Curiosity, Humility and Collaboration in the Science and Practice of Behavior Analysis: Notes from a Winding Path


Dear blog reader,

Our next contribution is from the wonderful Dr Siri Ming. I first met Dr Ming last year in Brazil when she gave a number of incredible talks and workshops, in large part made possible by one of her supervisees, Dr Carolina Silveira de Almeida (who contributed a fantastic blog post of her own – click here) and Dr Joao de Almeida (who also contributed a lovely piece to this series on some of his and his colleagues efforts toward the dissemination of our science – click here). Although I had known of Siri’s impressive work in the field before then, what I was really struck by was how seamlessly she managed to relay complex and technical language and ideas in such an accessible way, all the while without sacrificing precision. This is something that she also manages extremely well in her writing (her book with Evelyn Gould and Julia Fiebig, Understanding and Applying Relational Frame Theory, is a prime example) and is a tough balance to strike — it is certainly one I struggle with! Siri is also such a warm, patient and welcoming presence to be around, which perhaps also contributes to how successfully she manages to disseminate tough subject matter when she presents and gives workshops.

From left to right, Colin, Siri, Joao de Almeida, and Carol Silveira de Almeida, in São Paulo during Siri’s trip to Brazil last year.

In the piece below, Siri walks through some important things she has learned over the years as she navigated her own professional journey in the field. She highlights the importance (and fruits) of being and remaining curious, and staying humble no matter what stage of career or accomplishment. Indeed, doing so seems particularly important in the context of what we are trying to encourage with this blog series; that is, build cooperation and collaboration across often isolated research silos in our field despite our shared goals (e.g., building a monistic, naturalistic account of human language and cognition). It also seems important if we are to meaningfully increase our impact and expand our reach as a discipline more generally. We will be a lot stronger together than apart, and Siri and her blog really embody this fact in my view. Well, enough out of me and onto the main event. I hope you enjoy the read as much as we did!!


About the author:

Siri Ming, PhD, BCBA-D, (she/her) is a scientist-practitioner with nearly thirty years of experience in the field. She is committed to the compassionate practice of behavior analysis to help people live meaningful, values-directed lives. Her research and clinical focus is on applications of relational frame theory (RFT) to early intervention programs for children with autism, integrating Skinnerian verbal behavior with RFT. Her work in RFT includes co-authoring Understanding and Applying Relational Frame Theory, as well as numerous peer-reviewed research and theoretical articles on applications of RFT, and a practical handbook series on using RFT in early intervention programs. Coauthor of Finding Your Why and Finding Your Way, Siri also supports both clinicians and creatives through ACT-informed coaching practices to help them find and stay on their chosen path. She teaches and acts as subject-matter expert for graduate-level classes in verbal behavior at the Chicago School of Professional Psychology, and has been an associate editor for The Analysis of Verbal Behavior journal. Her work is grounded in the values of rigor, generosity, and kindness. If you want more information about the great work Siri does, you can visit her website here.

Curiosity, Humility and Collaboration in the Science and Practice of Behavior Analysis: Notes from a Winding Path

This blog series centers on collaboration and cooperation, and these are topics very close to my heart these days. I see this thread in my own work over many decades—which has often been in the spaces between different fields, theories, and worldviews. I’ve written before about the need for centering our work in values of collaboration and inclusivity, as an incoming associate editor for The Analysis of Verbal Behavior journal (Ming, 2019), when I was coming into that role as someone with feet in both the Skinnerian Verbal Behavior (VB) world and the world of Relational Frame Theory (RFT). So instead of giving you the story of my academic research lineage, I will give you a few stories of my experiences of cooperation, and some of the repertoires I think we all can continually improve.

Yay! We wrote a book during a pandemic! (Siri and her coauthors, Evelyn Gould and Julia Fiebig, of the book “Understanding and Applying Relational Frame Theory”)

In the (very collaborative) process of writing our book Understanding and Applying RFT (2023), Evelyn Gould, Julia Fiebig, and I determined that a central thread needed to be a functional, conceptually systematic understanding of repertoires of psychological flexibility and prosociality—because what else is the purpose of applying RFT or anything else in ABA? What is ACT if not the promotion of psychological flexibility, based in functional analysis? In coming to this conclusion, we also realized the obvious point that these repertoires are inextricably linked with cooperation. Cooperation requires psychological flexibility. Prosociality requires cooperative repertoires. Each of these complex, composite repertoires supports the others, and deficits in any of these hinder the others. We can’t coerce someone into being more psychologically flexible. And we can’t coerce people in other areas of the field or in other disciplines to collaborate with us—cooperation does not mean “doing what I say”!

