Under the Dome Interview with Dr. Matthew Normand


As part of our mission to provide coverage on behavior analysis under the dome, we believe there to be value in disseminating the work of those with a similar passion for mainstream service delivery. To help accomplish this goal, we introduce our first of a series of interviews targeting figureheads conducting excellent science that falls ‘under the dome.’

We (Brett Gelino and Alix Fisk — students in the KU Applied Behavioral Economics Laboratory) were delighted at the opportunity to spend time with Dr. Matt Normand of The University of the Pacific as part of our first UtD interview. Throughout his career, Normand has been an advocate for the demonstration of healthy skepticism and pushed toward novel applications of behavioral science that invite more of the population to benefit from advances in our methods and conceptual understandings. His work has exemplified clever and unique uses of behavioral principles in an effort to promote juvenile health through physical play and exercise.


An Interview with Dr. Matt Normand (University of the Pacific)

Gelino: As you know, the blog features behavior analysis that is applicable to the average person. You’ve been an outspoken proponent of this mainstream application, so we were hoping you could tell us a little bit about how you got into your line of work and provide a brief overview of your ‘under the dome’ type research interests.

Normand: When I got into the field, I didn’t get into it the way I think a lot of our folks do today, because I had a job somewhere, or worked with young kids with autism, or got exposed to Applied Behavior Analysis – not at all. It was from the exact opposite end. I got turned on by the science of it – the basic science – probably because it was a kind of science I understood. (I wasn’t a stellar student at the time, so I might not have appreciated biology and chemistry and things like that!) It was interesting and I was good at it, relatively speaking, as a student. Then, I also got introduced to the conceptual part of our field early on because my two of my undergraduate mentors were Hank Schlinger and Dave Palmer. I had a lot of interactions with those two people and sort of got steeped in the experimental and conceptual basis of the field, and just really was excited about it. They encouraged me to go to graduate school at Western Michigan University. I went there and worked with Al Poling in the behavioral pharmacology lab, with rats and pigeons. It was well into my graduate career at Western Michigan before I even really knew there was Applied Behavior Analysis. I had never even read JABA or anything like that. I did come to realize early on that even if I wanted a faculty position, basic research wasn’t the way to go, even though I liked it and was very interested in it. There weren’t many jobs. Nobody was beating down your door to go do pigeon research on schedules of reinforcement. So, I thought I would go do applied work. I went to Florida State University to work with Jon Bailey. When I got there, I was pretty new to the applied stuff. I hadn’t taken a single course where we read any JABA. I tell my students that I’ve never actually taken an ABA course!

When I was first getting exposed to applied work, I was working in the public school system with typical kids who were having behavior problems in elementary or middle school, applying token economies and things like that in the classroom. Even when I finished my Ph.D. I had no experience with autism and developmental disabilities – at all. I did take a year between finishing my requirements and officially getting my Ph.D. and worked at a large autism center in California. For me, it was always saving the world with behavior analysis (that’s what Skinner talked about) but the world that I saw didn’t have anything to do with autism and developmental disabilities. It’s not because it’s not important, they just weren’t the things I was interested in.

It was really when I got my first academic job – I was a faculty member finally and I had a position at Florida Tech. They didn’t really care what I did, as long as I did something. You just had to do research and be a productive scholar. So, I said, “Well, what am I going to do? What would I do for research?”

I don’t know all the variables that came together, but I’ve long been interested in health and wellness and fitness. When I was at Western Michigan I actually worked my way through school, in part, as a personal trainer. I’ve been active all my life. I looked at the problem that was increasingly evident around this country and the world – of people being inactive, obese, overweight – and I said, “This obviously makes good sense: physical activity and eating both are behaviors, that’s what we do. How do we influence those behaviors?” It seemed like a no brainer.

