Inside the Behavior Analysis Congress of 2023: Highlights and Insights
Just a few days ago, the Behavior Analysis 2023 Congress concluded at the airport of the beautiful city of Prague. Taking advantage of the occasion, I want to share the points I believe deserve highlighting. Perhaps this will motivate you to attend next year or satisfy your curiosity.
To facilitate the understanding of various topics, in this summary, I present a series of reflections organized into three sections: 1) generalities, 2) problems, and 3) suggestions. When applicable, I will put the presenter’s name in parentheses from whom I have taken the idea, and I will explain the concepts in simple words as much as possible.
This was the venue inside the Prague airport at its total capacity! This is a photo of my presentation on the subject of “Making a Long Story Short: the delicate art and robust science of nonverbal communication.“
a) Familiarity with the environment is a prerequisite for any systematic analysis of the behavior of people who transit or occupy a specific physical space (Richard Kemp). Knowing the place is the only way to identify a deviation in typical behavior in real-time. To achieve this, many hours of observation in the same location are required. Therefore, it can only be gained through experience.
b) In spaces that require a specific expected level of security, such as airports and stadiums, all layers of security must receive training in the detection of behaviors and given flexible protocols to respond to situations, including medical personnel, public attendants, and airplane cabin crew (Tim Colehan & Samuel Juchtman). This point is essential even for private institutions with no necessary relation to security, like many companies or hospitals that selectively train only a few members.
c) The profession of behavior analyst can be a very frustrating vocation in which it is normal to ‘fail’ numerous consecutive times. In addition, there are two negative considerations: 1) repetitive tasks are performed (e.g., palpating hundreds of individuals per day), and 2) it is normal to be reprimanded when it is discovered that a critical threat or indicator has not been detected due to an error (Sébastien Colmant). The ability to tolerate frustration should be a valuable quality for these professionals. I would add one more comment. As I explained in my presentation, if you are looking for a needle in a haystack, you will inevitably fail many times. It is natural to accept this as a fundamental condition of any behavior analysis practice.
d) In security, it must be assumed that “It’s not a matter of if something will happen, but when” (Ng See Chong). Simply put, a threat is presumed to arrive, and as a result, every Behavior Detection Officer must maintain active attention and always be ready to perceive indicators that could anticipate any type of risk.
e) Security depends on implementing numerous measures and strategies, among which behavior analysis is only one (Neville Hay). This seems obvious, but it is crucial: observing verbal and nonverbal indicators is not the omnicompetent tool that solves all problems. Instead, it must be considered integrally with many others.
f) As long as the goal is to preserve security, there is a reasonably accepted agreement that interviews or interrogation of an individual should continue until suspicion is eliminated. Another way to put it is, “if there is suspicion, there is no doubt.”
g) Political correctness is considered a controversial obstacle to crime prevention because it creates uncertainty among professionals (Philip Baum). Fear of the consequences of being criticized by the media and social networks, combined with the lack of support from team leaders, may lead agents to doubt whether to act during those critical seconds when immediate intervention is necessary. Should agents examine their ‘gut feelings’?, how much? And what is the risk of creating a professional culture in which every decision is questioned for fear of suggesting some form of discrimination? These questions will be discussed many more times in the future.
h) Profiling is a common and legal task. Of all types of profiling, racial profiling is the most discussed, although others are not. The problem seems to lie in the complex balance between security and the protection of human rights. Perhaps it is important to note that “not every different treatment constitutes discrimination if the criterion is reasonable and objective” (Lenka Scheu). To this I must add that the primary definition of discrimination in the Royal Spanish Academy dictionary is“to select while excluding,” which has no negative connotation. In my opinion, it is inevitable that human brains and their numerous quick judgments selectively filter certain information that will then guide decision-making. What I am trying to say is that, to a certain extent, discrimination is impossible to avoid. Instead, what should be cultivated is agents’ ability to explore why they unknowingly discriminate and how to improve the objective process of extracting meaning out of behavior. This way, they can understand the causes of their judgments, be reflexive about their nature and finally make informed decisions to avoid becoming victims of their biases.
i) Checklist-type indicator lists are a topic that generates a silent debate: some timidly support it, and others reject it. On the one hand, having such a list of parameters collaborates with the rapid recognition of potentially essential indicators. On the other hand, they frequently cloud agents’ observation because 1) they focus exclusively on a finite number of signals and 2) they prevent thinking outside the box. I understand why some practitioners turn to indicator lists, and in fact, I am convinced that they are an appropriate strategy for some situations. It makes sense to look for the exceptional, what does not fit. A concrete case is mass event security (Itzik Ashkenaz).
j) Sometimes, analysts have difficulty justifying the reasons why they have detained an individual. They often argue that they recognized “suspicious behavior” but find it challenging to describe it. One possible solution to this problem is to train agents to indicate and justify why that behavior is suspicious (María Carmen Feijoo Fernández). Giving them the tools to describe appropiately what they see in the behaviors of individuals emerges as a very important practice. It also seems appropriate to provide them with techniques to bring their quick judgments to awareness.
