CONNECTIONS (#3 of 6): Eclectic Reading Recommendations from a Diverse Group of Behavior Analysts




As Pasteur reminded us, chance favors the prepared mind.

…In other words, the more you know about, the more likely it is that what you know will prove relevant to some new problem. This is a relatively straightforward matter of forming stimulus classes: As the number of nodes in a class increases, so does the richness and the flexibility of the resulting behavioral repertoire.

For this reason I believe in reading widely. By all means, devour the best of what your specialty area in behavior analysis has to offer, but also, as much as possible, dip your toe into other pools. This includes the whole menagerie of behavior analysis as well as anything else that could pertain to behavior. Maybe that means a behavior problem that behavior analysts haven’t got ’round to studying. Or a non-behavioral theoretical account that can be re-cast into behavioral terms (here’s one example). Or some research design or analytical method that was developed outside of our field. Or a clinical tool that seems to make no sense behaviorally but just might work anyway.

Or maybe even something you find entertaining, with no obvious application you can think of — at the moment. Any time something grabs your attention, that’s your behavioral history telling you that it connects to something in your existing repertoire.

Reading widely does more than just provide you with disparate facts. Whenever you read something outside of your professional comfort zone, you practice the valuable skill of synthesis. In order to decide if something new is useful, you first have to critically examine what you already know, to probe it for omissions and soft spots. Then you have to evaluate what you’re reading, not based on its surface features, but based on its function given your existing repertoire (in other words, its potential heuristic value).

This is a relatively straightforward matter of relating as a generalized operant, which is established on a foundation of multiple exemplars. Most if not all humans have this capacity, but some are especially fluent in the process. To me, the most interesting people, the ones who push the outside of our science and practice envelopes, are those to whom “everything is related to everything.” They see connections that the rest of us may miss.

If you want an easy-to-digest example of this kind of thinking, check out the BBC Series (actually four separate iterations: 1978, 1994, 1997, and 2023) by James Burke called “Connections” (check out full episodes here). Each episode begins with something of contemporary familiarity and then traces its ties to an unexpected cornucopia of scientific and historical developments. To illustrate, here’s the Wikipedia synopsis of Episode 34 in the 1997 collection:

Black holes in space, seen by the Hubble Space Telescope, brought into space with hydrazine fuel, which was a byproduct of fungicides for French vines, fueled by quarantine conventions and money orders, American Express and Buffalo Bill, Vaudeville and French battles, Joan of Arc and the Inquisition, Jews welcomed by Turks, who lost to Maltese knights with surgeons trained on pictures by Titian, in Augsburg, where goldsmiths made French money to pay for tobacco. That triggered logarithms and slide rules made by clock makers, who also made pressure cookers that sterilised French beer kept cool by refrigerators that were also used to freeze meat and chill down paraffin wax for making objects invisible.

Whoa. Each episode of “Connections” is both dizzying and delightful in demonstrating how everything is related to everything.

With that as preface, here’s my attempt to help you build your own wildly diverse stimulus classes. I asked members of the Teaching Behavior Analysis listserv to share what they’ve been reading lately, with brief comments on why they’ve found it useful. As teachers with diverse interests, these folks can suggest a lot of different nodes to add to your stimulus classes. Here are their recommendations — now go forth and connect!

