Observing the First World Behavior Analysis Day

I’d like to thank Dr. Traci Cihon for her comments on an earlier draft of this blog post.

Behavior analysis can best be described as an open secret. In undergraduate psychology courses, students might briefly learn about BF Skinner and the four reinforcement contingencies before spending the rest of the semester discussing the cognitive approach to psychological research. Even if instructors diligently cover the basics of operant conditioning, they probably won’t include any information about behavior analytic research after the 1960s or 1970s. Students are more likely to encounter recent research in behavior analysis if their campus has an applied behavior analysis program or a university-based autism treatment program. Given that about 0.5% (23 out of 4,298; Moody, 2019 February 15) of universities in the United States have an Association of Behavior Analysis International (ABAI) accredited master’s or doctoral program and about 3% (839 out of 25,000) of universities worldwide have a verified course sequence in behavior analysis, students are unlikely to have a proper introduction to behavior analysis. Rather than wait for future behavior analysts to find their way into the field serendipitously, we’re starting to be more proactive about telling others that we still exist.

As part of that initiative to more publicly celebrate the work of behavior analysts around the globe, Elizabeth Drago created World Behavior Analysis Day (cdevanko 2021, January 4). The first inaugural World Behavior Analysis Day was on March 20, 2021. BF Skinner was born on March 20, 1904 (Vargas, 2021), and acknowledging the current status of behavioral science is a great way to commemorate him. We’ll also look at some of the critical shifts in behavioral philosophy and the application of behavior analysis to appreciate how far we’ve come.

History of Behavior Analysis and Radical Behaviorism

Burrhus Frederick Skinner grew up in Susquehanna, New York and planned to become a writer. Thankfully, his general writing career never took off, and Skinner discovered the work of IP Pavlov and JB Watson. Skinner admired the Russian physiologist Pavlov and his orderly behavior resulting from the precise experimental control of variables within a single organism (Catania & Laties, 1999). Skinner initially tried to use Pavlov’s respondent or classical conditioning framework to understand behavior (i.e., reflex reserve) but later realized that the principles of operant behavior were different from those of respondent behavior (Skinner, 1981; Vargas, 2017; but see Domjan, 2016). For example, learners associate the antecedents, behavior, and consequences from the three-term contingency in operant conditioning, but learners associate the conditional stimulus with the unconditional stimulus in respondent conditioning (see also Skinner, 1953). 

While he was a graduate student at Harvard under William Crozier, Skinner was granted the freedom from research restrictions by the psychology and physiology departments to study what he wanted as he wanted (Vargas, 2021). Unlike most psychologists and physiologists, Skinner thought that behavior was worthy of study in its own right and not just as a referent to mental processes (Skinner, 1938, 1977). Many theoretical, experimental, and applied behavior analysts still take this approach in explaining observable behavior with respect to environmental events. Using a natural science approach to understand behavior allows behavior analysts to avoid reductionism. With reductionism, psychologists explain overt behavior occurring at one level with reference to neural events occurring at another level (cf., Schaal, 2003); this tends to involve introducing unnecessary intervening variables to account for behavior. Notably, Skinner’s radical behaviorism differs from Watson’s methodological behaviorism in that Skinner understood that private (i.e., thoughts and feelings) as well as public behavior (e.g., verbal behavior) are orderly and can be accounted for when we understand their antecedents and consequences (i.e., functional relations; cf., Ahearn, 2010 February 10). Watson understood the importance of private events but thought that they couldn’t be studied empirically (cf., Moore, 2013).

[2] Photo by Soulful Pizza from Pexels

Skinner started by studying rats in running mazes and would later progressively automate the apparatus until he finalized the first operant chamber and cumulative recorder (Asano & Lattal, 2012; Lattal, 2004). The operant chamber (also Skinner box) contained an operandum (i.e., lever) and a food dispenser. The rat could press the lever and receive food rewards from the food dispenser. The cumulative recorder included a pen that moved across the paper at a constant rate and drew a line. The pen would move up the page when a rat responded and would draw a short, diagonal line in the opposite direction when a reward (i.e., potential reinforcer or phylogenetically important event; see Baum, 2013) was delivered; thus, a record of the rat’s response rate in the operant chamber was automatically produced. Skinner and Ferster also discovered that pigeons emitted uniform behavioral patterns in responding to a translucent key in an operant chamber under different schedules of reinforcement (i.e., fixed ratio, variable ratio, fixed interval, and variable interval; Ferster, 1953; Ferster & Skinner, 1957).

The Rise of Cognitive Psychology

At the same time that Skinner and Ferster published Schedules of Reinforcement, Skinner (1957) published his functional perspective of human language in Verbal Behavior. Skinner based his understanding of how people acquire and use language on experiments with rats and pigeons (i.e., in part, shaping by the method of successive approximations). Rather than focus on the structure of language and assume that structure implies function, Skinner organized the elements of verbal behavior with respect to their purpose for the verbal community – mands, tacts, echoics, intraverbals, and autoclitics are defined based on their functional relation to their discriminative stimuli and characteristic consequences (cf., Peterson, 2004; Sundberg, 1985). A young linguist named Noam Chomsky published a critique of Verbal Behavior (Chomsky, 1959), which recycled the criticisms of Skinner’s earlier work in The Behavior of Organisms instead of providing any analysis of Verbal Behavior itself. Chomsky offered to debate Skinner, but Skinner refused – a decision he would later say that he regretted. MacCorquodale (1969, 1970) later reviewed Verbal Behavior and supplied the Skinnerian radical behaviorist rebuttal to Chomsky’s critique (see also Palmer, 2006), but by then, psychology had moved on to its third form of behaviorism (i.e., analytical behaviorism) with a cognitive approach. For a cognitive psychologist, behavior is important only insofar as it provides an opportunity to study the mind (Adelman, 2007; Miller, 2003; Moore, 2011, 2013; Watrin & Darwich, 2012).