In our book, we identify and attempt to operationally define several foundational repertoires for cooperation: curiosity, empathy, compassion and self-compassion, and humility. Both my own and my writing and research partners’ skills in terms of empathy and compassion have indeed gotten me through a great many potential difficulties—among other things, life happens, deadlines are missed, and we need to reconfigure. Writing books during a pandemic was certainly an exercise in this, and I don’t know how I could have gotten through a dissertation without compassionate support and also working on my own self-compassion. We all will do well to remember that we’re just imperfect humans swimming in the same soup. But when it comes to collaboration in the field and particularly in research, and my own story, I want to talk here about the central need for curiosity and humility.

Happy collaborators at CalABA (from left to right, Julia Fiebig, Siri Ming, Natasha Marroquin, Evelyn Gould)

We describe curiosity as a “motivating operation or motivative augmental that establishes novel experiences as reinforcing and that evokes exploratory behavior” (Ming et al., 2023, p. 168). This is an essential motivation for researchers to do most things of value—as Skinner put it much more directly, “when you run onto something interesting, drop everything else and study it” (1956, p. 223). Theres a stereotype that behavior analysts are rigid and controlling and mostly try to get other people to do what we think is right. But the behavior analysts I have been privileged to learn from, from my early educational experiences up through today, are some of the most curious and humble individuals Ive ever met. I honestly dont think you can really be a behavior analyst without being intensely curious.

However, healthy, adaptive curiosity also requires an evaluation of risk (running off a cliff to see how long it takes to fall to the ground isn’t evolutionarily advantageous), and there’s the rub in the current context. Novelty of ideas can sometimes be viewed (or at least responded to) as risky to one’s own position, particularly if that is a position of power. I think most of us in this field like to think of ourselves as curious and happily following Skinner’s advice, but it is worth interrogating ourselves on that topic—do findings in other fields or other behavior analytic arenas that are novel to you evoke curious exploration, or are they seen as risky or too difficult, evoking instead the need to defend your own ideas and position lest you accidentally fall off the cliff? This conundrum links curiosity to the need for humility—it’s hard to be curious if you’re not willing to be confronted with the possibility of having to change your mind, or confronted with the possibility that in fact you do not know everything and might have to expend a fair bit of effort to learn something new.

It was curiosity and humility about the autistic kids in my practice who didn’t respond “as expected” to intervention from a Skinnerian VB framework that led me to ask lots of questions about what else was going on, and that led me to RFT. At the time—and still in some circles—“VB” and RFT were seen very much in opposition, with camps forming on either side (see Gross & Fox, 2009, for an overview on these issues if that comes as a surprise to you). Curiosity broadens our repertoires, but I definitely risked being shut out of the VB world that I had grown up in. I had spent the mid 1990s working with incredible pioneers in applying VB to language intervention, had gone on to do some other quality assurance and capacity building work, and then by 2008 I was back in EIBI preschool classrooms with all these questions that I couldn’t answer with my existing tools. Why did some kids respond so well, acquiring fluent, flexible language, while others just simply did not? Who out there was examining this issue?

Yay, I did it! (Siri and her Phd advisor, Dr. Ian Stewart, during her graduation).

Id been following stimulus equivalence work (and later RFT) since grad school when, in 1991, my adviser suggested I do an assigned literature review on stimulus equivalence and language generativity, which I’d found fascinating. Fast forward to 2008, when I was back to that central question of generativity, and I saw that there was an RFT in EIBI workshop coming up at ABAI, and that’s how I met Ian Stewart and John McElwee. Ian patiently answered my questions over probably hundreds of calls that next year, reinforcing and nurturing my curiosity by nudging me to try things out with my own then-4 year old to see what happened, and a wonderful research and writing partnership began. But it wasn’t just my own curiosity that made this collaborative partnership work—it was also Ian’s and John’s, as I brought in more questions from my own VB practices and work with very young children that weren’t readily answerable without more investigation.

