The Nurture Effect: How the Science of Human Behavior Can Improve Our Lives and Our World
by Anthony Biglan
New Harbinger, 2015 ($26.95)

Famed behavioral psychologist B. F. Skinner, my mentor in graduate school, died a happy man. From his hospital bed, he motioned to his daughter to pass him a glass of water, took a sip and said, “Marvelous”—his last word on earth. He had led a long, fulfilling life, and his impact on the behavioral sciences was perhaps unparalleled. There was good reason for his contentment.

Since that day in 1990, however, Skinner's passionate ideas about the central role that behavioral science could play in improving human life seem to have faded away, overshadowed by advances in the cognitive and brain sciences.

Enter Biglan, a research psychologist at the Oregon Research Institute and one of the country's leading experts on how to prevent behavioral and psychological problems in children and teens. In his new book, Biglan reviews a wide range of large-scale programs that have put behavioral science to work in tackling just about every problem you can imagine: smoking, delinquency, crime, teen pregnancy, family conflict, drug abuse, poverty—you name it.

While it may be neuroscience that makes the headlines, Biglan shows that behavioral science in its most basic form is the real workhorse in today's developed world. In the early 1900s, propelled in their thinking by a new philosophy called pragmatism and a fairly new theory called evolution, scientists such as Skinner set about to discover principles of behavior that both revealed the orderliness in behavior and, more important, gave therapists, managers and public policy makers the tools they needed to engineer human behavior in positive ways.

Since then, Biglan says, thousands of behavioral scientists have been working out the details, and many have served as advisers to or directors of some of the most successful behavioral change projects in human history. “In 1965,” he writes, “over 50 percent of men and 34 percent of women smoked. By 2010, only 23.5 percent of men and 17.9 percent of women were smoking.” He documents similar achievements (albeit not always quite as spectacular) in dozens of areas in which behavioral science has been applied, often quietly and behind the scenes.

All in all, Biglan has given us a compelling read about what behavioral science has been doing for us lately and about the potential such science has for helping us solve new problems. Skinner was far from a spiritual man, but if he was wrong about such things and if he is indeed looking down from the heavens today, he has surely taken note of Biglan's book and said, “Marvelous.”