Chomsky alone wasn’t responsible for the cognitive revolution. Even among behaviorists, appeals to neural events (and networks) were being used as explanations for behavior (but see Hineline, 1984). Jerome Bruner’s new look indicated that personality and social background affect perception (Bruner & Postman, 1949; Greenfield, 2016), and Edward Tolman’s latent learning indicated that rats could learn mazes even without a programmed reinforcer (Jensen, 2006; MacCorquodale & Meehl, 1954; Tolman, 1949). The information processing approach to the study of cognition gained support and continues as one tradition in cognitive psychology today (e.g., Hick, 1952; Hyman, 1953; Xiong & Proctor, 2018). This is generally where the story of Skinner’s behaviorism ends, although it is not the end of the contributions of either Skinner or behavior analysis.

Behavior Analysis Today

As Morris et al. (2005) noted, Skinner made several contributions to applied behavior analysis. One contribution was that Skinner’s conceptual framework for verbal behavior eventually led to programmatic research. The empirical studies on verbal behavior have mostly confirmed and expanded his original view of language (e.g., Casey & Bicard, 2009; Dymond et al., 2006; Passos, 2012; Sautter & LeBlanc, 2006; Sundberg & Michael, 2001; Sundberg & Partington, 1982), and the analysis of verbal behavior special interest group established the The Analysis of Verbal Behavior journal in 1982 (see Luke & Carr, 2015; Sundberg, 2017). Another contribution was Skinner’s approach to education. Skinner (1954, 1958, 1965) created the teaching machine which allows learners to progress through material at their own pace with automatic feedback. Julie Vargas has continued her father’s tradition of applying behavior analysis to education (Arntzen, 2010; Austin & Soeda, 2009; Vargas, 2009), and the Journal of Behavioral Education publishes this behavior analytic research.

[3] Image provided under CC0 Public Domain

ABAI was established in 1974 with the first meeting of the Midwestern (now Mid-American) Association of Behavior Analysis (MABA; Peterson, 1978). ABAI now manages six behavior analytic journals: Perspectives on Behavior Science (formerly The Behavior Analyst), The Psychological Record, The Analysis of Verbal Behavior, Behavior Analysis in Practice, Behavior and Social Issues, and Education and Treatment of Children in addition to several conferences. There are 13 additional journals that publish behavior analytic research, including the applied flagship Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis and the basic flagship Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior. As of 2021, there are 44,025 Board Certified Behavior Analysts (BCBAs), 4,729 Board Certified Assistant Behavior Analysts (BCaBAs), and 89,122 Registered Behavior Technicians (RBTs) in the world – many (about 73%) of whom specialize in working with individuals with autism spectrum disorders (Behavior Analyst Certification Board, n.d.). Within ABAI, there are 39 special interest groups (SIGs) for behavior analysts working in clinical behavior analysis (e.g., acceptance and commitment therapy, addiction, autism, and behavioral medicine), education (e.g., culture and diversity, open education resources, ethics and behavior analysis, history of behavior analysis, and teaching behavior analysis), basic behavior analysis (e.g., experimental analysis of human behavior and neuroscience), and theoretical behavior analysis (e.g., theoretical, philosophical, and conceptual issues), for instance. Behavior analysts work in private practice (e.g., Codd et al., 2011), outpatient clinics (e.g., Allen & Warzak, 2000; Cooper et al., 1992; Derby et al., 1992), K-12 and higher education, prisons (e.g., Bassett & Blanchard, 1977; Fournier et al., 2007; Webb, 2003), group homes (e.g., Harchik et al., 1992; Kirigin et al., 1982; Kneringer & Page, 1999), nursing homes (e.g., Moore et al., 2013; Schnelle et al., 1983; Trahan et al., 2011), hospitals (e.g., Bowman et al., 2019; Cunningham & Austin, 2007; Rutherford, 2003), individual residences (e.g., Bekker et al., 2010; Dennison et al., 2019; Harding et al., 2009), zoos (Alligood et al., 2017; Forthman & Ogden, 1992; Maple & Segura, 2015), and with organizations (e.g., Nolan et al., 1999; Prue & Fairbank, 1981; Wilder et al., 2009). Behavior analysts also work with neurotypical and aneurotypical learners alike from young children to older adults in all the settings in which they live and work. 

Behavior analysis is still very relevant for understanding human and nonhuman animal behavior, and behavior analysts are continuing to help people gain control over their own behavior with the principles of reinforcement just as Skinner had hoped. We celebrate these achievements and all that we can accomplish with behavior analysis in the future on World Behavior Analysis Day.

Image credits:

  1. Image provided courtesy of pxhere under CC0 Public Domain
  2. Image provided courtesy of Soulful Pizza under Pexels License
  3. Image provided under CC0 Public Domain