By 2010 I was returning to a PhD program at age 42, twenty years after having dropped out of my first one, motivated this time entirely by curiosity, wanting answers to the many many questions that Ian couldn’t direct me to literature on. Some of those questions led me into reviewing non-human animal research, as well as developmental and perceptual psychology research to learn about non-arbitrary difference relations. Some questions led me into linguistics work on categorization (Lakoff’s [1987] Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things sits prominently now on my bookshelf). And then more questions arose from unexpected results with the kids themselves. All of these questions led, and continue to lead me on a quest to combine what I knew was important work in one world with important work in others. In all of it I have held onto both my pragmatic curiosity as a practitioner, with a primary need to find new practices that actually work in real life with real kids, as well as my intellectual curiosity as a researcher, wanting to figure out precisely why those practices might work. As a result, I have spent the last nearly 15 years trying to be a bridge between the VB and RFT worlds. I’ve had the best success when I focus on nurturing other practitioners’ curiosity, and helping them see that they don’t have to abandon what they know to be helpful from an applied VB perspective in order to add in new ideas and a new lens with RFT. I’ve been on a mission to make RFT less scary, and venturing into this new space less risky (see Ming, et al., in press, for further thoughts on the commonalities between VB approaches and RFT.).

Which brings us back to humility, something that learning RFT definitely required (let alone going through the very humbling experience of any program of research, writing a book, or indeed work with any complex client issues). Humility in this context “requires willing acceptance of the discomfort that goes along with potentially being wrong or having to change ones long-standing behavior in the service of authentically contributing to the betterment of the world for all.” (Ming et al., 2023, p. 175). A great deal has already been said about the need for and lack of humility in behavior analysis (see Kirby et al., 2022; Neuringer, 1991). We really need to embrace that we don’t, and can never, know everything, and that there are in fact many ways of knowing about the world.

I consider myself lucky to have come into the field of EIBI recognizing that I literally knew nothing about the job I’d just been hired to do. Having gone into behavioral clinical psychology to become a sports psychologist, and then dropping out, I fell into working in autism and developmental disabilities just because that’s where the jobs were that were available with my degree. I was a very humble sponge, surrounded by brilliant people, and I fell in love with the work. But later, moving to a very rural community in Northern California, I found myself having to recognize that all that brilliant experience was with some very specific populations, and this new cultural context was very very different. How do I handle services for a family who truly believes that their child’s language delays are simply because his soul has not yet descended from the stars? I found myself also having to undo the bad reputation ABA had gotten as a result of some fly-in consultants who were very much the “experts” and were therefore insistent on their way of doing things being the only way. In this context I felt like I was operating in the space between science” and hippies” (fortunately Id grown up with hippie scientists for parents and am still happiest in my hippiest of places). I learned a lot of hard lessons that first year about cultural humility, but ultimately grew a local community of behavior analysts dedicated to collaborative practices with the families they worked with.

Nurturance, care, empathy, and collaboration (no attribution required — photo taken by contributing author).

All these experiences have taught me many lessons about cooperation and collaboration and have put me at the intersection of many different domains—ACT, RFT, and ABA, plus the worlds of practitioners and researchers. Being frequently in these “spaces between”, I certainly see the gaps—chasms, really—in humility and cooperation more generally that are present in our field. But I also see so many bright spots. I see researchers who really listen to practitioner experience, and practitioners who really want to do better and learn not only from experts in the field but also from the populations we work with. I see VB-trained behavior analysts venturing into the RFT world, and RFT researchers paying a little more attention to what is going on in the VB world (such as with verbal behavior development theory, see Sivaraman et al., 2023). There are a few of us who’ve been hanging out in this space, and I hope that the collaborations continue to grow. It will take us all engaging in all those repertoires of cooperation—empathy, compassion, self-compassion, curiosity, and humility—for us to move the field forward in meaningful ways to help promote thriving for all. 


Kirby, M. S., Spencer, T. D., & Spiker, S. T. (2022). Humble Behaviorism Redux. Behavior and Social Issues, 31(1), 133-158.

Ming, S. (2019). The Future of Verbal Behavior: Collaboration and Inclusivity. The Analysis of Verbal Behavior, 34, 4-11.

Ming, S., Fiebig, J., & Gould, E. (2023). Understanding and Applying Relational Frame Theory: Mastering the foundations of complex language in our work and lives as behavior analysts. Context Press.

Ming, S., Stewart, I. & McElwee, J. (In press) Integrating Relational Frame Theory (RFT) and Verbal Behavior (VB) in Early Intervention. The Psychological Record.

Neuringer, A. (1991). Humble behaviorism. The Behavior Analyst, 14(1), 1-13.

Sivaraman, M., Barnes-Holmes, D., Greer, R. D., Fienup, D. M., & Roeyers, H. (2023). Verbal behavior development theory and relational frame theory: Reflecting on similarities and differences. J Exp Anal Behav, 119(3), 539-553.

Skinner, B. F. (1956). A case history in scientific method. American Psychologist, 11(5), 221-233.