CONNECTIONS (#4 of 6): Two Recommended Books Highlighting the Critical Importance of Broad Behavioral Repertoires



Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World, by David Epstein. Riverhead Books (2019).
Psychology Essentials for Behavior Analysts, edited by Lauryn M. Toby and Erica S. Ranade. Routledge (coming in 2024).

Celebrating Generalists

In previous posts, I have argued that you owe it to yourself, to your work, to the people you wish to help, to form the biggest and most varied stimulus classes you possibly can. Because, to paraphrase Pasteur, the more stuff you know, the more likely you are to know something that’s relevant to the problem that drops into your lap. But that’s actually an understatement of the principle, because stimulus classes support the derivation of novel relations. Therefore, the more stuff you know, the more likely you are to derive something new and useful that you weren’t expressly taught — something of which even you might not have realized you were capable.

Breadth promotes insight.

Skinner quietly hummed this tune in “Case history in scientific method,” in which he explained why no research plan, no conceptual scheme, should be so rigid as to exclude or distract from serendipitous experience. What he left unsaid is what it takes to recognize the opportunity in serendipity. Hint: Skinner was quite the generalist, and his hybrid background served him well as research experience shaped his repertoire.

If you’re looking for a more direct words-and-melody type exposition of the critical point, a sort of Generalist’s Bible, look no further than Range, which does two things very well. First, it lays out the general proposition that we vastly overstate the value of specialized expertise. As the dust jacket notes:

Plenty of experts argue that anyone who wants to develop a skill, play an instrument, or lead their field should start early, focus intensely, and rack up as many hours of deliberate practice as possible. If you dabble or delay, you’ll never catch up to the people who got a head start. But a closer look at research on the world’s top performers, from professional athletes to Nobel laureates, shows that early specialization is the exception, not the rule… In most fields — especially those that are complex and unpredictable — generalists, not specialists, are primed to excel. Generalists often find their path late, and they juggle many interests rather than focusing on one. They’re also more creative, more agile, and able to make connections their more specialized peers can’t see.

The relevance should be lost on no one who has been to graduate school, that ultimate exercise in hyper-specialization. And the problem of specialization is probably more acute now than at any time in the history of Behavior Analysis. Economic incentives draw young people into training programs that specialize not just in behavior analysis but also on a single diagnosis (autism). With the advent of professional credentialing in Applied Behavior Analysis, training has also become more homogenized than ever before. And with the bulk of our discipline’s human capital devoted to serving one behavioral condition, post-training experiences may be less diverse than ever before. Everywhere you look, contingencies that promote narrowness.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is tools-scaled.jpgSecond, consistent with what behavior analysts know about multiple exemplar training, Range presents an eclectic collection of exemplars to illustrate its thesis about breadth. You’ll learn about the peculiar hybrid talents of people you know like Les Paul, Johanes Kepler, Vincent Van Gogh, and Charles Darwin; and people you may not know, like Nicolas Appert, a pioneer in food preservation, and Gunpei Yokoi, progenitor of the Nintendo Game Boy.

And these anecdotes are merely the tasty sprinkles on a very large cake baked from research examples, from many disciplines, documenting the benefits of varied experiences and generalist repertoires.

Range is a good read, too, neither too demanding nor too breezy, and digestible in installments — precisely the kind of book busy generalists can squeeze in among their many interests and pursuits.

Specifics Make Generalists

That’s the big picture. And although the point holds that one should know “lots of stuff,” you might be wondering which specific stuff is most productive to tackle first. A good place to start is Psychology Essentials for Behavior Analysts, which takes the position that when Behavior Analysis separated itself from Psychology some serious babies got tossed with the bathwater.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is essentials2.jpgIf you know some mainstream Psychology, and scan the landscape of contemporary Behavior Analysis, you will notice us tangling with issues for which outsiders can offer insights. Permit a brief digression to illustrate with an example that particularly exasperates me. Behavior analysts have recently discovered that survey-based studies can provide useful information, particularly about the actuarial and attitudinal characteristics of practitioners. To date, unfortunately, with few exceptions, the samples are underpowered and unrepresentative; the measures have unknown psychometric properties; and the analyses are unwisely selected or poorly executed. Collectively, these problems render the results uninterpretable. But surprise, surprise: People outside of Behavior Analysis, apparently unswayed by Baer et al.‘s (1968) seminal admonition that all verbal report data are bogus, have been perfecting survey technology for many decades. Want to craft a credible survey? There are lots of undergraduate-level textbooks out there that can tell you how. The fact that people in our field don’t seem to know this undermines our science and practice, and makes us look to outsiders like buffoons.

