The Making of a Behavior Analyst

Dear blog reader. We are delighted to share with you this piece by Dr. Carol Murphy. Carol is one of those inspirational individuals who returned to education as a mature student and literally went all the way from undergraduate student to a fully tenured academic, while also raising a family. Her story is a remarkable one and we have nothing but admiration for all that she has achieved in a historical and social context that did little to encourage women of Carol’s generation to seek high levels of academic and professional success.

Dermot and Colin

About the author:

Dr. Carol Murphy obtained her Ph.D. in behaviour analysis and derived relational responding from Maynooth University. She was subsequently Lecturer and Course Director on the Doctorate in Psychological Science (Behaviour Analysis Therapy) degree at the Department of Psychology (Maynooth University) from 2008 to 2017. During this time Dr. Murphy was module lead lecturing on the undergraduate programme in developmental psychology, as well as lecturing on the UG ethics module. Dr. Murphy’s applied experience primarily involved working with children with spectrum disorder (ASD) during which she designed and supervised behavioural interventions to improve the children’s social and academic skills. Her research interests are in the areas of applied behaviour analysis (ABA), derived relational responding, RFT, Implicit Cognition (IRAP), and developing/testing interactive computerised teaching programmes (T-IRAP/GO-IRAP). To this end, Carol has published approximately 50 research articles in peer reviewed scientific journals and a number of book chapters in edited volumes.

The Making of a Behavior Analyst

My early research in derived mands (emergent requests) with children with autism was published in the Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis (JABA) and related behavior-analytic journals (Barnes-Holmes et al., 2004; Murphy et al., 2005; Murphy, & Barnes-Holmes, 2009a; Murphy, & Barnes-Holmes, 2009b; Murphy, & Barnes-Holmes, 2010a; Murphy, & Barnes-Holmes, 2010b; Murphy, & Barnes-Holmes, 2017). I was of course thrilled as I’m sure all researchers are upon publishing the first paper. But I think that for me it was especially poignant, because as a young woman, achievements of this type were so far beyond my reach.

Image by gussencion from Pixabay

At the time I grew up, people went to work at an early age, especially people from disadvantaged communities, like me. Back then I never dreamed that I could ever attend university. Before I was fourteen years old, I had left school and gone to work in a sewing factory. Back in the day we also got married and had children at a younger age, which meant that we had acquired few financial resources, which in turn meant that providing a home and third level education for our two children proved quite a struggle over many years. Thus, I was very proud and delighted when my daughter graduated from Trinity College Dublin with a B.Sc. degree in biology. Now with just my son to educate, I began tentatively to consider the possibility of furthering my own education.

I commenced an adult education course, and within a week I knew this was going to be a life-changing decision. It was wonderful, it just felt like I had come home, back to a place where I belonged, and I knew that I just had to continue to university. A year later my son and I both commenced degree courses at National University of Maynooth Ireland (NUIM). I undertook psychology and he took Greek and Roman Civilizations. If he was embarrassed occasionally by running into his mother on campus, he had the compensation of free comfortable transport out and back from University; I had been awarded a back-to-education scholarship from the Bank of Ireland, without which transport would have been quite a difficulty, for example, bussing it home after a late lecture on a rainy day to cook the family dinner would have taken hours.

Image by useristrator3 from Pixabay

Towards the end of my second year at the department of psychology the lecturer Dr Yvonne Barnes-Holmes casually mentioned to me that her husband Dermot, who was founding Professor and Chair, would be more than happy to supervise a PhD research project with me. She joked that it would nearly be a ‘mortal sin’ if I didn’t go for it, that I was more than competent. I just nodded and silently crept away, thrilled to bits. For the rest of that day my head was spinning with the possibilities and potential constraints ahead of me. Whatever the difficulties, it was an opportunity I felt I just couldn’t pass up. And so, I didn’t. Dermot supervised my final year research project, and I went on to complete a PhD degree under his supervision. Dermot is a hugely prolific researcher, so I felt very fortunate to have this opportunity, at the same time it was all very hectic. I simultaneously worked in a behavioural educational unit for with children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) as a behavioural tutor (and later supervisor). I was frequently exhausted, but was also very happy, and felt really privileged. That’s the boring thing about us nontraditional/ mature students from the perspective of, for example, the young undergraduate traditional student population, we were enthusiastic to the point of irritation, and they sometimes let us know, but overall, they were a very friendly bunch and they tolerated us well.

