Capitalizing on an Entirely Different Type of Emergence

as one of the many amazing services I offer to the behavior analysis community, here’s a tip on a research opportunity that DOESN’T COME AROUND EVERY DAY. OR YEAR. or decade. you will not want to pass THIS up.

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If you follow current events you’re probably aware that the news media have been abuzz about something that hasn’t happened in 221 years. Any day now, just a few miles from my front door in fact, two broods of periodical cicadas will emerge simultaneously across thin slivers of Illinois. Cicadas in a given brood live underground, invisible to humans, for most of their lives before together bursting forth, in the billions or trillions, for a short and frenzied period of above-ground mating. Their spawn then burrow down to repeat the cycle.

This year’s featured cohorts, Brood XIX (emerging every 13 years) and Brood XIII (emerging every 17 years), last intermingled in 1808. Because cicadas are expressive little things (their call can exceed 100 decibels), this co-emergence is expected to be a raucous affair.

Google searches for “cicada” from February 1 to May 6, 2024. Image from Google Trends.

If you’re not cicada-savvy, feel free to catch up here, but understand that you’re waaaaaay behind the curve. Google Trends (inset) says that public interest in cicadas has been building for months, and from that interest flow all manner of cultural reverberations. For instance, a New Orleans restaurant plans to feature cicadas on their menu, and you can order chocolate-covered cicadas online (fyi, if you’re lucky enough to live in my part of the U.S., where stocking up will be easy, here are some handy home cicada recipes).

Also, a children’s book has been published to help little tykes manage their fears about the swarm. There is discussion of how to pull off an outdoor wedding during the convergence; ditto for your golf game. No doubt college students will find a way to convert cicada viewing into a drinking game (For musical accompaniment, consider the song “Drinking Game,” from the album Cicada by L.porsche. I am not making that up).

And of course this year’s insect extravaganza is sure to become rich fodder for conspiracy theorists. In 2021, a single cicada was enough to send Q’Anon into a major tizzy. 

Overall, you get the idea: Everyone is all about cicadas these days. Leaving only one question…

How Can a Behavior Analyst Get in on the Action?

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Mark Dixon’s (2016) cockroach operandum. From Psychological Record, 66, 41-51.

Good news! Operant behavior in cicadas seems to define an entirely virgin area of investigation. Using both PsycINFO and Web of Science, I found exactly exactly zero published studies on reinforcement (positive or negative), punishment (positive or negative), extinction, shaping, stimulus discrimination, stimulus generalization, behavioral contrast, behavioral momentum, matching, delay discounting, timing, conditional discrimination, manding, tacting, derived stimulus relations, or Acceptance and Commitment Therapy in cicadas. Therefore, if you can put a lab together quickly — and you might think constructing a tiny cicada response lever is tricky, but people have already done it for cockroaches (I am also not making THAT up) — perhaps one day you will be known as the Father, or Mother, or Ungendered Parent, of Cicada Psychology.

Ah, but bad news too. The above-ground adult form of the cicada lives only a few weeks, hence this gem from Japanese haiku master Matsuo Basho (1690):

The cry of the cicada
Gives us no sign
That presently it will die.

Thus, “mortality” means something different in cicada research than in most other research areas. Don’t bank on any long-term steady-state designs like the one I worked on in grad school where we ran pigeons in a whole slew of conditions, each lasting around 100 days. Maybe a brief multiple-baseline (given the tight time line, concurrent only!) or alternating-conditions cicada experiment is possible, but you might have to fall back on a groups design (gasp) in order to complete the study before your cicada-participants run out of lifespan (maybe a between-broods comparison?).

However, there’s also an opportunity here: Schedule data collection just right, and you can become the Father/Mother/Ungendered Parent of Geriatric Cicada Psychology.

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U.S. periodical cicada broods. Map from U.S. Forest Service via Creative Commons.

Now, if you succeed with that first study, a further challenge will involve keeping your research program going across time. You COULD wait around for Brood XIX adults to emerge again in 2037, with the silver lining being that you’ll have tons of time to write up your results from the 2024 experiment. But this schedule might not line up well with a tenure clock.

Alternatively, if you can make your lab mobile (a cicada operant chamber should fit in the glove box of your Prius), you can chase new broods each summer. For your scholarly convenience, here’s a key to U.S. periodical broods; though cicada species, happily enough, are found all over the world, including in Europe, South Africa, Central and South America, Australia, and Southeast Asia.