Then, the last piece of the formative puzzle came when I was at a conference when I was still a doctoral student. Pat Friman was one of the presenters. I approached him and he invited me to sit down and asked me what I was interested in. I said I was interested in getting into health and wellness. This was just before I got my faculty position. He said he had some advice. (He was the editor of JABA at the time.) He gave me some names. He said, “Go look at their research. Get familiar with it, and I think that as one who looks at the world squarely as a behavior analyst, you’re going to find some things you would do different. Don’t reinvent the wheel. Do that [research], but the way that you would do it for JABA. That’s how you get started.” I thought, “That’s good advice.” (But I ignored it). But I did a very similar thing in that, after I failed initially in trying to produce some meaningful changes in physical activity, I looked and said, “What has been the most successful line of research treating severe behavioral problem in our field? What’s the roadmap?” I looked at what researchers like Brian [Iwata] had accomplished and what Tim [Vollmer] had accomplished and thought, “Just do that. Just do it with physical activity in school settings with kids. Not severe problem behavior, but physical activity.” And it started to work. This health and wellness was already of interest to me for various reasons, and when I started to consider the problem and how we would address it, I thought, “We’ve got a very obvious target – physical activity – and we’ve got a roadmap already in our field for me to start with.”

Gelino: In what ways do you think that grounding in basic research and the training that you had influenced your work in the domain of skepticism and your pushing the agenda toward ‘debunking the myths’ surrounding [behavioral] science?

Normand: I certainly think because of my early training, and what initially interested me about our field, I’ve always been really interested in science and the philosophy of science. Not in the abstract philosopher’s approach, but more of a pragmatic, ‘Skinnerian’ science. It’s a battle to really stay functional and useful by collecting data and doing research rather than sitting back in my armchair and thinking about things and writing. That’s really reinforcing, whereas research is hard, you know? I published a paper recently in The Behavior Analyst called “The Language of Science,” which is sort of an updated, streamlined description of what Skinner talked about in 1957 in his book Verbal Behavior. That’s really what I’ve always been most interested in – the scientific enterprise: things like skepticism and critical thinking, and what it means to know something; what a convincing demonstration of something is. It’s general philosophy of science, applied specifically to our science, and informed by our science, because Skinner had a very distinct approach to epistemology based on his appreciation of experimental analysis of behavior; a very pragmatic epistemology. I think there’s also something indirect about the influence in that when I got to applied behavior analysis, for better and for worse, I was not steeped in the JABA tradition.

I didn’t have a long training record working in research like at Johns Hopkins University at the Kennedy Krieger Institute, like so many big people in our applied field had. I wasn’t steeped in the functional analysis tradition. (Which is interesting, because I’ve published a lot of stuff on it. I remember the first time I ever did a functional analysis I was working clinically in grad school at Florida State and I was sitting with the Iwata et al. paper, trying to follow along like it was a set of instructions.) I think I came into applied behavior analysis, to some extent, with no rigorous training in applied behavior analysis. When I really got into JABA, I was already a faculty member. I wasn’t under the thumb of a supervisor or advisor who was saying “This is how you do it.” I was like, “Well, here’s the things I’m trying to do, I think this is how you do it.” Then you figure some things out as you try to do it.

Gelino: Shifting back to the physical activity specifically, your first major foray into this work was published in 2008. In the decade since then, how has the work changed – for you and for those conducting similar work?

Normand: If we’re talking about my work, it’s changed a lot. The first couple of publications really don’t resemble much of what we’re doing now. I looked at them as low-hanging fruit. I thought, “These are pretty easy extensions of research that I’d read that I thought could be done just a little bit better.” And I did that.

When I got to Pacific, we did some things with kids and we published some stuff in JABA with modest effects. There are a lot of reasons people might not be physically active, but I don’t know a whole lot about them. I think that might be our problem. We actually evaluated a national program that claimed to know how to get kids active in schools.  We got schools to allow us to take baseline data before they started the program and continued collecting the same data as the program was implemented. We found that not only did physical activity not increase, but it actually decreased when the program came in. I thought maybe there was something to be figured out there, so, as I mentioned earlier, I started looking at our severe problem behavior literature. I thought, “Well, here’s a roadmap of how to go about figuring this out.”

So, my research changed a lot, because we went back and started validating the measurement system. How were we going to measure physical activity? We chose the activity codes from the OSRAPC (Observational System for Recording Physical Activity in Children), but we wanted to see if those codes were capturing what we wanted to capture. We did some studies and published some data looking at the different activities specified in the code. We took heartrate data and pedometer data. Did they covary? That is, as the activity codes increase (these are 5-value codes; values of 4 and 5 correspond to moderate-to-vigorous physical activity), did heart rate also increase? Steps [pedometer] are not exactly precise, but did they tend to go up as well? They did. We felt reasonably good after a couple of years that this was a good observation system, that it was capturing something relevant.

