Addressing Social and Global Issues: Viewing the Syrian Refugee Crisis Through a Behavior-Analytic Lens

  • Sonia LevyEmail author
  • Janani Vaidya
  • Jamine Dettmering
  • Amy N. Siebold
  • Cam Mittelman
  • Joshua Garner


In a 1982 address, B. F. Skinner asked a question that is still relevant today: Why are we not acting to save the world? Watching any news station will reveal a number of current global and social issues that our world is facing including, but not limited to, poverty, genocide, and climate change. Although there have been attempts to resolve these issues, these problems continue to cost lives and threaten the planet. These human-created problems are complex in terms of influencing factors and the human behavior involved and, therefore, require an objective, systematic approach. Behavior analysis is a science that studies environmental variables influencing human behavior, which allows for the prediction and creation of interventions that change behavior in a socially significant way. The present article uses the Syrian refugee crisis to illustrate how the principles of behavior analysis, specifically relational frame theory, Glenn’s (2004, “Individual Behavior, Culture, and Social Change,” The Behavior Analyst, 27, 133–151) analysis of macrobehavior and metacontingencies, and Goldiamond’s nonlinear analysis (1974, “Toward a Constructional Approach to Social Problems: Ethical and Constitutional Issues Raised by Applied Behavior Analysis,” Behaviorism, 2, 1–84), could be used to address global and social issues. The authors propose a model that may be used to analyze other social or global issues using behavior-analytic principles. This article is intended to demonstrate the breadth of potential applications of behavior-analytic principles and to serve as a call to action to the field to research interventions to address current social and global issues.


Behavior analysis Social issues Syrian refugee crisis Relational frame theory Metacontingencies nonlinear contingencies 


Compliance with Ethical Standards

This article has not been previously published and is not under consideration for another journal.

Conflict of Interest

There are no conflicts or dualities of interest related to this manuscript.


