ABA – giving science a bad name?
Behaviour analysis, particularly the principle of operant conditioning, has long influenced educational practices and curriculum development. More recently, application of the science has evolved into what is known as applied behaviour analysis (ABA). When applied to the education and management of children with autism, ABA has attracted a great deal of attention and controversy. As parents demand ABA, often on the advice of psychologists, one begins to wonder where the science ends and the commodity begins.
One expects lobby groups to give vent to fixed and emotionally charged views, but one expects more from scientists. Tolerance of scrutiny, acceptance of criticism, and objectivity in experimental approach and the interpretation of outcomes are expected. A discipline that makes extravagant claims of its methods, overstates its scientific status and has difficulty agreeing on definition of its terms will struggle to achieve scientific credibility. Is ABA, or more specifically those who promote it, giving science a bad name?
Claims linking ABA to ‘recovery’ in children with autism catapulted the discipline to the forefront of interventions. Even though founders pulled back from the term, some ABA advocates continue to implant notions of ‘treatment’ and ‘mainstreaming’ in the receptive minds of parents. Is this responsible scientific behaviour, given the state of the knowledge base?
No one doubts the existence of hundreds of single-case studies that demonstrate the positive benefits of applying teaching methods based on ABA. No one doubts the existence of group studies that have shown positive outcomes for comprehensive ABA interventions. But volume tells us nothing about the quality of the studies or about the methods used to achieve outcomes (many early studies relied upon hitting the children). What is a scientific study without random assignment to groups? That cannot control or identify key variables? That makes no measurement of treatment fidelity or treatment integrity? That does not provide sufficient information to allow replication, due to inconsistent usage of terms, contradictions in descriptors of procedures and a mixed bag of comprehensive models? All this without even getting into issues of researcher bias, attrition, small sample sizes, validity of outcomes, the reliability of the measurement of outcomes and the significant underrepresentation of the population under study.
But it is not all bad news. Advocates of ABA have come a long way – they have decided that emotions are important after all, and a range of well-established and validated autism-specific strategies and frameworks such as TEACCH, PECS, and DIR (Floor-time) are no longer regarded as alternatives to ABA but as integral to it. The contemporary models of ABA are now almost indistinguishable from what special education has been doing for a long time. But ABA is not education, and ABA is not autism-specific. These and other misconceptions need to be cleared up so that parents know exactly what they are being invited to take up on behalf of their children.
Educationalists know that children change, that autism changes and that intensive education, flexibility of approach and discretion in the context of an inclusive setting is essential. ABA, when applied extensively and exclusively, cannot deliver this. The sooner we stop pretending it can, the sooner we can begin to work in the best interest of children in a team spirit of mutual respect. Above all, psychologists of all hues should be wary of lowering standards in scientific inquiry and communication. They should leave advocacy to others.
Co. Tyrone, Northern Ireland
Yes, love is blind
I was delighted to see the fascinating subject of positive illusions in romantic relationships being brought to light for Psychologist readers in Viren Swami and Adrian Furnham’s article in the February issue (‘Is love really so blind?’). With colleagues in the University of Bristol I have recently published an article on this topic (Penton-Voak, Rowe & Williams, 2007) and I feel that your authors and interested readers should be aware of our findings.
Swami and Furnham ask: ‘Would positive illusions still persist if individuals are provided with objective information about their partner’s physical attractiveness (e.g. in the form of a photograph)?’ The answer is ‘Yes’! We manipulated photographs of men and women in romantic relationships to increase or decrease facial attractiveness. Participants were asked to pick the true representation of their partner from a seven-image array that consisted of the original image, three more attractive images and three less attractive images. Individuals who reported satisfaction with their current relationship and partner chose a more attractive image: positive illusions do persist when individuals are provided with objective information about their partner’s physical attractiveness in the form of a photograph. Conversely, individuals who were dissatisfied with their relationships showed the opposite effect.
Facial attractiveness is highly important in human mate choice, thus we argue that this idealisation or denigration of a partner’s physical attractiveness is a psychological mechanism that promotes adaptive behaviour for evolutionarily efficient relationships. Holding positive illusions for a partner’s facial attractiveness will serve a relationship maintenance function (e.g. ensuring continued resource investment in successful relationships); likewise in unsuccessful relationships where continued commitment is costly, denigration of a partner’s facial attractiveness would provide the motivation to terminate the relationship. Without knowing it, couples in satisfying romantic relationships have been donning their evolutionary fashioned rose-tinted glasses whenever they gaze upon their loved one, and it seems that as soon as things turn sour, those specs will well and truly crack.
