Under the Dome Interview with Dr. Mark Mattaini

With the largest behavior analysis oriented conference of the year quickly approaching, Dr. Mark Mattaini is likely busy preparing for the delivery of his Presidential Address and his upcoming role as President of ABAI. This is a busy time, which is why we (Brett Gelino and Alix Fisk–students in the Applied Behavioral Economics Laboratory at KU) were pleased when he agreed to serve as our second interviewee for the UtD interview series. Dr. Mattaini cheerily spoke with us about his career, his research, and the position he’ll soon fill. His background in sociology and his interest in problems at large have inspired numerous works addressing a range of issues concerning the greater community. Along with his graduate students, Dr. Mattaini has literally taken behavior analysis to the streets in his work with marginalized populations and at-risk youth.

We hope you enjoy the second installment of our UtD interviews!  Be sure to attend Dr. Mattaini’s presidential address at 6pm on Monday!


Gelino: For the duration of your career, you’ve focused to a large extent on developing means by which problems of profound societal concern can be addressed using a behavioral systems approach. Given the relevance to our Under the Dome topic and the interest that our readers will certainly have, could you give us an overview of how you got involved in this line of work?

Mattaini: I’ve been involved and concerned about social issues since high school. I was in the Catholic seminary but decided that wasn’t what I was going to do, and recognized I had a responsibility to be of service. Pretty quickly, it became clear that there was potential for a significant contribution by science to address social issues. By the time I was running a teaching family-home in Bush, Alaska in 1973, I was already pretty involved in a behavior analytic approach to the work I was conducting.

Most of my education was in social work: my bachelor’s degree is in philosophy, but my master’s degree is in social work and my doctorate is in social welfare. My behavioral training came much more incidentally. There was a behaviorist by the name of Richard Stewart who I studied with while enrolled in my master’s program. (He was in the School of Social Work since he had both Psychology and Social Work degrees.) In general, I started like so many others—with a pigeon as an undergraduate. My reading was primarily behavioral from then on. I recognized early that changes were needed on many levels. I completed my undergraduate during the time of Civil Rights and the Vietnam War, so there was a lot out there that needed attention. While that was still ongoing, I had the recognition that science ought to be able to contribute in some way. I started reading Skinner intensely by 1971 and read most of his work up to that point by 1980, and still continued to read after that.

The work that I’ve done—typically—has always been focused around very serious social issues. I did a lot of work with substance abuse and addictions. I did a lot of family work. I ran a mental health center for a period of time in Alaska. When I moved to New York City in 1986, urban problems became particularly of interest to me because they were so obvious and so serious. I completed my doctorate at Columbia and then went on as faculty at Columbia immediately out of my doctoral program. At that time, we were mostly concerned with what were considered ‘urban problems’: racial issues, violence issues, poverty, and the relationship between race, class, and poverty. There’s a heavy emphasis in the Columbia program on social policy so that, if anything, made my view even broader.

Gelino: Your work fills an unfortunate void in our field. Can you elaborate more on what your work looks like as a behavior analyst relating to social issues?

Mattaini: Most of my work, starting in the mid-1990’s, moved toward violence and later toward non-violence. Bruce Thyer is a social worker who is also a behavior analyst—he has a dual Ph.D. from The University of Michigan. He and I edited a book for the American Psychological Association called Finding Solutions to Social Problems. It really was the first book—specifically behavior analytic in nature—that was trying to look broadly at larger social issues. It was well received at the time. My contributions there were around social policy work, which behavior analysis has done almost nothing with. That’s a really serious issue that we need to be talking about. (which we will be, I think, given several alleys that are developing within the field at this point).

I did youth violence work intensively for about 10 years. I did a significant amount of research working with schools, community groups, and so forth, trying to move in that direction. There were several other people in the field who were doing that at the time. Many of them still are, and there are more now, often in conjunction with schools. We now have a lot of people doing good work in schools with Positive Behavioral Interventions and Support (PBIS) and related things.