  1. Amnesty International. (2016a, March 23). Jordan: Syrian refugees blocked from accessing critical health services. Retrieved from
  2. Amnesty International. (2016b, December 20). Syria’s refugee crisis in numbers. Retrieved from
  3. Association for Behavior Analysis International. (2018). What is behavior analysis? Retrieved from
  4. Austen, I. (2017, January 28). In Canada, Justin Trudeau says refugees are welcome. The New York Times. Retrieved from
  5. Basu, M. (2016, September 15). 15 years after 9/11, Sikhs still victims of anti-Muslim hate crimes. CNN International Edition. Retrieved from
  6. Bhargava, V. K. (2006). Global issues for global citizens: An introduction to key development challenges [PDF document]. Retrieved from
  7. British Broadcasting Corporation. (2019, January 14). Syria profile—Timeline. BBC News. Retrieved from
  8. Care. (2019a, January). Humanitarian crisis in Yemen. Care. Retrieved from
  9. Care. (2019b, March). Humanitarian crisis in South Sudan. Care. Retrieved from
  10. Catania, A. C. (2007). Learning (4th ed.). Cornwall-on-Hudson, NY: Sloan Publishing.Google Scholar
  11. Central Intelligence Agency. (n.d.). The world factbook. Retrieved from
  12. Chappel, B. (2017, April 7). Russia says U.S. broke international law In striking Syria, citing “Pretext.” National Public Radio. Retrieved from
  13. Conner, P. (2018, January 29). Most displaced Syrians are in the Middle East, and about a million are in Europe. Pew Research Centre. Retrieved from
  14. Dixon, M. R., Dymond, S., Rehfeldt, R. A., Roche, B., & Zlomke, K. R. (2003). Terrorism and relational frame theory. Behavior and Social Issues, 12, 129–147. Scholar
  15. Emerging Technology. (2018, September). A mathematical model captures the political impact of fake news. MIT Technology Review. Retrieved from
  16. Expatica. (n.d.). Income tax in Germany for employees. Retrieved from
  17. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations/World Food Programme. (2016). Special report: FAO/WFP crop and food security assessment mission to the Syrian Arab Republic. Retrieved from
  18. Gallant, C. (2018, June). Hat’s homeless efforts evolving. Medicine Hat News. Retrieved from
  19. Gilens, M., & Page, B. I. (2014). Testing theories of American politics: Elites, interest groups, and average citizens. Perspectives on Politics, 12, 564–581. Scholar
  20. Glenn, S. S. (1988). Contingencies and metacontingencies: Toward a synthesis of behavior analysis and cultural materialism. The Behavior Analyst, 11, 161–179. Scholar
  21. Glenn, S. S. (2004). Individual behavior, culture, and social change. The Behavior Analyst, 27, 133–151. Scholar
  22. Goldiamond, I. (1974). Toward a constructional approach to social problems: Ethical and constitutional issues raised by applied behavior analysis. Behaviorism, 2, 1–84. Scholar
  23. Government of Canada. (n.d.-b). How Canada’s refugee system works. Retrieved from
  24. Government of Canada. (n.d.-c). Map of destination communities and service provider organizations. Retrieved from
  25. Government of Canada. (n.d.-d). Syrian refugee integration—One year after arrival. Retrieved from
  26. Government of Canada. (2017). #WelcomeRefugees: Key figures. Retrieved from
  27. (n.d.). Tax on foreign income. Retrieved from
  28. Gumbel, A. (2018, September 19). “The violence is always there”: Life as a Sikh in Trump’s America. The Guardian. Retrieved from
  29. Hayes, S. C., Barnes-Holmes, D., & Roche, B. (2001). Relational frame theory: A post-Skinnerian account of human language and cognition. New York: Plenum Press.Google Scholar
  30. Heisbourg, F. (2015). The strategic implications of the Syrian refugee crisis. Survival: Global Politics and Strategy, 57, 7–20. Scholar
  31. Human Rights Watch. (2019). World report 2019: Syria. Retrieved from
  32. I Am Syria. (2019). Death count in Syria. Retrieved from
  33. International Medical Corps. (2018). Refugee crisis in the Middle East. Retrieved from
  34. Internal Revenue Service. (n.d.). Income from abroad is taxable. Retrieved from
  35. Mattaini, M. A., & Luke, M. (2014). Editorial: “Saving the world” with a matrix. Behavior and Social Issues, 23, 1–4. Scholar
  36. Medicine Hat Community Housing Society. (2015). Homelessness & housing development. Retrieved from
  37. Medicine Hat Community Housing Society. (2017). At home in Medicine Hat: Our plan to end homelessness—Year 7 progress report. Retrieved from
  38. Memmott, M. (2013, October). U.S. drone strikes violate international law, reports allege. National Public Radio. Retrieved from
  39. Newman, B. (1991). Only empiricism is compatible with behavior analysis: A response to the socialism and behaviorism debate. Behavior and Social Issues, 1, 15–24
  40. Ontario Council of Agencies Serving Immigrants. (n.d.). Welcome Ontario: Syrian refugee assistance program. Retrieved from
  41. Pifer, S. (2017, May 17). The growing Russian military threat in Europe. Brookings. Retrieved from
  42. Prilleltensky, I. (2001). Value-based praxis in community psychology: Moving toward social justice and social action. American Journal of Community Psychology, 29, 747–748. Scholar
  43. PwC. (n.d.). Worldwide tax summaries online. Retrieved from
  44. Ruiz, M., & Roche, B. (2007). Values and the scientific culture of behavior analysis. The Behavior Analyst, 30, 1–16. Scholar
  45. Simcox, R. (2016). The threat of Islamist terrorism in Europe and how the U.S. should respond. The Heritage Foundation. Retrieved from
  46. Skinner, B. F. (1953). Science and human behavior. New York, NY: Macmillan.Google Scholar
  47. Skinner, B. F. (1981). The phylogeny and ontogeny of behavior. Science, 153, 1205–1213. Scholar
  48. Skinner, B. F. (1987). Why we are not acting to save the world. In B. F. Skinner (Ed.), Upon further reflection (pp. 1–14). Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.Google Scholar
  49. Soreth, M. E. (2011). Against the dichotomy of morality and self-interest: A review of Power’s “A Problem From Hell”: America and the age of genocide. Behavior and Social Issues, 20, 32–43. Scholar
  50. Sturge, G. (2019, March 18). Migration statistics: How many asylum seekers and refugees are there in the UK? House of Commons library: Research and analysis from impartial experts. Retrieved from
  51. Syrian Refugees. (2016, September). The Syrian refugee crisis and its repercussions for the EU. Syrian refugees: A snapshot of the crisis—in the Middle East and Europe. Retrieved from
  52. Taleb, Z. B., Bahlah, R., Fouad, M. F., Coutts, A., Wilcox, M., & Maziak, W. (2015). Syria: Health in a country undergoing tragic transition. International Journal of Public Health, 60, S63–S72. Scholar
  53. Törneke, N. (2010). Learning RFT: An introduction to relational frame theory and its clinical application. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications.Google Scholar
  54. United Nations. (n.d.). About the UN. Retrieved from
  55. United Nations. (n.d.). Global Issues Overview. Retrieved from
  56. United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. (2018, January). Somalia. The UN Refugee Agency. Retrieved from
  57. Vanselow, N. R., Thompson, R., & Karsina, A. (2011). Data-based decision making: The impact of data variability, training, and context. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 44, 767–780.
  58. World Vision. (2019, March 15). Syrian refugee crisis: Facts, FAQs, and how to help. Retrieved from
  59. Yaccino, S., Schwirtz, M., & Santora, M. (2012, August 5). New York, NY: Gunman kills 6 at a Sikh temple near Milwaukee. The New York Times. Retrieved from
  60. Zenko, M., & Wilson, J. (2017, January 5). How many bombs did the United States drop in 2016? Council on Foreign Relations. Retrieved from
  61. Zong, J., & Batalova, J. (2017, January 12). Syrian refugees in the United States. Migration Policy Institute. Retrieved from

Copyright information

© Association for Behavior Analysis International 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.The Chicago School of Professional PsychologyChicagoUSA

Personalised recommendations