. I was fortunate to grow up in a time when the arts were still considered an essential part of a well-rounded education. I had a very good art teacher in elementary school, and I was able to continue studying art throughout middle school and high school. I even ventured a couple of years of college-level art study.

My education in art did not include the business of art, so I went off and got a traditional job as a draftsman, the kind that drew with pencils and templates on sheets of vellum, spread across massive desks. (I always named my desks Carlisle.) I worked for an oil company, a shipyard, a power company, and for NASA’s Johnson Space Center TV Department. I was there during some pivotal moments in space history. I also met the man I would marry. I stayed home to raise our kids for a few years, and while doing that I worked as a freelance writer and did some freelance art as well. But then I got a deep interest in animal behavior thanks to an aggressive cockatoo we had, got an advanced degree in behavior analysis and launched a career in animal welfare. That career lasted nearly 15 years, and it nearly did me in. The burnout and compassion fatigue was overwhelming.

When I was laid off from a director’s position in animal welfare during Covid Times, I began to paint to help ground myself. People began to show an interest in my painting and I got many requests for commissions. That was when I realized that I could learn the business side of art and be a real live artist full time.

I have never been happier in my professional life. I wake up every day, have a lovely cup of tea with breakfast, and head to my studio. My days are rich and peaceful. I’ve come home for trained as a behavior analyst, but I am what Barbara Sher called a Scanner. I'm interested in a lot of different things, and once I learn a lot about them I'm ready to learn something new. But all the things involve somebody's behavior. This blog is about how behavior and different activities intersect.

Constructional Approaches will be discussed a lot.