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Social Problem as a Behaviorist Sees It

By Tiffany Jameson, MBA

January 2019

Eighty-nine percent of individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) are unemployed with those often employed underemployed (Scott et al., 2017). When compared to the national employment rate of 96% (“National Employment Monthly Update,” n.d.), this population is at risk of being dependent on government programs for their lifespan. Employment is a driver for all individuals to gain independent lives and the social problem the large unemployment rate creates impacts us all. To address this social problem, the workplace culture must be visited.

Organizational culture shapes behavior in organizations and people are the culture (Watkins, 2013). Culture greatly impacts the social issue of underemployment and unemployment for individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Successful workplace inclusion practices establish a culture and highly influence the probability of sustainable employment for the highly educated and capable workforce with ASD (Fillary & Pernice, 2006). Inclusion programs will be futile if co-workers are harboring bias towards individuals with ASD. Moss, Ennis, Zander, Bartram, and Hedley (2017) discuss how programs, policies, and practices for diversity inclusion will be sabotaged if employees are not open to personal growth.

The psychology of behaviorism can provide useful tools for individuals to identify bias toward a population. Methods for overcoming bias from a behaviorist perspective are reviewed through leaders in the classical and radical behaviorism and learning theories. Exploration of thought leaders in these areas is provided. Additionally, new theories are provided and applied to this social problem. These theories and others in the behavioral arena will be applied to conquering bias in the workplace towards individuals with ASD followed by the limitations of these approaches. This paper will apply social learning theory and cognitive-affective theory as behavioral interventions to address bias towards co-workers with ASD, increasing the chances of sustainable employment and inclusion in the workplace.


Statement of the Problem

It is not known the impact that bias toward individuals with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) has on successful and sustainable employment for this population. Workplace inclusion of individuals with ASD requires bias and stereotypes to be addressed. Co-workers must find the motivation to challenge the behaviors that emerge from their bias. Until bias can is replaced, organizations will have difficulty creating safe, inclusive work environments that will support and accept individuals with ASD. Businesses face a low unemployment rate today, and the estimated 50,000 individuals with ASD entering adulthood every year mandate the need to make the necessary organizational changes to embrace this untapped workforce (Roux et al., 2013).


Behavioral Analysis of the Problem

Behaviorists would begin to analyze the problem of workplace bias toward co-workers with ASD by bringing awareness of the behavior to the employee. Each behavioral theorist, classical, radical or learning theories, will have a different approach to the problem. The behaviorist view of this social issue will be explored through the lens of classical behaviorist John B. Watson, radical behaviorist B.F. Skinner, and learning theorists Edward Deci and Richard Ryan.

Watson’s View of Given Social Issue

To understand if an individual has bias requires introspection of one’s thought pattern or feelings, but as Watson states, “Feelings are never clear” (Watson, 1913, p. 163). Instead, Watson, who did not support introspection, would view the issue as a formation of habits. The co-worker with observable bias behaviors would have developed the observable habits and the habits were stimulated when interacting with an individual with ASD. These habits were responses that demonstrate prejudice behaviors (Watson, 1913). Watson would want to understand the stimulus-responses that occur during the interaction with the ASD co-worker.

The mechanistic world view will not work on practices such as bias making this problem more difficult from a classical behaviorist viewpoint. The problem of bias cannot be reduced to distinct and autonomously analyzable parts (Ruiz, 1995, p. 31) because there are too many unobservable factors that have contributed to the bias. Controlling the behavior would be difficult with too many unknown variables impacting the individual’s responses such as the individual social setting and the influence of those around the employee (Watson, 1913; Moore, 2013). Watson would then leave it to the individual to decide to make the changes necessary to change the behavior after understanding the stimulus. His approach would not allow for the cognitive processing of past experiences that may contribute to the bias.

Skinner’s View of Given Social Issues

Skinner’s viewpoint of autism bias in the workplace would provide some control of the individual's behavior by exploring the consequences associated with the behavior, or the operant behavior (Leary, 2004). Skinner (1963) asserts that interest in behavior stems from an interest in how behavior affects the environment. Skinner would focus on what the individual’s effect is on the ASD co-worker through their behavior and to what extent the behavior in the past has had consequences (Skinner, 1963). Bias behaviors without contingencies must be met with the extinction of behavior by not reinforcing the response. The change in how quickly the co-worker can identify the bias behavior and make positive changes would demonstrate an improvement of the behavior. It may begin with subtle discriminations in behavior, but over time the goal would be for the behavior to be extinguished (Skinner, 1963).

Deci and Ryan View of Given Social Issue

Deci and Ryan’s (2008) self-determination theory (SDT) is a theory of motivation and personality. SDT promotes that finding intrinsic motivation satisfies the three basic psychological needs. These needs are for competence, autonomy, and relatedness (Graham & Weiner, 2012; Deci & Ryan, 2008; Niemiec, Ryan & Deci, 2009). Using SDT to approach this social problem would be to focus on the individual's core values and perceived importance on not behaving in a biased manner towards an ASD co-worker leading to motivation to extinguish the biased behaviors. SDT highlights “the importance of humans’ evolved inner resources for personality development and behavior self-regulation” (Ryan & Deci, 2000, p. 68). In the case of bias towards a co-worker, a self-determined approach would accept a new identity associated with their biased and take steps to create intentions to reduce these behaviors (Yampolsky & Amiot, 2013).