By the time I moved to Chicago in 1999, I was doing a lot of dissertation work. (Since 1999, I’ve chaired 26 dissertations and was a member of more than 25 others.) Doing work with that many doctoral students gave me many opportunities to learn about and contribute to work across a fairly broad range of largely urban problems. I had several students who were working with homeless young people, often who had aged out of the systems (past 18 or 21 depending on which state they were in) and had no assistance. Another of my students worked with young men on the streets who were actively involved with violence, particularly on the south side of Chicago. Those were really interesting dissertations for people to undertake. Taking a behavior analytic perspective on those problems was enormously helpful to understanding, first, what was going on, and second, what might help.

I’ve often used the example of the dissertation of Roberto Aspholm. What he did was the first step in a process (and this is what I think we need to be doing in behavior analysis). We really analyzed the problem. We collected data on the problem and placed them under our lenses to determine how we could contribute. Rob did intensive interviews—often multiple interviews with the same person—with roughly 30 young men who were actively involved in violence. (Not that they used to do it—they were active members of street cliques. In most places in Chicago, there aren’t the big gangs anymore. There are certainly some people who use the names, but it goes almost block by block in terms of who people are working with, which people on the next block they’re shooting at, and so forth.) He [Aspholm] was trying to figure out how they ended up where they did, what their lives were like, and why they kept participating. Did they recognize the dangers? Of course they did. What his work ended up showing was that there were multiple factors in their upbringing that made it more likely that they would engage in violence. There were relatively rich reinforcers that they received for being part of those groups and by actively participating in those actions. One way to replace or obtain essentially the same reinforcers using different repertoires would be through youth organizing; he’s now trying to work that into the systems in Chicago and St. Louis. How well it will work—who knows? This is very preliminary work because no behavior analyst has ever done this work.

Then, after 9/11, there was a lot of focus (in the world) on conflict across the globe. In some ways, my focus got larger. I recognized I was not going to live forever and that there was work to be done around nonviolence and social action. From a behavior analytic point of view, much of the social action and much of the effort within social action I see as wasted effort because it was poorly designed and not well-grounded in the cultural dynamics of real change. I wrote my 2013 book, Strategic Nonviolent Power, around that concept. Most of what I’ve been doing since has been that kind of work.

Gelino: Has our field (or culture) made strides in the directions in which you’ve been hoping? In what ways has the science developed to support or confine growth toward a science capable of addressing these broader social and ecological concerns?

Mattaini: Some of our people, deciding that behavior analysis is too narrow and not getting encouragement from others in the field, are beginning to step aside. Gerald Patterson is a good example. He did some really interesting work with dynamic systems theory, for example. He stopped coming to ABAI years ago. He did some of the central work on family dynamics back in the 1970’s: cycles of coercion and so forth. But then he got interested in much bigger things and invested in anti-social youth (I hate the title—it should generally be “excluded youth”). But that work wasn’t really fitting in with what people were talking about at ABAI and was much more so what people were discussing in other organizations. So, he started going to those, instead. Then, finally (10 years or so ago now) someone thought, “Maybe we can get him to come back.” He was one of the biggest names in the entire behavioral or psychological world at that point. There was a question of whether he would have to pay for registration, since he’d formerly been a member. We got an exception made, so he came and did his one presentation. But, he didn’t come back because we didn’t have enough going on at the convention to interest him. You don’t want to just give your talk and have nothing else of interest. In fact, this is a sad story. There used to be enough going on around social issues at the convention that I could get my social work graduate students to come to the convention and present. But as the focus of the convention become more and more narrow, there was less and less that was of interest to them. So, they stopped coming, except for those who had a really deep behavior analytic interest (I could sometimes get one or two to come and present). The social content got to be smaller from around 1990 through the 2000’s. Now we’re trying this decade to get more happening. Some of the most important work I think we’ve done is to keep Behavior and Social Issues alive through the “slim years.” We really had to work to get people to contribute and keep the journal going through 2010. It’s been better since: our last issue is probably the best we have ever published.

Gelino: What is the long-term goal for behavior analysis? How must the field adapt to appropriately and sufficiently address the gap you’ve strived to fill?

