CONNECTIONS (#5 of 6): Six Repertoire-Stretching Talks to Check Out in Philadelphia



This series of posts celebrates intellectual breadth. The premise: By learning about as many things as you can, you build muscular relational problem-solving networks that can be valuable no matter what your area of specialization.

For those who are about to attend the ABAI Annual Convention, the B.F. Skinner Lecture Series offers precisely the kind of exemplars that your multiple-exemplar breadth-training requires. This series is named for our discipline’s pioneering generalist, and was created explicitly to help behavior analysts stay abreast of developments in other disciplines. It routinely delivers some of the best presentations you’ll find at any conference.

My convention advice: Prioritize these events! In my experience, they almost always make me think in ways that normative behavior analysis stuff often doesn’t. You can find the full Skinner Lecture schedule here (use the left-side menu to navigate to specific days).

To get you started, here are six talks about which I’m particularly excited, along with brief comments about why I like them. As preface, here are two important general tips:

  1. As you check these offerings out, don’t get tangled up in linguistics. Yeah, the Skinner Lecturers, who are guests of the behavior analysis community, may use a different vocabulary than you might prefer, but you are smart enough to translate so you can follow along.
  2. After the talks, chat with speakers whose work interests you. People who agree to talk at “foreign” conferences want to make new connections — AND, because Skinner Lecturers are not ABAI people, they may not have a lot on their schedule besides giving an address. This is a great opportunity to broaden your professional network.

N = 1 is Not Enough

Maybe it’s because of our insistence that behavior is an individual-organism thing, but our discipline has never done a whole lot to systematically unpack the dynamics of social behavior. There may, in fact, be human-specific behavior mechanisms that, under some circumstances, render dyads or groups the proper level of analysis. Given the prevalence, nay dominance, of cooperation in human affairs, you can’t truly call yourself an expert in behavior until you’re up on the rich literature focusing on this fascinating topic.

Origins of Human Cooperation (MICHAEL TOMASELLO, Duke University). Saturday, May 25, 11:00 AM–11:50 AM, in Convention Center, 108 AB

Abstract: Humans are biologically adapted for cooperation and cultural life in ways that other primates are not. Humans have unique motivations and cognitive skills for sharing emotions, experience, and collaborative actions (shared intentionality) that emerge in human ontogeny at around one year of age. Our nearest primate relatives do not seem to have the motivations and cognitive skills necessary to engage in activities involving collaboration, shared intentionality, and, in general, things cultural.

Falling Upward

This talk is by the author of one of my favorite papers of all time, in any discipline, which depicts, in illuminating detail, the naturally-occurring contingency system that promotes the emergence in infants of walking from crawling (among other things, a LOT of falling is involved!). Adolph’s perspective is compatible with the view that child development is behavioral development, and her data are way cool.

How Behavior Develops (KAREN ADOLPH, New York University). Sunday, May 26, 12:00 PM–12:50 PM, in Convention Center, 108 AB

Abstract: Behavior is everything we do. It is the outcome of (and provides the input for) multimodal exploration, perception, cognition, motivation, emotion, and social interaction. With age and experience, infant behavior becomes more flexible, adaptive, and functional. How does behavior develop? In the course of everyday activity, infants acquire immense amounts of time-distributed, variable, error-filled practice for every type of foundational behavior researchers have measured. Practice is largely self-motivated, spontaneous, and frequently not goal directed. Formal models suggest that infants’ natural practice regimen—replete with variability and errors—is optimally suited for building a flexible behavioral system to respond adaptively to the constraints and opportunities of continually changing skills in an ever-changing world. I conclude with a proposal that open video sharing will speed progress toward understanding behavior and its development and improve clinical interventions and practice.

The Perversion of Punishment

In behavior science, punishment is a learning process. In society, it is something very different, including a way to blame people for their unfortunate circumstances, to perpetuate social injustice, and to fuel corporate profits. In short, to the detriment of society, legal punishment is the furthest thing from behavioral punishment. If ever there were a slice of society that could use our expertise, this is it.