k) Some behavior analysts believe there has been no progress in behavior analysis in recent years (Diana Nowek). If this is true, which I partially agree with, it is concerning. I believe that one explanation consistent with the previous observation is the still limited collaborative interaction between researchers and practitioners, a topic that sporadically emerges in conversations. More efforts are needed in that direction, and researchers and practitioners are responsible for promoting or not promoting cooperation.
l) There seems to be a consensus among practitioners that training is insufficient. Its frequency and duration are below what they consider necessary.
m) Identifying behavior should be an objective process (Richard Kemp). Ideally, subjectivity should be avoided as much as possible to ensure that data collection is not clouded. However, this task is more complex than it seems at first glance. It is common to observe what one ‘wants’ to see, something like a self-fulfilling prophecy. In other words, each person constructs their reality through their senses, and the fact is that attention capacity is limited. In several instances, stimuli are not seen or recognized correctly due to attentional bias: focusing on one stimulus over others, thereby obstructing the ability to process and receive other important information (Aaron Le Boutillier).
n) The proactive strategy, as opposed to the passive one, is the best approach to increase positive results in preventing risky situations. Passive reception is insufficient. For example, in fields such as deception detection, numerous studies agree that active interventions produce better results for distinguishing between liars and truth-tellers, such as increasing cognitive load.
o) Behavior analysts in security contexts should aspire to develop a predictive mindset, capable of anticipating possible situations early on based on each unique problem (Dominique Boulianne). This is the opposite of the sometimes common reactive mindset. The former allows you to think several steps ahead, while the latter strategy runs the risk of responding too late.
p) A highly valued quality for these professionals is the ability to think creatively. If agents aspire to uncover hidden intentions, thinking outside the box seems necessary. This means being able to change the perspective from which they view the problems, attire, or behavior of people. This way, they can think “two steps ahead” (Dominique Boulianne). Additionally, I believe this approach aligns with the accepted recommendation about crafting and preparing specific security models for each context.
q) Campaigns aimed at raising awareness could significantly contribute to creating safer environments by reducing the high number of suspicious indicators that people currently choose to report, since at the moment almost a half of them are not informed. In other words, the problem is that if an ordinary individual observes strange behavior in another person, it is most likely not reported (Tim Colehan & Karel Lehmer). So if you’re reading this, remember the phrase, “see something, say something.”
r) In security contexts, liars face a dilemma because they have two contradictory motivations: to give and not give many details. That is why they tend to offer unverifiable information. A modern strategy with optimistic results is the ‘verifiability approach’ (Galit Nahari), which focuses on quality rather than the number of details.
During the event, I appreciated some things I had left out of this summary. For example, Donna Hubbard’s presentation on her life experience with human trafficking moved me to tears. I also enjoyed the talent of David Keatley, who, with charisma and humility, could present even through Zoom and generate an impressive positive impact on the audience. Similarly, Mi Riddell’s entertaining presentation validated for me and the audience about the importance of the acting skills necessary for public speaking. Even after naming numerous speakers, I am aware that I left out several, and the main reason is that I intend to make a brief summary. My apologies if I did not included you here.
Up: me, María Carmen Feijoo Fernández and Johnny Rodríguez. Bottom left: with Dominique Boulianne. Bottom right: with Galit Nahari (I wish I took more pictures with many others)
To conclude, I want to share how I experienced the conference. Initially, I traveled to Prague with the expectation of sharing my appreciation for how to think about nonverbal behavior analysis, which (I believe) I managed to convey it in a good-enough way. There is always room to improve, for sure. My idea was brief, based on scientific literature, that nonverbal communication is a complex phenomenon, and so to better understand it we must ’embrace’ what I call “The Probabilistic Paradigm.” Nonverbals are far from a puzzle, even though that is the traditional way of thinking about them, and that was my focus. But during the evening of the first day I discovered that the best part of the conference was the conversations with colleagues and practitioners, without a doubt. The interactions at lunch, the tables, breakfast, walking, and at the hotel. I lament that it ended so quickly, but I am sure we will meet again.
Did you like the summary? wich point from a) to r) you liked the most? Already considering coming next year? Leave your comments below.
Maravilloso resumen, eres un profesional extraordinario, tu ponencia fue de gran impacto.
Me alegro hayas hecho el viaje para estar esos días en Praga, Johnny. Me ha encantado conocerte después de todo este tiempo. Nos la pasamos muy bien. Te mando un fuerte abrazo y gracias por tus palabras.
Que gozo leer tu resumen, Alan. ¡Muchas gracias por compartir!
Muchas gracias por tu comentario, Jesús. Me alegra saber que otros como tu pueden disfrutar de estos contenidos. Un gran saludo.