Swami and his colleagues (2007) have shown the existence of positive illusions in bodily physical attractiveness and now we have demonstrated this same relationship maintenance response for our partners’ facial attractiveness. It seems the visual representation we have of our current romantic partner is far from objective.
University of Sheffield
Penton-Voak, I.S., Rowe, A.C. & Williams, J. (2007). Through rose-tinted glasses: Relationship satisfaction and representations of partner´s facial attractiveness. Journal of Evolutionary Psychology, 5, 169–181.
Swami, V., Furnham, A., Georgiades, C. & Pang, L. (2007). Evaluating self and partner physical attractiveness. Body Image, 4, 97–101.
Wrapping up your views
In these days of enthusiasm for sustainability and recycling, I wonder if it is possible for the Society to find a way to package and distribute copies of The Psychologist in a wrapping not made of plastic? I realise there must be aspects of such a change that are technologically or economically challenging, given that most publishers send out material in plastic wrap these days. But this will only change when there is sufficient pressure to find an alternative. Thus, I’d like to encourage the Society to search for more environmentally friendly ways of sending out monthly mailings to a membership now over 40,000 strong.
Department of Psychology
University of Dundee
Mike Laffan, the Society’s Corporate Services Director replies: This is very fair point. Indeed we do face environmental, technical and economic challenges and at the Society offices we are constantly looking for ways to strike a balance between these issues whilst maintaining service. In the case of the plastic polywrap used for The Psychologist we have been using a biodegradable product for the past five years. Our suppliers inform us that there are newer products on the market that degrade at a quicker rate, however these are currently four times the cost of our existing product.
Many thanks to the team for the production of a revitalised Psychologist, while keeping it of general interest to all members: students as well as established professionals.
The breadth of contents highlights the diversity of interests in psychology both in the academic settings of research and in the applied fields as a practiced craft, and provides a much-needed cross-fertilisation between the many Society Divisions, especially in the area of child psychology where inter-division events would be helpful.
The introduction of ‘The interview’, ‘One on One’ and ‘Looking back’ add a welcome human touch.
Further to the comments about the changes to the layout of The Psychologist – like Helen Ross (Letters, March 2008) I am struggling to spot the content amongst the advertisements. In particular, I am really fed up with navigating through the Appointments section. I am not sure why you chose to jumble the memoranda up (rather than have them in sections according to location and ‘Division’) and to embed them in the main magazine – perhaps to disguise the ever-shrinking number of NHS-based jobs?
Pendine CMHT , Cardiff
The editor, Jon Sutton, comments: Although I think that advertisements can and do offer a useful service to readers, in an ideal world we would all like less advertising. But the reality is that it is very important to The Psychologist and the Society financially – without it your subs would need to go up about £20 per year. All I can do is try to organise and signpost the publication, through colour coded tabs and a clear contents page, and ensure that there is as much (in fact more) ‘proper’ material than ever.
As for the integration of the jobs section, in addition to financial savings it was what the majority of our readers said they wanted. In terms of their organisation within the careers section, arranging into a tight jigsaw clearly means fewer pages. But we have listened to feedback on this, introduced the contents box on the first page of the job ads section, and we are experimenting with different methods – see this month’s section.
All comments continue to be welcome. The design and function will continue to evolve, but I think we are well on the way to having a membership publication that is professional, interesting, attractive and realistic.
Shouldn’t psychologists do more to tackle the reoffending crisis?
Compared with the wealth of evidence relating to effectiveness of treatment and prevention interventions that is produced in healthcare, evidence production with regard to the effectiveness of interventions delivered in probation and prison services to reduce reoffending is very low (Shepherd, 2007). This is surprising, since rehabilitation of offenders is now, rightly, a major priority both for government and the public. Prisons are overcrowded, costs are very substantial and escalating and, according to hospital admission rates, the severity of violence is increasing.
What little reliable evidence there is very largely supports psychological interventions. Cognitive behavioural and other psychological interventions are now known to be cost-effective means to reduce re-offending. For example, prison with behavioural, educational, drug or sex offender interventions as appropriate, has been shown to be more effective in reducing reoffending and less costly for tax payers than prison alone (Matrix Knowledge Group, 2007).
However, there is not yet anything like enough reliance on psychology. Very often, probation staff and trainees do not have the necessary scientific background and only basic knowledge of psychology. Rather, there is reliance on the traditional, evidence-light, science-challenged, social work approach to probation.