Behavioral Solutions

Behavioral solutions to address both conscious and unconscious bias toward an employee with ASD have evolved from the approaches of Watson and Skinner to include a cognitive component. The “dimension of the mind” (Moore, 2013) explains the nonbehavioral components that are still relevant in the determination of behaviors. The dimension of the mind is a result of the history of environmental stimulation and influences that do not necessarily coincide with the behavior itself. As Flanagan (as cited in Moore, 2013, p. 671) asserts, “The transformations which take place between our ears are the missing links needed to account for the regularities between stimuli and responses.” Co-workers must be made aware of behaviors and mental states and other inputs besides the current environment that may impact behaviors towards individuals with ASD by coworkers (Moore, 2013). Two different theories that use both the cognitive and behavioral components will be used as solutions to this social problem. They are a cognitive-affective personality system and social learning theories.

Cognitive-Affective Personality System Theory

The cognitive-affective personality system (CAPS) theory was developed by Mischel and Shoda (1995) to describe the intersection between situation, person, and behavior. The individual that is demonstrating bias behavior must assess the situation-behavior profiles that are manifested in their behavior. Using CAPS, the behaviorist can work with the individual to understand the “if… then…” scenarios that influence their behavior towards to coworker with ASD. An attempt is made to merge personality dispositions and behavior variability across multiple circumstances and begin to recognize the behavior (Mendoza-Denton & Goldman-Flythe, 2009). Understanding the influences that have shaped the behavior, and depth of their sources such as beliefs, goals, values and allows the analysis of cognitive-affective units identified that impact the availability, accessibility, and applicability to modify the behavior (Mendoza-Denton & Goldman-Flythe, 2009).

Social Learning (Cognitive) Theory

The use of social learning theory (SLT), or more recently known as a social cognitive theory, for addressing the bias behavior will be beneficial as the theory looks at the “dynamic interplay between the person, the environment, and behavior” (Gibson, 2004, p. 193). Williams and Parkhouse (1988) discuss SLT to help understand the structure and process of developing bias or stereotyping as impacted by independent variables of personal attributes, significant others, and socializing situations. Mendoza-Denton, Park, and O’Connor (2008) raised the question if the situation present had a different impact on these stereotypes and found that it is difficult to reconcile contradictions of the stereotype and the new information to make the appropriate behavioral change. Findings conclude that simple exposure to the individual the bias is towards will not enhance the stereotype, but various opportunities to intermix will eventually break down the bias and create new mental models (Williams & Parkhouse, 1988).


Limitations of the Behavioral Solution

There are many behavioral intervention theories to combat basis, but not without some limitations. The largest limitations are dependence on the workplace culture and commitment to creating an inclusive workplace for all employees. Additionally, the self-efficacy that is needed by the individual displaying bias to motivate themselves to be better.

Organizational Support

Inclusion practices promote the feeling of acceptability of the uniqueness of each person (Panicker, Agrawal & Khandelwal, 2017). Organizationally, support of behavioral solution must come from the top-level of the management and communicate clearly to all line-managers (Matton & Hernandez, 2004; Panicker et al., 2017). Without this level of commitment, employees may not fully engage in the behavioral modification which may lead to ill-treatment of the ASD co-worker. Research indicates that employees’ engagement is higher when a positive view of diversity and inclusion is perceived and observed within a workplace culture (von Schrader, Malzer & Bruyere, 2014). Without the proper backing of the entire organization, inclusion attempts will fail.

Individual Self-efficacy

Tapping into an individual’s motivation in a group setting creates a challenge. Each will have different biases and behaviors associated with biases. The complexity of providing scalable solutions that all employees can embrace is a limitation of behavioral interventions. Employees will need to embrace a growth mindset to address bias and stereotypes and make behavior modifications or extinguish behaviors (Graham & Weiner, 2012, p. 374). Individuals will need to demonstrate self-efficacy to make the difficult behavior modifications that may be required.

Resolution of Limitations

Addressing these limitations requires an organization to be motivated to pursue inclusion programs. There is a growing number of studies demonstrating a strong business case for inclusion and having factual information on the financial and productivity benefits will help resolve some of the limitations. An inclusive workforce is impacted by both the diversity of the organization and its culture and leads to higher engagement, performance, and employee well-being (Panicker et al., 2017). The growing evidence of the benefits will enable management to dedicate the resources towards successful inclusion practices. A practice that can also assist with the limitations of these solutions is the creation of Employee Resource Groups (ERG) and mentoring programs. Matton and Hernandez (2004) have also found that tying performance evaluation and reward system for management with the progress of inclusion efforts motivate managers to place the necessary importance on the inclusion programs.



There are a variety of lenses that a behavioralist can use to analyze the social issue of bias toward ASD employees in the workforce. The solution will need to address the environment, situation, person, and behaviors to enable change. The endeavors are dependent on the commitment to counteracting bias by the workplace and the individual members of the organization. The application of theories that apply both cognitive and behavioral components like social learning theory and cognitive-affective personality systems will increase ASD employment and inclusion shortening the current employment gap of 85% between the national average and those with an autism spectrum disorder. Suggested future research is on behavioral interventions that can be generalized for an organization but also allow a personal aspect so each employee can combat his or her biases to create inclusive workplaces.



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