Ogden LindsleyIn the 1950s, Ogden Lindsley, one of the first people to undertake experimental studies of human behavior, coined the expression “prosthetic environments” to describe the idea that children (and adults) who carried labels related to developmental disabilities were, in fact, only “delayed” in the normal environments in which most of us function. He suggested that people thus labeled might be capable of behavior typical of normally developing humans if only we could create appropriate environments, prosthetic environments that were modified to allow so-called normal behavior to develop despite the disadvantages genetic or otherwise that characterize such individuals’ development.

I’ve always loved Lindsley’s expression for its great humanitarian message of optimism about the human condition. It’s a view that permeates behavior analysis. Obviously there are practical limits to such a Panglossian point of view, but, for me, it is far better to assume that people are capable of behavior change given appropriate circumstances than to assume a darker determinism for our fellow human beings. Such is the nature of our brand of behaviorism.  

We all learn in courses in experimental method and statistics that negative results are difficult to interpret:  the results can be negative because the effect that we are seeking simply isn’t there or they can be negative because our methods and modes of analysis are not sufficient to reveal them. So it is with behavior in general. When a person isn’t engaging in appropriate behavior, we can’t tell without further analysis whether it is because the person is genetically or physiologically incapable of the target behavior or whether it is simply a matter of circumstance, the current contingencies or behavioral history impinging to maintain the present, less than desirable behavior. Too often, it seems to me, the behavior is attributed to genetic or physiological limitations - or to a rigid, fixed self, spirit, or other ghost-like entity residing inside the person that is compelling the offending behavior pattern. The only way to find out whether the behavior is as fixed as it seems or is amenable to environmental circumstances is to arrange a different environment, a prosthesis if you will.

Even if the prosthesis fails, remember that is a negative result, so we can’t say whether this evidences genetic or fixed-personality deficits, or whether we haven’t yet constructed an appropriate environment to capture the behavior we, and others, need to see. We have to stick to our principles and try again with a different prosthesis.

All of this is not to say that there are not genetic and physiological limitations or constraints on behavior (but, behavioristic optimist that I am, I am loathe to concede that there are “personality traits” that preclude meaningful behavior change). Sure, things like intelligence, whatever that is, or schizophrenia or other serious such disorder may have at least in part a genetic origin that places some kind of an upper limit on what is possible through environmental modification.  The problem is not that there are such constraints, but rather that many too quickly revert to them when behavior change programs hit rough spots or are unsuccessful. It may be a matter of building up a kind of behavioral momentum on the part of behavior analysts to persist beyond the first, second or even third failure to ameliorate a problem. And this takes us full circle back to Og Lindsley’s wonderfully optimistic concept of a prosthetic environment.