Mattaini: Focusing on problems “under the dome” is focusing in the wrong place: we need to get outside of the dome. So much of the work that we have done in cultural analysis has been very small scale experimental work—lab work—much of which is either emulating or duplicating early social psych work. That’s important work, but it’s not nearly enough. When people do it well, it’s kind of like playing around with DNA in biology. It’s really important, but biology is much bigger than DNA. Biology encompasses all of ecology, and that’s a much broader scope. I think we need to have the same “broader scope” as well. The lab work, when it’s well done, is one piece. Conceptual work is always necessary, but we also need to move beyond. If we want to say we’re going to do something about youth violence, or we want to say we’re going to do something toward sustainability, we’ve got to get out and muck with that “stuff.” We’ve got to get out and really look at the world. Or, we just won’t be the ones to make a contribution. We need to be much more interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary, not just in doing projects (we have people who are doing that now, such as Tony Biglan), but also to look at the theory base of other disciplines and see what we can learn.

I think we need to push for a much more ecological view—something that is very much akin to biology in its ability to address the very tiny and the very large. With regard to sustainability, we have some good conceptual work that has been done, but not nearly as much as we need. I think Lyle Grant is probably the strongest that we’ve had and he is retired. But he really was trying to look at the big picture and the limitations of singular interventions not embedded within the larger vision of what needs to happen. The work in behavioral economics has some particular promise. It’s mostly been pretty small at this point. The experimental work that goes beyond laboratory studies has tended to be very university-oriented. We could keep doing more experiments to show that we can reduce trash and make some change in what people do with their leftover food, cans, and bottles. It’s good work to do and helpful, but more helpful to universities in reducing their cost than it is in saving the world. What it can also do is give some hints of things that could be worked into larger, methodologically-designed studies. It hasn’t really happened that way. I think the parking lots at football games at Ohio state are probably the biggest experiment that we’ve done so far. The problem is, it’s really sensible on one level to say, “Let’s start really small, and get a little bigger, and a little bigger, and then by the year 2300 we’ll have a pretty good hint of things we should do.” But, of course, climate change will be disastrous if things continue.

Some of the work that Mark Alavosius has done with Tony Biglan and other folks is looking at the big picture. I think it can give us some hints of directions in which we can move. Also, it could give us a realistic vision of the challenges involved. I think we need more work that involves getting out and mucking with stuff in the world and seeing what happens (like the violence work that some of my doctoral students are doing). We have to be really careful of amputating our science from all the other variables that are present, contextually, in the work we want to achieve. From my perspective, we’ve not done a very good job of taking that broad view and figuring out which pieces we can focus on that are going to be very intimately connected with what we’re trying to achieve.

Gelino: As the upcoming president of ABAI, your goals and agendas will likely garner more attention—more so than it already has. In what ways do you expect this upcoming role to influence the specific outcomes you’re seeking in your work, if at all?

Mattaini: There are some things happening in behavior analysis that I’m in a position to try to support. In my statement for the election, they asked about the areas that I would prioritize. I didn’t quite answer that question: I talked about what movements within behavior analysis that I want to try to support and contribute to and help focus on. I think my being here helps us pull some people together who can focus on broader social issues, particularly on those of very high importance in the contemporary world (e.g., sustainability work, violence-oriented work, organizing and social action). Behavior analysts have not been famous for being big organizers. They have not done a lot around community organizing work or social action, again other than in autism (where they did learn some things they could transfer to other areas). I’m doing a significant amount of work in those areas.

For example, Jamila Raqib is an Afghan refugee who worked with Gene Sharp—one of the most famous theoreticians and practitioners on nonviolent struggle in the world. He died a couple months ago. Jamila has been the executive director of Gene’s organization for the last 12 years, and now that Gene is gone, she’s the key player. She will be coming to ABAI next year as a Presidential Scholar to discuss what, in the nonviolence world, is talked about as Ghandi’s Constructive Program (which actually wonderfully overlaps with Goldiamond’s constructive approach). She’s going to talk about social action with particular focus on the constructional ways of having a long-term impact. I think there will be other things like that which will focus more on taking an advocacy stance where we’ve got good data. For example, sustainability: we’ve got good data that climate change is real. So, when there’s a way to fit that into our advocacy, then we can do so. That will be a big step for ABAI—to be involved centrally or as a partner.

