Changing the world with behavioral science: an interview with Anthony Biglan

(si están buscando la entrevista en español, pueden acceder haciendo clic aquí)

Anthony Biglan hardly requires an introduction. He has been conducting research on prevention science for the past 30 years, on topics such as risk and protective factors associated with tobacco, alcohol, and drug use; high-risk sexual behavior; antisocial behavior; interventions to prevent high-risk sexual behavior, antisocial behavior, and reading failure.

In the last decade, his focus has shifted more explicitly to the “big picture”, writing about capitalism, climate change, cultural practices, and how to evolve a better, more nurturing society in general. If you are interested in prevention science and how psychology can help build a better society, and you haven’t read his latest book The Nurture Effect, go now, we’ll wait.

Done? Good, see what I mean?

It is an honor for us to have Tony for this interview and to be able to share it with our two readers. We met Tony in the ACBS World Con at Sevilla, at a panel, where he made the mistake of asking to the audience what we thought we could do to help advance behavioral science in our respective countries. So, since we didn’t have other idea (nor talent) than disseminating behavioral science (ie, talking about someone else’s work instead of doing any ourselves), he ended up with homework, doing this interview with us.

As we always do, we published the interview in Spanish in Psyciencia for the general public (and a larger audience), and the original text in English here. Hope you enjoy the interview!


Hi Tony. Thanks for agreeing to this interview, it is an honor to have you talking with us. Tell us a little bit about your background. Where did you grow up?

I was born in Brooklyn New York, on June 6, 1944, the day that the allies invaded Normandy. I always thought I was special because of that. When my father left the FBI at the end of the second world war we moved back to his and my mother’s home town of Scranton Pennsylvania. I lived there until I was a sophomore in high school, at which time I moved with my mother and two sisters to Rochester New York, where my mother was able to get a better job as a nurse.

We know you started your career as a social psychologist, why did you choose that field, and why working in the field of prevention?

I applied to social psychology graduate program in part because I didn’t think I could get accepted to a clinical psychology program. In addition, I liked social psychology because it dealt with important social issues. However my graduate study in social psychology was a bit disappointing. Social psychology had become much more focused on research that was not dealing with the important problems of the day. My doctorate was in organizational psychology. I studied the organization of universities departments. In the process I developed an analysis of the characteristics of academic areas which is still in widespread use. You can Google search “the Biglan model”

Derek Reed, reviewing your book The Nurture Effect at The Behavior Analyst journal, wrote “In many ways, The Nurture Effect is a rejoinder to Skinner’s Beyond Freedom and Dignity or Sidman’s Coercion and its Fallout, chronicling the ways humanistic behaviorism can solve today’s problems through a nurturing approach grounded in positive consequences”. But in the book you wrote “Initially, I ardently opposed behaviorism”. Why was that, and what made you change your mind?

Like most other people at the time, I was convinced that BF Skinner was a threat to human freedom. His argument that human behavior was determined seem to say that people did not have any autonomy. As an ardent civil libertarian (I was on the board of the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington) I was strongly opposed to anything that seemed to threaten human freedom.

However Bob Kohlenberg got me to read some of Skinner’s work. My doctoral dissertation work on the characteristics of academic areas had taught me that the so-called hard sciences, such as physics, chemistry, and biology as well as the related applied fields such as engineering all clustered at one end of the dimension that I initially called the Hard – Soft dimension. However after reading Thomas Kuhn’s the Structure of Scientific Revolutions, I realized that the dimension could reasonably called paradigmatic–nonparadigmatic. Psychology was on the non-paradigmatic side of the dimension.

This prepared me to recognize that what Skinner was proposing, was a paradigm for psychology. That is he was arguing that all aspects of human behavior could be understood in terms of selection by consequences.

Since we mentioned it, let me say that, by far, The Nurture Effect is one of the most fascinating books I’ve read in the last years. As Reed elegantly put it: “[it] offers a cornucopia of what behavioral science has done; more importantly, though, it blueprints what else behavioral science can do for emerging societal problems”. So, what inspired you to write it? Why now?

I have always been interested in the “big picture”—how any given line of research fits in with the larger body of research on human behavior. And since I became convinced by Skinner that a complete science of human behavior should be able to enable the prediction and influence of any behavior, my research and practice has covered a broad range of topics, including family interventions, school interventions, and community interventions. And the interventions have involved both treatment and prevention.