Furthermore, probation science or offender management science (our terms) do not appear to be established disciplines in psychology schools in research-led (Russell Group) universities as medical science is for example – which explains the comparative famine of evidence.
Therefore, shouldn’t efforts to reduce reoffending include rooting the training of probation staff in first division schools of psychology, based perhaps on a new BSc? Further, shouldn’t offender management science be a specialty of psychology? Taking these steps would surely increase the production, dissemination and implementation in practice of reliable evidence of effectiveness.
The tendering process for probation training, following the Offender Management Act 2007, will, if these proposals find favour, provide many opportunities for psychologists to lead these reforms.
Director, Violence Research Group
School of Psychology
University of Birmingham
In response 1: Yes, psychologists could do even more to reduce reoffending rates, but they already make some very significant contributions. The beginning of the 21st century was a golden period for the growth of the influence of psychological models of intervention and also the numbers of psychological staff working in prisons (Towl & Crighton, 2007, 2008).
Yes, the evidence base in relation to psychological interventions aimed at reducing the risk of reoffending is not as rigorous as it could be. For example, there has been little in the way of randomised controlled trials, a continued reliance upon international rather than national data, and also an overreliance upon expensive psychometric and self-report measures to demonstrate purported efficacy. This is though a challenging area of research, policy and practice (Crighton & Towl, 2008).
In terms of the economic case for behavioural interventions there is some evidence that cognitive behavioural approaches produce less return for the taxpayer and potential victims than both drug treatment and educational and vocational interventions (Matrix Knowledge Group, 2007). We need to look closely at a broader range of evidence than has sometimes been captured within the ‘what works’ literature (Thomas-Peter, 2006). One substantial challenge for effective offender management is about organising services so that the right blend of interventions can be provided at the right time, place and price.
Psychologists have much to offer and much to learn. For maximum public benefits psychological interventions and therapies need to be chiefly delivered by staff other than psychologists. Psychologists do though have some key potential roles in the application, organisation, design and evaluation of psychologically based approaches to reducing reoffending.
I do not think that ‘probation’ or ‘offender management’ may accurately be described as ‘science’. However, I agree that both could benefit from the rigours of scientific methods. The power of a scientific approach is a critical underpinning strength of much psychological theory and practice. But there is more to effective research, policy and practice than science or what psychologists alone have to offer. For example, offenders are characterised by socio-economic disadvantages and also have social needs (money, housing, employment, family relationships) that warrant a more holistic approach often provided by probation staff and social workers who also provide a critical role in the monitoring and supervision of offenders in the community. It would be interesting to hear the views of probation officers and social workers about their future training needs – I have an open mind.
Chief Psychologist, National Offender Management Service
Ministry of Justice
In response 2:
Jonathan Shepherd and Iona Shepherd argue that such limited evidence as there is supports a significantly greater involvement of psychological intervention in working with offenders. This calls for a much stronger representation of psychology in probation training.
Contrary to Shepherd and Shepherd’s impression, probation practice is already strongly influenced by psychology. Almost all accredited offending behaviour programmes rest on cognitive behavioural theories, while motivational interviewing, Prochaksa and Di Clemente’s transtheoretical model of change and prosocial modelling guide contemporary probation practice routinely. None of this is reasonably describable as ‘the traditional, evidence-light, science-challenged, social work approach to probation’ deprecated by Shepherd and Shepherd – a dated and too easy complaint about a style long disavowed alike by policy makers and practitioners.
A professional education must at least equip students to work reliably and capably (although it should aspire to more than this as well), and the close ties between the curriculum and the realities of practice are a signal strength of the present arrangements. The probation curriculum is accordingly wide-ranging and eclectic, reflecting the breadth and diversity of practice. Subjects covered include values and ethics, the criminal justice system, law, working in an organisation, research, penal policy, criminology, assessing and addressing offending behaviour, risk assessment and management. All these areas are indispensable to contemporary probation practice, but while many of them are multidisciplinary and include the insights of psychology, it is not at all clear that psychology is the appropriate disciplinary base from which to study them. The strongest case, perhaps, for psychology is in relation to substance use and mental health, but even here too psychology is just a part – a very important part – of a multidisciplinary endeavour. As offender managers, probation staff assess risk and need and try to arrange and coordinate a coherent set of interventions – calling on the services of clinical psychologists among others. They are not, and need not be, psychologists themselves.