The Trouble With Carceral-Centrism (ROBERTO ASPHOLM, University of St. Thomas). Sunday, May 26, 3:00 PM–3:50 PM, in Marriott Downtown, Grand Ballroom Salon H

Abstract: Over the last decade or so, mass incarceration and police violence have emerged as the center of liberal-progressive social justice discourse and political mobilization in the United States. As such, these phenomena might be considered the twin pillars of carceral-centrism, an interpretive and political tendency in which the pathologies of the criminal justice apparatus are thought to represent the nation’s gravest injustices, if not the wellsprings from which all other social problems flow. This presentation will trace the genesis of carceral-centric thinking and activism, offer critiques of both its interpretive and political tendencies, and consider alternatives. The implications of these alternatives for interpreting social problems more generally and for building social movements capable of addressing those problems will be examined.

Making Care More Agile and Equitable

Recently I wrote about how access to ABA services is almost certainly not equitable, with access likely limited by, among other things, geographic and economic factors. We would do well to study the efforts of people in other disciplines who are exploring ways to get care to people who traditionally have been excluded.

Go to the People (JAMES WITHERS, UPMC Mercy Hospital). Sunday, May 26, 6:00 PM–6:50 PM, in Marriott Downtown, Grand Ballroom Salon H

Abstract: This talk with introduce the emerging field of street medicine – the direct delivery of care to those sleeping on the streets. Dr. Withers teaches medicine in Pittsburgh where he pioneered the work and has led a global movement to establish programs on all six continents. Street medicine has implications for effective care of excluded populations in that health teams are intentionally “woven” into the fabric of those populations, establishing trust and solidarity, allowing for not just healthcare but a shared journey towards social justice. This talk will review the history of street medicine, the unique qualities and values it embodies, the implications for improved care, medical education and how it allows the healthcare system to reclaim its’ humanity and relevance.

Brain Structure is Not Behavior

Cognitive scientists and neuroscientists love to link specific behavioral functionalities to specific parts of the human brain. By working with people whose brains are atypical, behavior analysts have shown just how simplistic that perspective can be. If you want to really step out of the brain = behavior loop, try examining a creature whose brain differs vastly from ours. Case in point: the honeybee, which gets far more behavioral mileage per ounce of brain than most professors I know. Check out this talk to see what the buzz is all about.

Experimental Access to the Cognitive World of Honey Bees: Lessons From a Miniature Brain (MARTIN GIURFA, Sorbonne University). Monday, May 27, 11:00 AM–11:50 AM, in Marriott Downtown, Grand Ballroom Salon H

Abstract: Despite having a 1 mm brain, honey bees exhibit a sophisticated behavioral repertoire. Bees learn and memorize multiple sensory cues related to flowers. Yet, besides being useful models for the study of simple forms of associative learning, they have emerged as attractive organisms for the study of higher-order forms of learning, both in the visual and in the olfactory domains. In the last two decades, our work has indeed revealed that these insects possess unsuspected cognitive capacities, which include category and concept learning, numerosity and the solving of non-linear discriminations, among others. All these phenomena are experimentally accessible via controlled laboratory protocols, which, in some cases, allow uncovering the underlying neural circuits Here I will discuss some of these findings and provide insights into their mechanistic bases, whenever this turned to be possible. In doing this, I will highlight experimental challenges and suggest future directions for investigating the neurobiology of higher-order learning in insects, with the goal of uncovering basic neural architectures underlying cognitive processing.

How To “Not Behave”

Our field’s “Dead Man Test” notwithstanding, not engaging in certain behaviors is of great practical importance. Unfortunately, behavior analysis has all but stopped studying punishment and related processes, and in fact these days we’ve mainly turned this domain into a philosophical, rather than empirical, area. Other disciplines have not overlooked he importance of behavior suppression, however, and we can learn a lot from them. This talk should be useful in that regard even if you’re not interested specifically in addictions.

Reward, Interrupted: Inhibitory Control and Its Relevance to Addictions (DAVID JENTSCH, Binghamton University). Monday, May 27, 3:00 PM–3:50 PM, in Convention Center, 108 AB

Abstract: A great deal is known about the behavioral and neural mechanisms that give rise to goal directed reward-seeking actions. By contrast, we know much less about the processes that enable goal-directed behavioral constraint. In this talk, I will address the importance of inhibitory control to various forms of reward-guided behaviors, particularly drug and alcohol misuse and addictions. I will highlight discoveries that have revealed genetic, molecular and neural processes vital to effective inhibitory control, and I will address the importance of studying diverse populations in these efforts.