Quick Take: Nothing New Under the Sun – Cumulative Graphs After and Before Skinner

B.F. Skinner considered the cumulative record to be one of his most important innovations in methodology, as it provided a real-time visual record of response rate and thereby encouraged attention to dynamic processes of behavior change. These days, of course, the cumulative record has faded from prominence in behavioral research — though it’s still in common use in society as a whole. For instance, check out a cumulative graph of home runs hit by three players in their 1998 chase of a record that had stood for almost three decades (Mark McGwire ultimately prevailed). Here’s one, from the 2022 New York Times (beware paywalls), on cumulative COVID-related deaths. Here’s one from a public interest newsletter on cumulative tweets (a measure of virality) about 2020 “election fraud.” These graphs are far from an oddity in mass-consumption publications. In my experience, the New York Times, for one, has a special predilection for cumulative graphs.

Thus, even if behavioral researchers have all but forgotten them, cumulative graphs continue to enjoy a healthy “afterlife” in the popular media.

Also little appreciated is that cumulative graphs had a life before Skinner. Skinner didn’t invent cumulative graphs or the means of producing them — he merely adapted existing technology, as Eastern Michigan’s Jim Todd explained in an awesome 2017 paper in Mexican Journal of Behavior Analysis. You might have missed that one, but you can see the full text here. Jim covers all the essential bases, and his piece is a highly recommended read for anyone who’s interested in putting the evolution of behavior science into a broader historical context.

Ogden Lindsley apparently produced the first cumulative record of human behavior to come out of behavioral research as we know it. Lindsley’s daughter Cathy had an air crib and Lindsley attached a cumulative recorder — although I’m not sure what kind of responses were collected. Lindsley presented that record at a meeting of the Eastern Psychological Association circa 1951, but he never published it, and it’s unclear whether it still exists.

Recently, though, Scott Born wrote me with the following:

In May, 2021, Nancy Hughes, Ogden’s widow, and I were dredging out the last effluvia from the tiny Behavior Research Company building in Kansas City. The significant things, as identified by Og’s archive committee of a dozen people or so, had gone off to Akron for the Cummings Center for the History of Psychology.

It was near the end. Nancy was trying to donate the office furniture, the refrigerator-sized copier, projector screens, etc. Things were going into a roll-off dumpster with abandon.

In the utility closet, there was a giant, open safe with some film cans and mailing supplies in it. Because of flooding across the decades, most things were propped up off the floor. I noticed that someone had, long before, put a wooden box on a cement paver to keep things that could be water-damaged propped up. I thought I might use the box for something, so I pulled it out.

It was that very cumulative recorder for Cathy Lindsley’s air crib!

Years before Og died (2001?), I did an ABA presentation on air cribs. I interviewed everyone I could identify as having used them (I did as a boy!). In talking to Ogden, he said he wished he had kept Cathy’s. He had.

If you’ve seen that lost cumulative record I’d love to know about it!

Left: Lindsley’s “baby recorder.” Right: The control equipment. Photos courtesy of Scott Born.