Why do we do what we do?

The field of psychology aims to answer that question. But within the discipline, approaches vary significantly. If, for example, you habitually overindulge on snacks, sweets, and junk food, some psychologists would want to probe your earliest experiences with foods and your internal beliefs about self-control, willpower, and body image. Others, in contrast, would focus on the environment and how it affects your behavior: Do you eat alone or with other people? Is the junk food you keep at home stored in plain sight or hidden from view?

The latter questions are most interesting to Capella University faculty member Ryan O’Donnell. Trained in behavior analysis, he believes such queries can lead people to answers that can—if desired—help them alter their behavior. Can’t resist junk food? Spend less time with friends who always eat poorly. Or refuse to keep it at home. Or buy less of it. Rather than focusing on the deep-seated reasons that drive the behavior, behavior analysis sees value in altering the environment that enables the behavior.

A Practical Podcast

Pragmatic ideas for behavior change are the focus of Why We Do What We Do, a podcast that O’Donnell launched with a few friends in 2017. Each week, he and others discuss topics ranging from willpower to anger management, creativity to circular reasoning, in an attempt to render behavior analysis accessible to the general public. “Behavior analysis offers an array of tools that can be used right away in almost any situation,” O’Donnell says. “If we can get those tools in the hands of the general public, it can be very beneficial to them.”

To connect people with the ideas that fuel behavior analysis, O’Donnell has turned to technology, embracing not only podcasting but also social media. His website TheDailyBA.com features videos for behavior analysis professionals prompting discussions in the profession and giving O’Donnell a chance to hone his topic-selection and video-editing skills. Ultimately, he hopes to use what he learns from his social-media adventures to launch a website aimed at high-school kids.

Teaching Teenagers

Behavior analysis isn’t usually taught in high schools, O’Donnell says—and that’s a shame. The ready-to-use framework and tools of behavior analysis could greatly benefit teens, he believes. For example, after the school shootings in Parkland, Florida, much was said about expressing feelings and outlets for aggression.

“In behavior analysis, we know that simple things—such as words or how you form your statements—can really shape how people react, whether they listen or retaliate,” O’Donnell says. “If behavior analysis can communicate what we know to the next generation of leaders, we may be able to help them be more effective in changing the world.”

O’Donnell sees ways to help teens on a smaller scale as well. For example, what if you always leave home without your lunch? Behavior analysis could help you identify ways to change your environment so that doesn’t happen—setting your lunch on the counter after breakfast or putting a note next to your keys.

“The way you set up your environment affects your behavior not just today, but into the future,” O’Donnell says. “What are the kernels of learning you can glean from everyday life that will help you meet your goals? The basics of behavior analysis show you how to find those kernels of understanding.”

O’Donnell has not yet launched his website for teens, but hopes to do so in sometime in 2020. “Like teaching, it’s a project I’m passionate about,” he says. “In fact, it’s an extension of my teaching.”

Learn more about Capella’s program in Applied Behavior Analysis.