Forgotten Heroes of Behavior Analysis: A Quick Nod to Nat

In a recent post I recommended scrutinizing professional obituaries for valuable clues about how to structure a productive career. Memorials of accomplished people can show you what they chose to study, what career moves they made, and the like. One thing that’s tough to capture in print, however, might be called personal style, which particularly includes moment-to-moment behaviors inherent in how people approach problems.

Nat Schoenfeld makes a point in The Bailey Interviews: William N. Schoenfeld. Produced by Constructional Approach to Animal Welfare and Training.

With this in mind, Emilio Ribes recently directed me to a 1993 video interview of the late, great Nat Schoenfeld that’s worth your time. If you’re not familiar with Schoenfeld — seems few people are these days — a good introduction can be found in his 1996 American Psychologist obituary, which reminds of some key facts. For instance, he helped to found the Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior, and he was an early leader in functional thinking about clinical and everyday problems. But the video is a record of something more.

The recording is about 45 minutes long and the audio isn’t the best. Also, Schoenfeld is in poor health and perhaps not as energetic as in his youth. But he’s intellectually sharp, and if you let yourself get pulled in, you see him doing what most of the people I admire do well: talk about profound things in a sophisticated way and somehow making it sound like common sense. Watch the video with an eye to how Schoenfeld broke down and explained problems. That’s something to emulate.

Speaking of which, a major part of Schoenfeld’s legacy is a 1950 textbook co-authored with Fred Keller, Principles of Psychology: A Systematic Text in the Science of Behavior (available in pdf format from the Skinner Foundation; at about $9 it’s a steal). This was, I believe, the very first behavior analysis textbook and it was tremendously influential — check out this review, for instance.

Here’s what Murray Sidman wrote in a foreword to a reprinting of Principles (to which he refers as “K&S”):

The importance of K&S in establishing what are now called the experimental and applied sciences of Behavior Analysis is well recognized. What is often not appreciated, however, is its current relevance. It tells us much not only about where we come from but also about where we are going—or should be going. When I reread the book in preparation for this foreword, I discovered two things about myself. First, I found that much of my own behavior that I had assumed was the outcome of interactions with my own data, assisted by my own creative thought processes, came actually from K&S; the behavior had become part of my repertoire, but I had forgotten its source. Second, I found that K&S still had much to teach me; having reread it, I am wiser than I was before. I feel quite comfortable referring to it in the present tense. I recommend it even to the most sophisticated. It will repay a careful reading.

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Expanded edition of the classic book, available from the BF Skinner Foundation.

[Sidman emphasized as well that the book drew upon evidence from outside of behavior analysis — as the book noted, “Good data are good data, regardless of theory.” This is a lesson that’s sometimes lost in contemporary behavior analysis, which seems unaware of potentially informative advances in cognitive science, social psychology, neuroscience, and other behavior-focused areas (here’s my own comment on one example of this problem).]

As Sidman alluded and Jim Dinsmoor wrote in 1996, “There are not many books written half a century ago that are still relevant today. But, Principles of Psychology belongs to that select company.” I repeat that observation as Principles approaches its 75th anniversary. The book combines inspirationally clear exposition with analyses that, given their age, seem astonishingly modern. If you want to know how to explain behavioral thinking, you could find far worse models than Principles. Regardless of your specific interests, I’ll go so far as to say that I don’t see how you can call yourself a behavior analyst unless you’ve read it.


  • For more of “Schoenfeld on Schoenfeld,” see this 1990 print interview.
  • I’m told that Maasa Nishimuta and Sean Will are to be thanked for making the Schoenfeld video available on YouTube. This is part of a series of interviews that Bob and Marian Bailey conducted with prominent early-generation behavior analysts. For instance, here are the Don Baer and Fred Keller installments.