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Abigail B. Calkin

A Blog of Personal Thoughts

Behavioral Science Meaning

July 2023

We lived in Orono, Maine where my father was a faculty member at the University of Maine’s only campus. He was a chemist and chair of the Department of Industrial Cooperation. When the term ecology became popular in the late 1960s, I realized that my father, although deceased by then, had been one of the early ecologists of that era. I never knew what the title of his department meant, but it had something to do with science and its cooperation with industry. That made sense to me as he was always touring paper mills and working on ways to improve paper products for everyday use and the safety of people, mills, streams, and rivers.  By 1951, he had developed the chemical process for paper mills to stop stream pollution. That year, about a half a dozen large international paper mills invited him to attend a private meeting to tell them how to do this. Their response to a one: it will take too much capital investment to accomplish what his research had developed and proven. They declined his advice and method. Twenty-five years later CBS’s 60 Minutes reported that the government had forced all U.S. paper companies to stop their stream pollution. Why didn’t they do it when they had the knowledge and technique available to them? Profit, of course, but irresponsible profit. All this started me on my quest for a precise behavioral science meaning.

Three years prior to his presentation to the major paper companies, my parents, sister Mary, and I sat at the table in Orono. My father regaled us with the recent discovery of radiocarbon dating. Mary, the oldest of us, was a junior at the University of Maine. Her major was chemistry. I’m sure she understood the chemistry of it while I, an eight-year-old, fascinated by the idea that we would now know the age of old and ancient specific parts of history, hung on to certain words. Radiocarbon dating, something just discovered, examining the history of ancient times.

My chemical knowledge consisted of carbon is black, sulfur is yellow, there are lots of other chemical substances, and a pretty table with colors, numbers, and abbreviations on it. I also knew there was another sulfa that is a medicine, but thanks to living in Maine, I couldn’t tell the difference between sulfur and sulfa because of the lovely New England accent that drops the letter /r/ at the end of words and sometimes inserts it in the middle of another. Still, I knew sulfur was yellow and had nothing to do with radiocarbon dating. As I ran through my meager chemistry knowledge, I sat fascinated with the discovery that we could now know the age of rocks, fossilized trees, long-dead animals and other old things. Such were some of the conversations in our house. However, medicine was not one of them. Because I had been deathly ill for three months with scarlet fever, I knew penicillin was new and it had saved my life three years earlier.

My brother was a geologist not a chemist. When I took my first geology course in 1960, I decided I wanted to work in the field. I talked to the professor about a career in field geology in Saudi Arabia or Antarctica. Why Saudi Arabia? I hate hot weather. Antarctica made more sense to me because it’s remote, cold, and seemed open to exploration. No, Dr. Langley said, my option was to be a teacher. I told him I didn’t want to be a teacher. I finished my Master’s degree in 1969 and my Ph.D. in 1979. Times had changed; I would have had the option to be a field geologist. However, I discovered I had a stronger interest is people than in Earth’s interior or glaciers. I became a teacher, then quite soon an explorer and scientist in the field of behavior.

That does not mean I am a social psychologist. Not at all. I do not ask people to give me a report on how they felt yesterday or today. I do not ask them to rate their morning or day on a scale of 1 to 5. No, I tell them to count every positive feeling and every negative feeling, every thought about the joy of life and every thought of suicide, or every smile and every frown or feeling of anxiety. They (or I) choose the pinpointed behavior, they count these inner behaviors, and they (or I) chart them. We look at these data as precisely as my father looked at the effluence of mills, streams, and rivers. I ask: are you headed in the desired direction or need a change?

I have counted all kinds of behaviors on myself—words written, words edited, thinks about writing, has a creative writing idea. With a child, I, or the child or partner counts reads words, writes or says math answers, identifies lab equipment in science, names parts of a book, reads foreign language words in the language, translates into English or English into the language, articulates a sound, defines key course words or concepts, where all of the latter we count both corrects and errors.

This is no different from counting free-throw shots in basketball, hits ball in baseball, or timing runners who then try to improve their speed. When my brother lived with us in Orono, my father and I often went to watch his track practices. Coach Jenkins timed him and Bill tried to improve his time on sprints and hurdles. In one of those, probably high hurdles, Bill set a record that he held for 25 years. That was because of repeated timings. If we do that in sports, why not in classroom learning situations? We in the world of using a standard ratio chart, called the standard celeration chart, do this every day whether monitoring epilepsy seizure moments per day, words read correctly and incorrectly in one minute or thirty seconds, tennis balls hit over the net per minute, phone calls a person makes soliciting business for a company per hour, laps swum per time in pool.  Find me a human or animal behavior that we cannot count. If we find one, it’s usually because it’s too big and needs to be broken into smaller components. This is what makes behavior a science—the precision of using the frequency of the behavior, that is, the number of times the behavior occurs in a given time period.

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