  • Building and Sustaining Meaningful and Effective Relationships as a Supervisor and Mentor by Linda LeBlanc, Tara Sellers, and Shahla Ala’i. Recommended by Kimberly Marshall: “I am currently rereading this book with my students, and it has reminded me how much I appreciate this thorough and thoughtful exploration of supervision. The activities included are an excellent combination of practical tools that can be used by supervisors and reflective activities that require readers to consider the contingencies that control their own behavior.” Companion recommendation from Joe Layng: Leadership from an Operant Perspective, by Judith L. Komacki. Note: We all supervise somebody! Teaching and parenting, for instance, are forms of supervision. A great opportunity for cross-domain insights.
  • The Wild Boy of Aveyron by Harlan Lane. Recommended by Jacqui Wunderlich: “A bit older but an account of how a ‘wild boy’ was taught verbal behavior… which eventually was the basis for what we think of as a Montessori approach today. Lane studied under Skinner and then went off into the field of Deaf Psychology and he bridges both of those fields really nicely in this book. Best thing I’ve read this year.” Note: See also Feral Children and Clever Animals: Reflections on Human Nature, by Douglas Candland (download full text here). This is a sweeping survey of major milestones in the Nature-Nurture debate, particularly as it applies to language and interspecies generality. Candland is no behaviorist but the general theme that behavioral history matters runs deep through the book.
  • Leahey, T.H. (1992). Mythical revolutions in the history of American psychologyAmerican Psychologist, 47, 308-318. Recommended by Ed Morris: “Why psychology had neither a behavioral nor a cognitive revolution.” Note: Also available as Leahey, T.H. (1997). The mythical revolutions of American psychology (1992). In J. M. Notterman (Ed.), The Evolution of Psychology: Fifty Years of the American Psychologist (pp. 242–266). American Psychological Association.
  • A History of Cognitive Neuroscience, by Bennett and Hacker and How Emotions are Made, by Lisa Feldman Barrett. Recommended by Joe Layng: “Bennett and Hacker shake the various hypothetical constructs from the trees of important neuroscience research. Barrett dispels the notion that emotions are reliably reflected in facial expressions, and that there is any physiological or neurological fingerprint for any emotion.”
  • Kiesling, L. (2024, Jan 7). Why American hates its children. Business Insider. Recommended by Tom Critchfield: “I think this is a meditation on unfortunate metacontingencies (though I’m not 100% sure I understand metacontingencies)… at the least it reflects the very behavioral perspective that how we, as a society, behave toward our children reveals our values about them. The conclusion is scary, and critical not to ignore.”
  • Palmer, D.C. (2009). The role of private events in the interpretation of complex behaviorBehavior and Philosophy, 3, 3-19. Recommended by Ed Morris: “The role of behavioral interpretation in understanding and explaining  behavior, especially on the role of  private events in understanding and explaining cognition.”
  • Peterson, G.B. (2000). The discovery of shaping: BF Skinner’s big surprise. The Clicker Journal: The Magazine for Animal Trainers, 43, 6-13. (reprinted in JEAB as “A day of great illumination: BF Skinner’s discovery of shaping“). Recommended by Joe Cihon: “I personally think this is a wonderful example for students of a journey of exploration while digging into the history of the field. Peterson questioned what he read, and searched for answers. It provides some interesting insight into Skinner’s thinking around shaping and behavior.”
  • Burn: New Research Blows the Lid off How We Really Burn Calories, Stay Healthy, and Lose Weight, by Herman Pontzer; and Exercised: Why Something We Never Evolved to Do is Healthy and Rewarding, by Daniel Lieberman. Recommended by Christine Berthold: “They worked with each other (I think Lieberman was a student of Pontzer’s but it might be the other way around). It is interesting to step back and look at the amazing ecosystem that exists inside of us and how that ecosystem in turn influences what we do. While they look like pop diet books, I assure you neither is.”
  • Bitch: On the Female of the Species, by Lucy Cooke. Recommended by Susan Schneider and Brady Phelps. Says Phelps: “Most of what you think you know about sex and gendered behavior in non-humans is wrong.” 
  • Beyond the Brain: How Body and Environment Shape Animal and Human Minds, by Louise Barrett. Recommended by Pat Williams (“Actually, I recommend everything she’s written.”). From the publisher web site: “Drawing on examples from animal behavior, comparative psychology, robotics, artificial life, developmental psychology, and cognitive science, Barrett provides remarkable new insights into how animals and humans depend on their bodies and environment—not just their brains—to behave intelligently.”
  • Hineline, P.N. (2018). Narrative: Why it is important, and how it worksPerspectives on Behavior Science, 41, 471-501. Target article in a special section on narrative. Recommended by Martin Ivancic: “The articles in this issue describe the functions that everyone understands from their entertainment experience with books and other media showing how narratives relate to behavior functions. Regardless of what the field of behavior analysis is or ever will be ready to accept, I believe these articles bridge the common person’s barrier with the principles of behavior in an extremely relatable way. “
  • How to Read a Tree, by Tristan Gooley. Recommended by David Cox: “I enjoyed this book as it describes how you can tell a lot about the history of a tree and its interaction with the environment that surrounds it based on its shape, coloration, etc. After reading it, I realized how little I actually attended to in my surrounding environment. Also by the same author are, How to Read WaterThe Lost Art of Reading Nature’s Signs, Wild Signs and Star Paths, and The Walker’s Guide to Outdoor Clues & Signs.  All discuss bio-environmental-behavioral relations of the many organisms around us that we can observe whenever we’d like. Since reading these books, it’s been quite wonderful seeing natural processes unfolding around me that I never even knew existed. :-)”
  • Dixon, M.R., Belisle, J., Rehfeldt, R.A., & Root, W.B. (2018). Why we are still not acting to save the world?: The upward challenge of a post-Skinnerian behavior sciencePerspectives on Behavior Science, 41, 241-267. Recommended by Martin Ivancic: “I enjoyed this attempt to identify relational frame theory or up-scale applications of derivation as the solution to ‘Why we are still not acting to save the world?’ I’m persuaded that most human problems will ultimately be solved by verbal solutions.”
  • From Darwin to Behaviorism: Psychology and the Minds of Animals, by Robert Boakes. Recommended by Tom Critchfield: “I re-read this recently and was reminded of how cartoonishly the history of behavioristic thought is often presented in classes and textbooks. If you think behaviorism arose with Watson or Skinner, fully formed like Venus on the half-shell, you’ve missed a lot. People were dancing around issues that concern behaviorists for quite a long time. Not always skillfully, not always arriving at the right conclusions, but the issues themselves are far from new.”
  • The works and legacy of Israel Goldiamond, recommended by Joe Layng: “A Programing Contingency Analysis of Mental Health is the most complete treatment of the issues involved in mental health, particularly those described as the more challenging. Several articles highlight why one must consider the alternative contingencies and not only the more simple A-B-C arrangements.” For example, see “Toward a constructional approach to social problems: Ethical and constitutional issues raised by applied behavior analysis;” “Training parents and ethicists in nonlinear behavior analysis;” and “Foundations of preemptive compassion: A behavioral concept analysis of compulsion, consent, and assent.”


Here are some additional readings I’ve discussed during the past year (links are to my posts about them).