But of course such an omission also defines opportunities. Behavior analysts who know what Psychologists know can expand their science and practice and avoid obvious pitfalls. As Dorothea Lerman wrote about Psychology Essentials:

In this unique text, the authors cogently describe how knowledge of psychological theories, methods, and findings can help behavior analysts improve their practices and navigate important contemporary issues, such as providing trauma-informed care and developing collaborative relationships. As behavior analysis has become increasingly siloed from its parent discipline, this reach across the aisle is a tremendous resource for behavior analysts and those who train them. [from Publisher web site]

Psychology Essentials contains chapters on mainstream domains like child development, trauma, psychotherapy techniques, social justice issues, and statistics. The chapters are brief and accessible, consistent with the book’s intended purpose as a supplementary textbook in Behavior Analysis training programs that, it’s a decent bet, currently touch on little of this stuff. As Pat Friman wrote:

This book is a textual Unicorn. It was written by behavior analysts but it gives an even handed description of multiple aspects of psychology alongside its excellent portrayal of behavior analysis. More typical are behavior analytic texts that exclude all subjects outside the field or texts from outside the field that exclude behavior analysis. This text blends them both very effectively. I wish I would have had it when I was a first-year graduate student and/or when I first started teaching graduate students. [from Publisher web site]

Once you start down the path of considering what Psychology has to offer Behavior Analysis, well, the list of possibilities just grows. For example:

  • In recent years applied behavior analysts have begun to discuss “soft skills” and “compassionate care.” But psychologists have known for decades that the best predictor of therapeutic success is the quality of the therapist-client relationship. There’s a lot of research and theory on establishing those relationships.
  • Behavior analysts have sometimes been surprised to find that their single-case designs do not impress outsiders. But Psychology has, for decades, explored the social-scientific dynamics surrounding standards of evidence in the evidence-based practice movement. If we understood more about what people “out there” want for evidence, and why, we’d be better at disseminating.
  • Our discipline is dominated by ABA, which is turn is dominated by work with people who may struggle socially and, research says, are therefore at increased risk for suicidal ideation and action. Psychology has a rich literature on suicide risk assessment, prevention, and emergency intervention.

The point I’m trying to make about Psychology Essentials is that in this one-of-a-kind volume, and the embrace of breadth that it exemplifies is the recipe for adding tons of nodes to the typical behavior analyst’s stimulus classes. This, in turn, will position the beneficiaries to succeed in both predictable and unexpected professional circumstances (in the latter case, to stick with my earlier example, who would ever have imagined, a decade or so ago, that behavior analysts would need to know how to do survey research?)

Why Rely on Luck?

Toby and Ranade have done what the most zealous fans of behavior analysis might regard as heresy by identifying gaps in our disciplinary Emperor’s wardrobe. But should doing so really be controversial? There is no “science of everything” (including ours!)… although there sure as heck can be individuals who recognize that “everything is related to everything,” people seek to learn as many things as they can, and who parlay their broad repertoires into advances in behavior analysis. From time to time, good luck has delivered people like this into Behavior Analysis (see the Postscript). The question that’s posed in both Psychology Essentials and Range is, “Why rely on luck?” Breadth promotes insight — our own behavior principles demonstrate this — and every discipline needs new insights. It would be amazing if Psychology Essentials sparked a movement in which our discipline retains the things it does well while, instead of actively isolating itself, also embraces the many valuable tools that other disciplines can offer. Should that happen, we’ll be bigger and better for it.

Note: Psychology Essentials should be published fairly soon. See the link at the top of this page for information on pre-orders and requesting a review copy.


Historians of Behavior Analysis know that our discipline has always profited from breadth, with many of our more interesting contributors originally trained in something else. Tony Nevin, who helped to shape the quantitative analysis of behavior, had a background in engineering (not the behavioral kind). Translational researchers Don Hake and autism pioneer Ivar Lovaas originally trained in psychodynamic therapy. Skinner, of course, was an undergraduate English student, and also a “device tinkerer” long before he pioneered the operant laboratory. You get the idea.