The Probation Service aspires to enforce the orders of the Court, to protect the public and to rehabilitate offenders. It is not self-evident that either enforcement or public protection are the distinctive province of psychology. What of rehabilitation? Desistance studies are illuminating the circumstances in which people stop offending and manage to stay stopped. Evidence suggests that social capital – available opportunities, social networks, inclusion – is quite as influential here as the cognitive and behavioural processes which psychology studies.
The Canadian psychologists Dowden and Andrews (2004) refer to an ‘impressive’ (pace Shepherd and Shepherd) body of evidence to show that interpersonal influence is maximised where communication is ‘open, warm, and enthusiastic’. This, more than method specifically, is ‘what works’, and I am not aware of any evidence that psychology students are better (or worse!) in forming relationships of this kind.
Crime reduction is not a challenge for psychology alone, but requires an understanding of what Ken Pease has called the 3 S’s – psyche, structure and circumstances – and an appreciation of all of these dimensions gives a much more rounded understanding than can any one on its own. Indeed Professor Jonathan Shepherd’s own valuable contributions to crime reduction have been inspired more by perceptive situational analysis than by psychology.
Poor practice, if this is what Shepherd and Shepherd impute, is as likely to be the result of uneven implementation, indifferent management or inadequate resourcing and cannot merely be assumed to reflect shortcomings in professional training. Shepherd and Shepherd conclude with a reference to an anticipated new set of training arrangements. The shape of these arrangements is yet to be determined, but the impetus to change comes not from any evidence of shortcomings in the present curriculum; on the contrary, the change is largely to ensure that the high standards of training, available now mostly to trainee probation officers, should become available to the whole practitioner workforce. As now, psychology will be a major part of the curriculum, but it is a psychology that is grounded securely in the requirements of the job and which recognises its interdependence with other academic disciplines.
Division of Community and Criminal Justice
De Montfort University
Do you work with or know people who have been sexually assaulted in the past year and reported it to the police? I am recruiting people for a study investigating the role of post-traumatic psychological reactions in people’s experience of being interviewed by the police when giving their statement.
The study involves an online survey which takes about 30–45 minutes to complete, although it can be finished over more than one session. The software used does not allow for storage of personal information, so participation is completely anonymous and confidential.
I would be very grateful if people who might be interested in participating would visit the website (www.survey.bris.ac.uk/psych-ox/policeinterview) or alternatively e-mail if you have any queries or concerns about the study.
University College London
Dr Kanka Mallick (1926–2007)
We feel privileged to write this note in the memory of Dr Kanka Mallick CPsychol, AFBPsS, a noted international scholar and educational psychologist, who retired as Senior Lecturer in Educational Psychology at Manchester Metropolitan University in 2002. She is survived by her husband, Emeritus Professor Gajendra Verma, formerly Professor of Education at the University of Manchester.
Kanka undertook many cross-cultural research projects with her husband, as well as collaborating in research with colleagues in India, Canada and Hong Kong on cross-cultural psychology, child welfare, and child development.
Kanka had previously served at Brunel University, and at the University of Malaysia. During a vigorous career, she co-edited and co-authored many books and papers and presented numerous papers at national and international conferences. One of her best works is the textbook with Professor Gajendra Verma, Researching Education (first published in 1999).
She graduated from the University of Patna, India and was awarded a Gold Medal for her master’s degree in education. She completed her master’s and doctorate at the Institute of Education, University of London in educational psychology, under the direction of Professor Doris Lee.
She is warmly remembered not only by her professional colleagues and friends, but also by her many students whom she taught and supervised. She is remembered and missed for her concern for the disadvantaged and the needy regardless of their sociocultural origin. Kanka, despite her personal and professional commitments, had time to help her friends and colleagues, and if they had any personal problems she would go out of her way to listen, help and advise. She also regularly contributed financially to and worked for a number of charities.
Kanka passionately believed in ‘Inclusion’. Above all, Kanka did not believe in publicising what she did. She was a silent helper who in our opinion was very aware of, close to and fired by ‘Giving Back’, one of the core human values.
Her life and work has been a source of tremendous inspiration for many around the globe. Perhaps that’s why in celebration of her passion for health and social justice issues, a major ‘Giving Back’ Foundation has been established from her estate in her name. This Foundation will support cancer research in Britain and India and other aspects of health and education of disadvantaged and excluded children. The Foundation aspires to influence policy makers and the public. The website of the new Kanka-Gajendra Foundation can be found at www.kanka-gajendra.org.
Dr Ajay Kapoor
Emeritus Professor Chris Bagley
Royston S. Dawber
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