Then, we took those measurement systems and started to look at physical aspects of the environment, how you build playgrounds or design neighborhoods that lead to more or less physical activity. With kids, playgrounds are a big thing. And, the existing literature looked interesting because it seemed to suggest, for example, that in some cases children were most likely to be active when they were in open space and alone. I thought, “That’s peculiar. Are they running back toward civilization screaming, or what?” All those data were coming from descriptive assessments which don’t correspond to experimental analyses, very often. So, we started by doing an experimental analysis of the built environment. We took conditions that were identified in the descriptive literature – open space, playgrounds, jungle gyms and outdoor toys in a control condition – and made kids play for a period of time in each condition to see where they would be most active if we did nothing else—no consequences or program. What we found was different than what was reported in the descriptive literature: fixed equipment seems to be a really useful way to get kids active. There’s our setting.

Fixed equipment seemed useful, but we want to know about consequences. We started to arrange the functional analysis conditions more like your standard Iwata et al. functional analysis. Would adult attention maintain moderate-to-vigorous physical activity (MVPA) or increase MVPA if it was made contingent on MVPA? What if the adult (we added an interactive play condition) got up and played with the kid whenever they were engaging in MVPA? What if they said, “Listen, if you’re not going to play, we’re going to clean up and go inside.” But if the kid went and started playing, they would say, “Okay, we can stay out a bit longer.” And what if we just baited an outdoor table with coloring materials? The kid doesn’t have to color, but would they go color instead of play? We found that the attention and interactive play was pretty effective. If parents – or adults, I should say – paid attention to the kids whenever they engaged in MVPA, they engaged in quite a bit more MVPA. If they went and played with them, for most kids, they engaged in even more MVPA.

Basically, most of what we’ve done since involves a lot of evaluation of the kinds of things suggested by the functional analysis. How were those things functioning? Can we arrange them in sustained interventions rather than brief snapshots? Will MVPA persist over long periods over those conditions, and if they don’t, why not? Then finally, as you start to learn about stuff like that, could you do this stuff with groups of kids?

Most recently, what we’ve done is adapt the good behavior game, which is used in the classroom for decreasing disruptive behavior, primarily—we use it successfully in our clinical work all the time. We adapted it for use on the playground at recess for MVPA. All the kids wear pedometers and we assign them teams. We give them flag belts with different colors, so they know who’s on their team, and the team that takes the most steps wins. They get a badge and whatever the teacher deems a suitable reward. That looks very promising. We published one study with nice effects and we’re doing bigger studies now to see what happens. At each step, it suggests a lot of new questions.

For example, we found that contingent interactive play or attention increases MVPA in almost all the kids we work with. Recommendations provided by the CDC tell parents one way to get your kids more active: You should play with them. But that’s all they say. So, in one study we wanted to know, “Does it matter when and how you play with them?” We had our contingent interactive play conditions and, sure enough, MVPA increased. Then, on a fixed-time 10-s schedule, we delivered adult interaction no matter what the kid was doing. Sure enough, the MVPA stopped. Then we went back and only provided interactive play when they were engaged in MVPA, and sure enough it came back. Then we did it on a time-based schedule, so it didn’t matter what they were doing, and it went away. That tells us that we’ve probably got a reinforcer because contingency is important. It also says those [CDC guidelines] aren’t great recommendations. If all you do is just play with them, you’re not going to get more MVPA. If you play with them only when they’re engaging in MVPA, then you get more MVPA.

So, things suggest themselves as you go through this kind of research. You’re able to address real questions that are out there. We started looking at – from a behavior analyst’s perspective – questions about the built environment, which is a hugely popular issue in health and wellness. How we design our communities; how we design our playgrounds; how adults can influence the behaviors of their kids to be more active. We can address these. It turns out it might take a little bit more than people think to get kids active. All of that stuff is directly ‘under the dome.’ We didn’t invent these questions – we took those questions that are out there, that people are talking about.

Fisk: I know you’ve kind of touched on this already, but we’d like to hear a bit more: In what ways has your career followed or deviated from the planned trajectory?

