UMWELT, what?

Umwelt (n): (in ethology) the world as it is experienced by a particular organism.[1]

We are human beings, who share a common space in a common time. Each of us has a unique history of experiences that have shaped our external and private behavior. Our environment may be shared, and we may belong to multiple groups with shared characteristics (gender identity, race, political affiliation, country of origin, etc.), but OUR world is unique to us.

Umwelt is the result of our interactions with our physical environment, to include social interactions with our colleagues, strangers we stand next to on the subway, and daily nighttime routines with our children.

Is our world view limited because it is defined by those senses, by what we experience? Is prejudice to be expected, and is it a bad thing?

There is so much pain and suffering in the world, even within my own experiences, that I think it a waste to not use our strengths in supporting positive behavior change, systems change and reinforcement in both our professional AND personal lives. I believe that it is an honor, as well as a duty, to make social justice a comfortable part of my work, and encourage my peers to do the same. If we, as behavior analysts, are not intentional in acknowledging the limitations of our own world view, we are un/intentionally discriminating against the suffering, the traditionally excluded, under-served populations of our brothers and sisters, our fellow human beings. Does that not make “prejudice” a behavior in need of change?

So, why the hesitation? What does the Behavior Analyst Certification Board say about activism, being a social justice champion, about participating in the March for Science in Washington, DC? Not much. The “Compliance Code”[2] lists expected professional behaviors relevant to working with a client. However, scalable behaviors that promote greater opportunities for behavior change, such as social activism, appear to be a personal choice. And there, I disagree.

One of the 7 Core Dimensions of behavior analysis is APPLIED (Baer, Wolf, Risley, 1968). Problems in society such as misogyny, sexism, homophobia, systemic racism and segregation, are reinforced by specific behaviors engaged in by individual human beings. Active behavior change to improve the conditions of our society may lead to longer lasting and generalizable progress, if we work together. We need to act intentionally to improve the conditions, the environment, in which our employees, our supervisees, the next generation of behavior analysts receive training and experience in. Some of us are asked to work under duress in an environment where there are contingencies in place that suggest an “us/them” division, a system in which positions of power are abused to gain compliance or favor, or the repeated exposure to harassment contributes to trauma. Such environments are not conducive to optimal outcomes. I personally cannot perform mastered behavior analytic skills with fluency if I am asked to do so in an aversive environment.

If my Umwelt does not include knowledge of such aversive conditions that my supervisees and staff are asked to work and live in, then it is my job as a leader to change my own behavior. I must acknowledge a need to assess my limitations, then consider where problems exist in improving the quality of life for my self, family, friends and co-workers. What antecedent interventions can I put into place that promote an ethical and more comfortable environment where I live and work, where my staff live and work?

I know I’m not alone. This group has taught me that we have questions and no answers. So, an Uncomfortable BCBA, here are some of the ways I’ve been more purposeful in improving my Umwelt, to start to see the world as others see it and then consider how to purposefully take action in changing society to be more inclusive and diverse. Try them out, and contact us to share your ideas. Let’s change the world together, that is- if you want to!

1. Assess your knowledge of cultural competency, diversity. Get a baseline of your own biases, and think about what is important to you. What is posing a barrier to your expanding Umwelt?

2. Of your own biases, or lack of experiential knowledge, what would you like to target for behavior change? For me, I needed to understand the history of race in Richmond, Virginia in order to better understand the debate ongoing related to the memorialization of specific Generals of the Confederacy and the fervor of arguments for and against removing them.

3. Seek community supports, services that will provide you with experiences relevant to your specific expanding world view/need. Find an event near you to meet up and learn more about people and topics of importance to building your own competence in diversity, cultural and social justice. I was invited to an amazing series of talks put on by a local magazine last year. My attendance at “The Unmasking: Race and Reality in Richmond” led to my participation with a nation-wide group called Coming to the Table, where I literally broke bread with strangers and we discussed the first time we “realized race was a thing.” I highly recommend that you check out that amazing group, and attend an event if you find one near you! Anyway, if it was not for saying yes to an invite, I wouldn’t have learned so much about my neighbors and gained new friends!

Additional reading:

Baer, D. M., Wolf, M. M., & Risley, T. R. (1968). Some current dimensions of applied behavior analysis. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 1(1), 91–97.

Behavioral economics and social justice: A perspective from poverty and equity