Once I embraced the basic Skinnerian framework around 1971, I saw myself as being able to participate in a revolution in the application of scientific methods to all facets of human behavior.  The Nurture Effect was originally written as a memoir of my experience in watching this science grow.

I think that many behavioral scientists, because they concentrate on a narrow set of issues, don’t always realize just how much progress we have made.  In my book, I tried to explain that progress in a readable fashion.

People usually consider the STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields as the most important or relevant fields for the development and growth of a society. But a couple of years ago I read an article written by you with an intriguing title: “Behavioral science may prove to be our most important science”, can you explain why do you think that?

Well let’s consider the problems that most threaten our wellbeing: control of nuclear weapons; reduction in war, crime’ “mental disorders,” academic failure, drug abuse, and the prevention of further climate change.  These are all problems of human behavior.  To solve them we need the science of human behavior.  Consider also, that some of the most significant problems are the result of physical sciences—climate change, wars that can kill millions, nuclear weapons.  It is behavioral science that is needed to control the behavior of people that would misuse the results of other sciences.  This, by the way, was pretty much what Skinner said in Science and Human Behavior, which he wrote just as the possibility of nuclear annihilation was becoming clear.

If you could pick any of the behavioral interventions described in your book to say “this is why this work is relevant, this is what we can do” to a policy-maker, which one would you choose?

All the interventions that reduce coercion.

What would you say is the most frequent misunderstanding people has about behavioral science in general and your work in particular?

The strident attacks on behaviorism have pretty much died out. I think the biggest thing that people who are not behavioral scientists miss is the importance of consequences.  It is easy to see how antecedents affect behavior, but it took us until the second half of the 20th Century to show that human behavior is a function of its consequences.

In The Nurture Effect you advocate for the necessity of reforming capitalism, to create “a more nurturing form of capitalism, one in which people are more caring and productive and they place greater value on the wellbeing of every member of society” Do you think capitalism is still a viable option today? If so, what changes do you think it needs to accomplish those goals?

Glad you asked that question!  I am writing a book on evolving a more nurturing form of capitalism. Capitalism is a system that creates consequences for innovation and efficiency.  It delivers the goods.  In my book, I will lay out a public health framework regulating capitalism in terms of the consequences of any given business practices.  If you make a product that harms people (cigarettes for example), we need to arrange the contingencies so that that practice not only does not profit you, but ends up costing you through fines or criminal prosecution.

Do you worry about any unintended consequences from the use of behavioral science?

Absolutely!  Any science can be used for the good of others or for selfish and harmful purposes.  We need to apply the principles of behavior science to this problem so that the contingencies favor acting in the interest of other people and ultimately the whole planet.

Reading your articles, it is obvious that you are not afraid of thinking big. You use titles such as “Perhaps we can prevent terrorism”, “How do future-oriented cultural practices evolve and how can we accelerate their evolution?”, “Evolving a More Nurturing Society to Prevent Adverse Childhood Experiences”, and so on. What do you think we –the people working in the field of psychology and behavioral science- need to do to have a bigger impact in society at large? What changes or new directions?

I am addressing that in my new book. If you read my paper with Dennis Embry we lay out a public health framework that identifies the major threats to wellbeing and sketches what behavioral science has to offer in addressing them.  I think behavioral science need to for a grand coalition across all the various behavioral science organizations and learn to speak with one voice about what behavioral science has to offer.

To take just one example, who writes the laws?  I think the dominant professions in legislatures are lawyers and business people.  How well informed are they about public health?  How committed are they to increasing the prevalence of people in the population who are living healthy and productive lives in caring relationships with others?

Behavioral scientists (of all stripes) need to step up and begin to take part in the leadership of societies so that we can evolve more nurturing societies. For example, law schools should require courses in behavioral science.

What would you like to see in the field five years from today?

The behavioral science community speaking with one voice about how we can evolve more nurturing families, schools, neighborhoods, workplaces, and communities.

Is there anything else you’d want to add?

 I love your questions! 

Thank you very much for your time!

Thank You!


If you are interested in our interviews (in English), click on the following links