Sometimes I would look back at my earlier life, I had always escaped from the mundane and domestic by reading literature, which I now thought had provided me with an intellectual ‘connection’ which I thought was sometimes lacking in my life; now I didn’t have the time to read anything that wasn’t scientific, reading anything not relevant to my studies seemed a luxury. But I had a great sense of purpose now, even though it was tough in the early days having to grapple with the initially arcane complexities of Relational Frame Theory (RFT; Hayes et al., 2001). Later when I became a lecturer and my own students would say that they found a text difficult to understand I would advise them to read it a few times until you do understand, it’s a tedious strategy, but it works!

Once a friend who was struggling in a different field of study, asked me if I ever felt that all this academic writing was just an endless stream of highly articulate “baloney”, that had limited real meaning or importance? I said, I get what you’re saying, but because my field is behaviour analysis, I don’t feel that way, because seeing the improvements in the lives of children with ASD and their families, which comes from all this academic “stuff”, is so amazing it makes it all worthwhile. I recalled a conversation with Dermot when he talked about the applications resulting from Skinner’s basic academic research, and how this had positively impacted so many lives, most strikingly for children with autism, but in so many other areas of human problems also. Yet Skinner had never worked directly with children with autism. That struck home with me, because however challenging it was to work with children with autism (and indeed many a parent of children at the school told us “I don’t know how you guys do it”), perhaps surprisingly, there was really no shortage of behavioural tutors wanting to do this wonderful work. Not all of them remained in the field and there was a high rate of staff turnover, but certainly many psychology graduates were eager helpers, often even volunteering their services free. There are not quite so many graduates, however, as eager to step up to the next level and continue the rigorous scientific research that produces new applied technologies, without which none of these behavioural applications are possible. This gave my research a more apparent importance, unfortunately it is sometimes difficult for us to see how vital basic research is, because the beneficial results, if they are forthcoming, may be delayed or not readily anticipated.

As stated previously, my early research was in the field of derived mands (requests) with children with autism. These studies were the first to demonstrate procedures that facilitated derived relational responding (DRR) with this population. Later I and my student colleagues would continue in this field, using a computerised interactive teaching programme (i.e., the T-IRAP/ GO-IRAP that was developed for the Implicit Relational Assessment Procedure; IRAP, Barnes-Holmes et al., 2006). The research showed that the T-IRAP could be a useful teaching tool which could be used independently by students with autism (high and low functioning) to enhance their relational skills (Kilroe et al., 2014; Murphy et al., 2018), and the latter study tentatively suggested that learning the more complex arbitrary relational responding skills may have the potential to improve intellectual abilities as measured by standardized IQ tests (in line with RFT; Hayes et al., 2001).

Another vein of my research involved examining social bias using the IRAP to measure and compare speed of affirmations of relations presented, at the group level. For example, speedier participant affirmation on the IRAP, of attractive-positive versus unattractive-positive relations is deemed a bias favouring attractive-positive (e.g., Murphy et al., 2014; Murphy et al., 2015). My research also demonstrated an IRAP bias favouring thin-positive/ fat-negative relations (e.g., Nolan et al., 2013) and potentially unfair bias in various other social areas. I have also contributed to research examining different methodological aspects of the IRAP that may or may not be influential in the resultant outcomes (Murphy, 2016).

After my PhD, I continued to work with Dermot and Yvonne Barnes-Holmes. Initially we started a research and educational centre at the Department of Psychology, NUIM, and later I achieved a position as lecturer and Course Director on the Doctorate in Psychological Science (Behavioural Analysis and Therapy). In this role I supervised the research of many postgraduate and undergraduate students, and many of these published papers in peer-reviewed international scientific journals. I got to know the postgraduate students very well, as they were a smaller group, and was very impressed with their dedication, energy and enthusiasm. They have gone on to their own careers now, some here and some abroad, and I am proud to have played a part in their educational journeys. I retired from lecturing in 2020 and will in future be less research active consequently, although there are still some data that I would like to see published, and hopefully will in due course.

