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.

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