Normand: I don’t know how clear of a vision in my career I ever had to begin with. But I certainly didn’t predict where I am in a number of ways. So many things influence where you go, even in a research line, including the students you have at any given time: the things they’re good at, the things they don’t like to do, the things they’re most interested in – all that directs where things go at a specific point in time. I don’t know that I ever had any expectation of being an especially active researcher. Just because up until really getting a faculty position, I hadn’t been. And I hadn’t really been in programs where there was a lot of programmatic applied research. In my grad school program at Florida State, it wasn’t like a machine, churning out study after study in a particular line of research – I wasn’t in that environment. I remember just thinking at one point that if I ever published one study in JABA, that would be pretty great. I remember when I was first asked to review a paper as a reviewer at JABA, I thought that was incredible. “Wow! I have now had an experience.” I had no expectations about anything. So, I think things happen: you do research, you find something, you often find new questions that you didn’t know, or you find something works that you didn’t necessarily think would, which means you might do more of it since you didn’t know this would actually tell you something. I couldn’t have told you we’d do those studies. Everything else about my career I look at I would not have predicted. I would never have assumed any of it would happen, and I’m just happy it did. I have no idea what will happen 10 years from now.

Fisk: What do you think you’ve learned during your work that you wish you would’ve known prior to beginning? What advice would you give to those looking to get involved in physical activity research or, more broadly, work focused on the greater majority of the population?

Normand: You know, I don’t know that this would have been better, but it’s related to something I said earlier: I didn’t come from one of the training programs in applied behavior analysis that would’ve given me rigorous preparation in the kinds of top-level programmatic research in applied behavior analysis. I think that could have been very useful. I think I would probably be a better researcher today than I am, because instead of having to be contingency shaped, I probably could’ve been a little more rule-governed, initially. But at the same time, maybe that was a benefit. Maybe I would’ve been more likely to continue doing that research, and not do something else, if I already had success. I think I would’ve liked to have been a little more sophisticated in terms of research and methodology and the practical aspects of conducting applied research, early on. However, I think maybe not being as good at other research lines might have made it more likely that I did something new. That was probably a good thing.

What would I tell other people? I would tell other people sort of what Pat Friman told me: a good way to start is not to be the most revolutionary researchers in the world, because you probably won’t be. I think a good way to start (it doesn’t mean you have to stay there) is to look at what’s worked elsewhere that’s been very effective, that’s similar in some way to the problem that you’re interested in, and do that. Maybe it doesn’t work at first, and then you learn from that and you move on. But it might work in some ways like it did with me. Then that starts to create its own set of contingencies. I tell my students often, “You have to go do something. Go get in the data! Until you start behaving, I can’t shape your behavior.” As a scientist, until you start behaving, your work can’t shape your behavior. Maybe the first thing you do sucks. Okay, but you did it! It’s something. See that low-hanging fruit and get it done. Then, it’s going to be a lot easier to do more of it.

This is my own subjective armchair thing. We have a unique field; we’re small. We have a lot of people who do very similar things. We have a lot of work in severe problem behavior and autism or developmental disabilities and we’re really good at that. We have a lot of really good people doing really good research. To distinguish yourself there is difficult. What I’ve found is if you do something different – as long as you do it reasonably well – people heap a lot of reinforcement on your behavior. Some people might think the opposite, “Oh, the mainstream ABA field. They discriminate against things that are different. They’re not open minded.” I’ve never seen that. But I’ve seen people bend over backwards to try to help people who are doing things in different areas, to try to get people doing research that can be accepted by journals. Rather than punishing them, trying to shape them a little bit. “Well, there are some issues, but if you just did this and this the next time, that could do it.” People might have said that as a young researcher, “It’s too risky to do something new.” I think in different fields, it might be. In our field, I don’t think so. I think it’s actually a very good way to develop a reputation early on that would probably take a lot longer if you were doing what everyone else did.

Gelino: Generally speaking, we anticipate that a lot of readers of this blog will have additional interest in the work you’re putting out, and a lot of interest in what you’re doing after reading the interview. Are there any specific resources you’d recommend, and how can readers stay up to date with your scholarship?

Normand: I have my website, which is theskinnerbox.com. From there you can find links to everything else: links to my publications; also links to my Twitter, through which I usually just push articles that are not necessarily by behavior analysts but that I think would be of interest to behavior analysts across a range of topics. Then I have a Facebook page for current directions in behavioral science. I also post my own stuff (self-servingly) whenever we publish a new study. If you follow me, you would get my updates and also get some information on things more broadly that are ‘under the dome.’