Photo by Linus Nylund on Unsplash

In conclusion, I think that the IRAP can be a powerful tool in both basic and applied settings, and I hope that Dermot and colleagues will continue to develop and improve the GO-IRAP. Used as an interactive computerized teaching tool it can firstly assess and then remediate simple and complex relational responding skills, the latter of which is thought to be crucial to more sophisticated forms of human behaviour, such as language and symbolism. The GO-IRAP is simple once you get the hang of it and can be readily adapted by practitioners to help teach a range of relational responding skills, from basic nonarbitrary relations (e.g., same/different; more/less; before/after) to more complex arbitrary relations assigned by the social community (e.g., monetary value relations; see Murphy & Barnes-Holmes, 2017). I would like to encourage practitioners in applied settings to “dip their toes” into the IRAP training procedure, and subsequently to become sufficiently familiar with using this technology regularly as part of their teaching repertoire.


Barnes-Holmes, Y., Barnes-Holmes, D., & Murphy, C. (2004). Teaching the generic skills of language and cognition: Contributions from relational frame theory. In D.J Moran & R.W Malott (Eds), Evidence Based Educational Methods (pp. 277-293). Academic Press.

Barnes-Holmes, D., Barnes-Holmes, Y., Power, P., Hayden, E., Milne, R., Stewart, I. (2006). Do you really know what you believe? Developing the Implicit Relational Assessment Procedure (IRAP) as a direct measure of implicit beliefs. The Irish Psychologist, 32(7), 169-177.

Hayes, S. C., Barnes-Holmes, D, & Roche, B. (2001). Relational frame theory: A post-Skinnerian account of human language and cognition. Plenum.

Kilroe, H., Murphy, C., Barnes-Holmes, D. & Barnes-Holmes, Y. (2014). Using the T-IRAP interactive computer programme and applied behaviour analysis to teach relational responding in children with autism. Behavioral Development Bulletin, 19, 60-81.

Murphy, C., Barnes-Holmes, D., & Barnes-Holmes, Y. (2005). Derived manding in children with autism: Synthesizing Skinner’s verbal behavior with relational frame theory. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 38(4), 445-462.

Murphy, C. & Barnes-Holmes, D. (2009a). Derived more/less relational mands in children diagnosed with autism. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 42, 253-268.

Murphy, C. & Barnes-Holmes, D. (2009b). Establishing derived manding for specific amounts with three children: An attempt at synthesising Verbal Behavior with Relational Frame Theory. The Psychological Record, 59, 75-91.

Murphy, C. & Barnes-Holmes, D. (2010a). Establishing complex derived mands with children with and without a diagnosis of autism. Psychological Record, 60, 489-503.

Murphy, C. & Barnes-Holmes, D. (2010b). Establishing five derived mands in three adolescent boys with autism. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 43 :537-541.

Murphy, C., MacCarthaigh, S. & Barnes-Holmes, D. (2014). Implicit relational assessment procedure and attractiveness bias: Directionality of bias and influence of gender of participants. International Journal of Psychology and Psychological Therapy14(3), 333–351.

Murphy, C., Hussey, T., Barnes-Holmes, D. & Kelly, M. E. (2015). The Implicit Relational Assessment procedure (IRAP) and attractiveness bias. Journal of Contextual Behavioral Science4(4), 292–299.

Murphy, C. (2016). Teaching Protocols for the Promotion of Derived Learning in Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder and Related Language Deficits. Austin Journal of Autism & Related Disability., 2(1): 1012-2.

Murphy, C. & Barnes-Holmes, D. (2017). Teaching Important Relational Skills for Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder and Intellectual Disability Using Freely Available (GO-IRAP) Software. Austin Journal of Autism & Related Disability 3(2), 1041.

Murphy C., Lyons K., Kelly M., Barnes-Holmes Y. & Barnes-Holmes D. (2018). Using the Teacher IRAP (T-IRAP) interactive computerized programme to teach complex flexible relational responding with children with diagnosed autism spectrum disorder. Behavior Analysis Practitioner, 12(1),52-65. doi:10.1007/s40617-018-00302-9.

Nolan, J., Murphy, C., & Barnes-Holmes, D. (2013). Implicit Relational Assessment Procedure and body-weight bias: Influence of gender of participants and targets. The Psychological Record, 63, 467–488.