If you’re really dead-set on an extended steady-state design, good news! The nymph stage of a cicada lives underground for almost the entirety of its 13- or 17-year life cycle. By my calculation, studying nymph behavior should allow you to complete between 475 and 621 hundred-day conditions, depending on the brood. However, be aware that nymphs reside under as much as 8 feet of soil, so participant recruitment could prove effortful. Just ask these brown bears. Also, you’ll have to find a palatable way to deliver the nymphs’ favorite, and other than sex, possibly only, reinforcer (we need proper preference assessments to verify), xylem (tree sap), which they suck in through a needle-like mouth appendage.

Finally, if you play your cards right, you’ll have the chance to test for one of the coolest behavioral effects going. Does a single learning history apply across stages of metamorphosis? Nymphs and adults are technically the same organism, though one that undergoes extensive structural and biochemical reorganization, so I guess asking if adults are impacted by nymph learning is akin to wondering whether a zombie retains its body’s memories of the prom. Anyway, preservation of learning across stages, delightfully enough, has been demonstrated in moths and fruit flies — and in locusts which, by the way, contrary to popular opinion, are not the same thing as cicadas (“They aren’t even closely related,” emphasizes the Will County Forest Preserve District). As far as I’ve been able to discern, the effect hasn’t been studied in cicadas. So, as long as you’ve gone to the trouble of studying a nymph baseline for 13 or 17 years, you might as well press on to find out what happens after Nature’s ultimate phase change. 

And there you go! This is enough to get you started on what could become the next big breakthrough in behavior analysis research.

There’s no need — or time — to thank me. You have a teensy response lever to build.


As suggested by Basho’s poem, cicadas get a lot of attention in literature. For example, in the dialogue Phaedrus, Plato has a fictional Socrates explain that:

Cicadas were once humans who, in ancient times, allowed the first Muses to enchant them into singing and dancing for so long they stopped eating and sleeping and died without noticing. The Muses rewarded them with the gift of never needing food or sleep, and of singing from birth to death. The task of the Cicadas is to watch humans and report who honors the Muses and who does not.

Okay. Sure. To me, the real can’t-miss literary offering is a super-spicy poem by Margaret Atwood (of “Handmaid’s Tale” fame). You absolutely must check it out, but only when your spouse or colleagues can’t see your screen.

Scientists also love the cicada, a morphological description of which appears as far back as China’s Cheng Lei Pentsao (1108). Using Web of Science, I found 2373 published sources referring to “cicada,” although for present purposes an unknown number of these are false alarms. For instance, CICADA is also the name for guidelines given to physicians for diagnosing and treating coughs. Also there are several clinical reports not about cicadas per se but rather about humans who are terrified of cicadas, which may be why, I suppose, someone thinks we need a children’s book on the topic [BTW, in counterpoint to “cicadaphobia,” check out these 8 arguments in favor of cicadaphilia).

The most-impactful cicada-related publication (1887 citations) appears to be “Bioinspired surfaces with special wettability,” and I have absolutely no idea what that means. Among sources I’ve examined so far, I’m most enamored of “Personality-mediated speed-accuracy trade-offs in mating in a 17-year periodical cicada.” From the abstract:

We found that faster-exploring males exhibited higher overall rates of attempted copulations while also attempting more same-sex copulations, compared to slower-exploring males, suggesting a personality-mediated speed-accuracy tradeoff.

Great stuff. It’s easy to see why people do this kind of research. For instance, the Methods section describes how cicadas were observed for copulation attempts continuously from 9 AM to subset, with the exception that

In Trial 2, one pair was still mating at sunset, so we checked on this pair at least once every 15 min until midnight that night, and then again at sunrise the following morning. After finding that the pair had not finished copulating by sunrise, we continued to check the pair at least once every 15 min until the pair finally dislodged at … 12:48 [PM the next day].

Aside from the fact that we rarely get to focus on anything this salacious, there are two additional bits of bad news for behavior analysts. First, the misleading title notwithstanding, this is NOT an N = 1 investigation, so don’t expect to find methodological kindred spirits in the world of cicada-ology. Second, contrary to what I suggested above, the existence of this article means that it’s actually too late for you to become the official Father/Mother/Ungendered Parent of Cicada Psychology. Since the article has accrued only 1 citation, however, I’m guessing there’s still plenty of room at the top for an innovator like you. Be super productive and you may become like Robert Fulton, who didn’t invent the steamboat (that was John Fitch, 1787), but usually gets the lion’s share of credit because he was the first to do something really interesting with it.