Quick Take: On Looking Backward to Look Forward

We recently lost several people who, each in their own way, qualifies as a titan in our field: Brian Iwata, Travis Thompson, Hank Pennypacker, and Ronnie Detrich. Several memorial pieces are currently available online; see links below. This post is about why you should care.

People of a certain age, who were fortunate enough to interact directly with those four exemplary behavior analysts, will no doubt grow misty-eyed when remembering their treasured friends and colleagues. But the present post is for everyone else — the vast majority of potential readers — who had no direct contact with the deceased. You might think a professional obituary is for a person’s friends and colleagues, but it’s really most useful to a total stranger.

Allow me to explain.

People misunderstand the audience for professional obituaries due to an incomplete functional analysis of their purpose. In everyday life, obituaries serve an emotional function by allowing us to remember how another person’s story touched ours; in the same way they may support constructive grieving. And so everyday obituaries are read almost exclusively by personal acquaintances of the deceased. Based on everyday experience, it’s tempting to think of professional obituaries in the same way, as an emotional look backward, as a capstone to personal relationships. But journal pages are not intended to fuel personal fulfillment. As I wrote in another post, they are supposed to help someone do something better after reading their contents. In this sense, a professional obituary is an object lesson on the experiences that allowed another person to be effective; on how another person arranged their environment to best complement the behavioral history; on how that person’s object of study is important to the discipline; and something more, as I’ll explain shortly.

Were I a young behavior analyst in training I would read memorial articles with perhaps even more gusto than the discipline’s primary literature. The reason? Empirical papers typically matter only to tightly-defined research areas, so a lot of them won’t address your interests. And most empirical reports are soon forgotten because they don’t radically change anything in theory methods or practice, and you probably can overlook them with little consequence. But every single well-written professional obituary says something about how to construct an exemplary career, which is something that should matter to each and every behavior analyst.

Whoa there! you might be thinking. Those guys (Iwata, Thompson, Pennypacker, Detrich) worked on different problems than I care about. What can their careers possibly offer to me? And here’s where I challenge you to do the reading, because when you check out the memorial pieces you’ll find that Iwata, Thompson, Pennypacker, and Detrich all had multiple careers, or at least career phases, in which they tackled different kinds of problems using different methodological and/or conceptual tools. They were general problem solvers, something that every behavior analyst, regardless of current area of expertise, should strive to be.

I can defend that last assertion both practically and philosophically. Practically speaking, actuaries tell us that the typical young adult will change jobs multiple times over the course of a career. This means that, unless you can arrange for purely lateral career moves, you’re GOING to need to be a general problem solver, just to stay professionally afloat. Philosophically, let’s not forget that as much as behavior analysis has grown in recent years, it remains dwarfed by the volume of behavior problems that could profit from our expertise. If you want behavior analysis to demonstrate its true value to society, you MUST be on the lookout for new problems that, just maybe, no one has previously attempted to solve.

What united the four careers we’re discussing was an adventurous intellectual spirit: a quest to do new things, rather than simply do well-established things better. Don’t get me wrong. These people could be grinders, working out the thorny details when that was called for. But they all tilted toward paradigm shifts when appropriate — that is, they all helped to transform their corner of behavior analysis into something that others might not have imagined.

Which, of course, is something more easily said than done. Leaving your imprint on the discipline requires you to master what’s already known, but also to perceive the ghostly contours of what still needs to be known. Perception research tells us that it’s much easier to detect the presence of a stimulus than its absence (the so-called feature-positive effect). This means that noticing what needs to be learned runs contrary to human nature, so special behavioral histories and/or contemporary conditions must be necessary for that to happen. Professional obituaries contains all kinds of clues about that stuff.

And there’s one more thing. To leave your mark on a discipline, you need to not only create something new and/or better; you need to persuade other people to adopt your innovation.  Standard forms of professional communication like conference presentations and scholarly publications are nominal tools of persuasion, but they are impersonal tools with uncertain motivational properties. For them to be effective, someone has to pay attention, so here let’s draw on common sense. We’ve all heard that the majority of scholarly articles are never cited, and we’ve all seen rooms full of “listeners” at convention talks nodding off or engaging in a deep dive into their phones. If you publish or present you might connect with someone, but you leave a lot of the variance in other people’s hands.

By contrast, those professional obituaries in JABA describe a much more personal form of persuasion. The four who are memorialized were all, in their own way, people that other people wanted to be around. And to emulate. Here’s an extreme example. My postdoctoral fellowship supervisor, Roland Griffiths, told me back in the late 1980s that he was the 7th or 8th of Travis Thompson’s students to name a child after him (I’d be curious to know that the tally is today). Try getting that outcome from your conference presentation! Were I a young behavior analyst in training, I’d be scouring professional obituaries for how to be the kind of person who, by association, makes their work more reinforcing to other people.

I cannot emphasize enough that this is not a skill we’re taught in graduate school, and in fact it’s a skill too many professionals never quite learn. The closest thing to a how-to manual available to us is to observe lives well lived, and that is exactly what professional obituaries help us to do. If you want to know how to get others to embrace the useful work you do, take cues from four people who mastered the art of being, first and foremost, useful people.

Ronnie Detrich

Brian Iwata

Henry Pennypacker

Travis Thompson