Validating large system and cultural-level work is something I hope we can do in a lot of ways over the course of the next year. Really, the presidency is a three-year gig since you’re incoming president for a year, president for a year, and past president for a year; you’re on the council all three years. I think there’ll be some significant changes to the way we look as an organization in a couple years.

Fisk: Earlier, you noted that you see a lot of potential for work being done on the policy side of things. Would you elaborate on that?

Mattaini: What I see happening in behavior analysis, given the current political situation, is behaviorists being very concerned about what’s happening in the country, and in the world. They are talking more about it, and are often having part of that conversation be, “The data is clear on this! We’ve got to find a way to make people pay attention to the data!” As we hear that, we’re moving right up to the edge of advocacy. I expect that unless something changes dramatically in Washington—things become more stable and more data oriented—the attacks on science in general, as well as the decisions that are being made that are just not consistent with obvious data, will actually be operating as a motivating operation for behavior analysts to start taking more action. Some of it may be organized within our own organizations and some of it may be people who get together and work with other organizations. Something similar is happening in a lot of behavioral organizations at this time, as well as within other scientific organizations in general. People are very concerned. Those who have a lot of financial reliance on the situation will probably be a little more cautious because it certainly is a time where there could be a backlash among funders who are at risk. Things have gotten so bad, I think most scientists are ready to be more active than they have been—some very vocally advocating for policy change. Given that motivational state collectively, I expect to see some change. I will say that in my presidential address and I’m saying it now, that way it will serve as a bit of an additional MO.

Gelino: Given the subject area of your work and your role as president, our readers will undoubtedly have interest in your work to date. Are there specific resources that you’d recommend, or any way that readers can stay up to date with your scholarship moving forward?

Mattaini: There’s my 2013 book, Strategic Nonviolent Power: The Science of Satyagraha. There’s another book Ramona Houmanfar and I just published, Leadership and Cultural Change. Both of those books should be available at the convention. (See list below for all recommendations.)



Recommended Scholarship:


Houmanfar, R., & Mattaini, M. A. (Eds.) (2017). Leadership and cultural change: Managing future wellbeingLondon: Routledge.

Mattaini, M. A. (2013). Strategic nonviolent power: The science of satyagraha. Edmonton, AB:  Athabasca University Press

Mattaini, M. A., & Holtschneider, C. with Lowery, C. T. (Eds.) (2016). Foundations of social work practice: A graduate text (5th ed.).



Aspholm, R. R., & Mattaini, M. A. (2017). Youth activism as violence prevention. In P. Sturmey (Ed.), Wiley handbook of violence and aggression. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley and Sons. DOI: 10.1002/9781119057574.whbva104

Houmanfar, R. A., & Mattaini, M. A. (2016). Leadership and cultural change: Implications for behavior analysis. The Behavior Analyst39(1), 41-46.

Ibrahima, A. B., & Mattaini, M. A. (2018). Social work in Africa: Decolonizing methodologies and approaches.International Social Work. DOI: 01608061.2017.1309334

Mattaini, M. A. (2015). Chapter six: Toward a twenty-first century, science-based “Constructive Programme.” In R. Amster, L. Finley, E. Pries, & R. McCutcheon (Eds.), Peace Studies between Tradition and Innovation (pp. 83-101). Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing.

Mattaini, M. A., & Aspholm, R. (2016). Contributions of behavioral systems science to leadership for a new progressive movementThe Behavior Analyst39(1), 109-121.

Mattaini, M. A., & Holtschneider, C. (2017). Collective leadership and circles: Not invented here. Journal of Organizational Behavior Management, 37(2), 126-141DOI 10:1080/01608061.2017.1309334