Ethical Issues for Applied Behavior Analysts: Covert Observation

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Contact Information

Psychology Department, University of Florida
Gainesville, Florida 32611


Timothy R. Vollmer, PH.D., BCBA-D is a professor of psychology at the University of Florida.  He has conducted and reviewed research that at times engenders ethical dilemmas.  One such area is when behavior analysts use covert observations (observations when the subject is unaware they are being observed).  Dr. Vollmer will discuss the dilemmas and offer potential solutions that are ethically sound and empirically guided.  This 3-CEU module will be broken up into three segments.  The entire module, including planned study periods, practice quizzes, and a final quiz, should take about 3 hours to complete.  A certificate indicating successful completion will be available upon receiving a score of 80% or better on the final quiz.  The three modules will be presented as follows.


  1. Examples of covert observation.  Some of the most dangerous behavior occurs even when or especially when no one is watching.  Yet, one methodological feature of applied behavior analysis is direct observation.  How do we reconcile the fact that we must observe behavior to detect favorable change in behavior with ethical constraints on covert observation?  In this first section, Dr. Vollmer will present clinical examples and examples from the literature on covert observation.
  2. Ethical considerations.  Dr. Vollmer will present certification board guidelines and other ethical constraints on covert observation.  He will stress the role of informed consent, assent, de-briefing, and peer review.
  3. Scenarios.  Dr. Vollmer will present several ethical dilemmas involving covert observation.  The participant will have planned study periods to work through possible solutions to the dilemmas.  Then, Dr. Vollmer will present some proposed solutions.
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